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Monday, June 1, 2009

Passing of S.F. Letter-To-Editor Savant Marks End of Bland, Pointless Newspaper Era

Posted By on Mon, Jun 1, 2009 at 11:01 AM

click to enlarge Not everyone can have the write stuff...
  • Not everyone can have the write stuff...
The just-delivered June 15 issue of The Nation includes a wonderful obituary of San Francisco epistolist Cy Shain, who, as an octogenarian, mastered the prose form of the New York Times letters page.

"Shain, who held a variety of government posts in judicial education and prison reform in California, managed to crack the code, and how," writes The Nation's David Margolick, who notes that Shain managed to appear on the Times' letters page 39 times during the past decade alone by dint of being "reasonable," by making points "gently," and summing it all up in three sentences.

It turns out Times wasn't the only repository of Shain's genius; he sent the San Francisco Chronicle his chaff.

While Margolick depicts Shain as the Shakespeare of the Times letter page, a reading of the overage he sent to the Chronicle suggests Shain had developed a nuanced understanding of the needs of all modern metropolitan daily newspaper editorial page editors. More than a repository of interesting commentary, daily newspaper letters pages have historically served as an advertisement that says "welcome reader, to our club of non-threatening, earnest, public-spirited people."

In keeping with this message, Shain's letters contained obvious opinions, expressed with terse, half-hearted conviction.

In May, 1998, Shain expressed in 90 words that the series finale of Seinfeld  wasn't as good as previous shows; Four months later he employed 62 words to opine that a Chronicle editorial "was a shining beacon of reason and light. Take a well-deserved bow for an impressive analytical dissection of the complicated issue facing the House Judiciary Committee and the need for deliberative restraint rather than a rush to judgment."

What daily newspaper editor wouldn't want to print that? And so it went for 10 years that the Chronicle received and printed letters that often began "your well-reasoned editorial... offered a compelling analysis of the..."

During that time, however, the stock of pablum plummeted. Online mordancy and frankness won over readers alienated and bored by the flat equivocation of newspaper editorial pages. 
That a deferential obituary for Shain would appear on the pages of The Nation --a left-wing publication alien to equivocation -- made for unusual reading.

The piece is particularly interesting in light of a column a month earlier by The Nation columnist Alexander Cockburn, who wrote: "Any exacting assessment of the actual performance of newspapers rated against the twaddle about the role of the Fourth Estate spouted by publishers and editors at their annual conventions wold be a negative verdict in any era."

Photo   |   Audrius Meskauskas

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