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Columns / Gwen's Take

Lessons From Snail Mail

photo of Gwen Ifill
December 28, 2012

Working a holiday week means having no more excuses. So my desk, which had turned into the place where election-year research goes to die, needed my attention.

If I never replied to your invitation, answered your complimentary or critical note, or finished your book, this is why. My desk bore witness to the chaos brought on by a year of election coverage.

Most of the detritus headed into the recycling bin. But I did save two letters I unearthed from the piles of paper. Both were written in longhand on folded pieces of stationery. Old-school correspondence. Unlike e-mail, which gets swallowed into the techno-void almost instantly, these missives seemed to demand attention.


Both were written by women who wanted to tell me of their ambitions.

“I am writing you for encouragement and motivation,” said one, who was running what she candidly described as an uphill race for a city council seat in a small California  town.

“You are a wonderful role model and mentor for our country,” she wrote me in June. “Hearing from you will be inspirational.”

Regrettably, she never heard from me. (She will now.) I decided to look up election results online to see how things turned out for her in the end. She lost.

But a lot of people lose election races, which fortunately does not stop them from trying. It turns out there are still folks who are not turned off by the grimy business of entry-level politics. Most of them, I have discovered, are driven not by ego, but by a desire to serve.

The second letter I found arrived only a few weeks ago. It was written by a first-year journalism major at a small Ohio  college.

“In the past, I have tried to keep up with the news,” she wrote. “But often the bias in the broadcasts were so confusing, to the point where I sort of gave up.”

One of her professors urged her to keep paying attention, and somewhere along the way she came across a recent PBS NewsHour discussion about a labor fight in Michigan . It featured two public figures -- Rep. Sander Levin , a Democrat, and State Sen. John Proos, a Republican. They occupied opposite sides of the argument about a new right-to-work law that would make joining unions optional.

“The debate became quite heated, and I found myself getting frustrated too,” the student wrote me. “You, however, were as cool as anything.”

Yay for me. But read on.

“Despite what I know and think of the media, I really want to report,” she continued. “I work hard at school to gather the knowledge I will need to gain experience and form separate, logical and whole opinions.”

Yay for her. Imagine a future journalist who wants to do more than talk (as one student told me once) or create a “brand” (as another wrote me).

Faith restored. And not a moment too soon.

Perhaps these two letters—discovered by happenstance from a messy desk—caught my attention because they confirmed things I already believed: that public service and public information are essential and intertwined. Perhaps I would have been less taken with them if they were critical or skeptical.

But optimism has its place. I arrived at work today to find another piece of snail mail from California. It was a thank-you note from a viewer who perfectly captured Washington Week’s Friday night ethos.

“The atmosphere of your telecasts,” she wrote, “is as if you have invited special personal friends for dinner, the dishes have been cleared away, and now there is a grand opportunity to enjoy stimulating and meaningful dialogue on critical issues of interest to all of you.”

That’s perfect. And it gives me the opportunity to thank the rest of you whose letters and e-mails may have been ignored, whose tweets I did not respond to, or who just murmured to yourselves without bothering to write at all.

Thank you for paying attention. And stick with us. 2013 promises to be a bear.

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