A column by Joe Guzzardi on Lodi and illegal immigration last Saturday drew a sharp response, including suggestions that Guzzardi is culturally insensitive and shouldn't be allowed to express his offensive views on this page.
I've talked to several readers about the column. I've listened to voice messages and read many comments, some online and some written directly to me.
I've exchanged e-mails with Guzzardi about the piece and I've discussed it at length with Marty Weybret, the News-Sentinel publisher.
Today I wanted to offer some thoughts on the column, and the purpose of an editorial page.
I also wanted to ask you — our readers — for your help regarding the content of our editorial page.
Guzzardi's column was headlined, "Since I've been gone, Lodi has changed for the worse." Guzzardi moved from Lodi to Pittsburgh two years ago, but he returned to Lodi earlier this year for a visit.
His column spoke of a deterioration in Lodi — one he attributes to continued illegal immigration. He wrote about a variety of foreign languages being spoken at Wal-Mart, where he found "an abundance of pregnant women pushing strollers." He told of noisy youths gathered around computers in the library.
He described Lodi Unified's struggles to educate English language learners (he is a retired Lodi Unified teacher) and cited the fact that 70 percent of the babies born at San Joaquin General Hospital are born to mothers who are here illegally. (If you missed it, you can read the column online at lodinews.com.)
Some background on Guzzardi: He's been writing a newspaper column for nearly 20 years, about 10 of those years with us at the Lodi News-Sentinel. He's written extensively about immigration issues and, in my view, he is quite knowledgeable.
So Guzzardi is no windbag. He infuses his columns with facts. He writes clearly and well.
But was this particular column over the line — and just what should that line be?
Some readers felt Guzzardi was unduly harsh in depicting Lodi as a community degraded by illegal immigrants.
"I can't think of a time when you had a (columnist) on staff who had so many negative and unfounded observations about Lodi after just a single visit here ... He is no longer welcome here, really, nor are his thoughts about immigration, library conduct, babies in strollers and nobody-speaks-English-anymore complaints," one reader wrote me, urging us to stop running Guzzardi's columns.
Another reader asked, "Does the News-Sentinel believe Mr. Guzzardi's prejudiced views of brown-skinned people are valid?"
Guzzardi aggressively defended the column. No one has challenged the facts he stated in it, he noted.
Further, he said, many people share his perspective. "I say (my opinions) reflect a realistic view of what is going on in California in general and Lodi specifically. If you informally poll your readers, I would guess that they are at least 50-50 on the value of my column."
He sent along several e-mails from readers who applauded the piece. An excerpt from one: "I thank you for sharing your experience and wisdom despite the truckload of criticism you must endure for uttering forbidden words. I am also saddened and distressed by the declining state of affairs in California, and particularly in Lodi, where I have lived for the past 15 years."
Was Guzzardi's column racist? That is, of course, a subjective judgment.
Was the column offensive? To some, it clearly was. But editorial pages aren't supposed to be benign. They are meant to stir things up. Offer different and varied points of view. That may be where we need to do better on immigration, by the way, and I will get back to this in a moment.
In hindsight, however, some lines in the column give me pause.
Were the young people in the library illegal immigrants? How could Guzzardi know that? Were the pregnant moms with strollers at Wal-Mart here illegally, and if so, how did Guzzardi know that?
Why would he assume those things?
Guzzardi wrote in the column about driving past his old neighborhood in Lodi but didn't because he was told houses there, "still had foreclosure signs with all the attendant decay of unwanted lawns, peeling paint and decrepit roofs."
But is illegal immigration behind the foreclosure crisis? Was that fair to include?
Has Lodi really declined so dramatically in two years, and has illegal immigration really driven that decline?
Guzzardi painted with a rather broad brush and made assumptions that should have been questioned.
Again in retrospect, I could and should have discussed these passages with Guzzardi. I will add that, having known him for 20 years, in my opinion Guzzardi is a very decent and fair-minded fellow who happens to be extremely passionate about this issue.
I did, however, wince a little when I initially read the column. That's because we've published many letters in recent weeks from readers who are adamantly anti-immigration. So the Guzzardi column added to that chorus instead of helping to balance it.
How do we provide that balance? Some of that rests with me. We have several sources for syndicated columns; I need to take more time to scour those sources and find alternative views on immigration.
Some of the challenge, however, relies on our readers. If the Guzzardi column and the anti-immigration letters bother you, take action. If you would like to write a column on this topic, or know someone who would, please let me know.
We also welcome letters to the editor, especially those that present a fresh and more positive view of immigration in Lodi and California.
If you can help, please step forward.
Strong opinions are vital to an editorial page. So is balance.
Contact Rich Hanner at firstname.lastname@example.org.