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Maybe your parents taught you to avoid the topics of religion and politics at the dinner table. It’s an especially wise practice at holiday times, when emotions typically run high and heated discussions between relatives about politically-sensitive issues can sometimes quickly degenerate into unholiday-like behavior. Smart parents discourage political and religious conversations at the dinner table (and stop them in their tracks when they overhear them) in an attempt to help ensure holiday dinners are remembered for their fabulous foods, not their food fights.

That said, life is not one big family gathering. Religion and politics—and other topics that might be taboo at the dinner table—are certainly appropriate fodder to weave into many other conversations. But, is it appropriate for a writer sharing his opinions on The Content Wrangler website to use politically-charged language to illustrate a point, lead the reader down a specific thought path, or tempt them into clicking on a hypertext link? When does a writer go too far in attracting attention?

Take for example Zev Winicur’s recent article, Beyond The Issues: Understanding US Presidential Candidates By Viewing Their Campaign Websites. Zev’s article was one of the most popular on our site during January 2008 and remains so today, likely because of the interest generated by the U.S. political process, as well as general interest from those who are involved in the discipline of web content design and marketing. It was also the top article in our monthly newsletter, attracting nearly several thousand more readers than any other article in the issue. As the editor, I didn’t find it particularly insulting about the article, but not all of our readers shared my views.

Leah Shalek from Karmiel, Israel wrote a scathing email calling me out for including this brief description of Zev’s article in our February email newsletter. What words did Leah object to:

“How do we tell who has the most believable, understandable, motivating, and succinct message? How do we judge relative charisma and leadership appeal? How do we find the candidate least likely to start a war in the Middle East based on trumped up intelligence and incompetent staffers? Do we rely on television pundits? Newspaper columnists? Bloggers? Oprah? The answer, believe it or not, is the candidates’ own campaign websites.”

Leah admitted to not reading the article because she was “in too much shock” after our email newsletter landed in her email inbox, so she has no idea what the article was about. But that didn’t stop her from lambasting me for my hidden political views (that somehow, Leah is able to see with her super-psychic detection capabilities). Leah wrote:

“What the hell are political opinions doing in this newsletter? Where the hell do you get off? I happen to LIVE in the Middle East, and things aren’t as “trumped up” as you would foolishly believe and spout to unsuspecting idiots. You want to write something about the websites of candidates? That’s fine. But to try to INDOCTRINATE people and pass on your own ignorant left-wing ideas is too much!”… I will telling everyone in the industry what our REAL intentions are.”

Leah also threatened to contact all of our sponsors (“Maybe they’d be interested in what you’re doing and how your going to chase THEIR clients away with your politically-biased intrusions.”) and she ended her letter “SHAME ON YOU!”

I don’t normally receive such heated emails, so I replied to Leah. Here’s a snippet:

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“I’m sorry you feel offense after reading our recent newsletter. I’m not sure what you’re objecting to, however. The author of the article (it wasn’t me, but thanks for the nice insults you aimed my way), didn’t make any negative statements … nor did he say he felt any certain way. Instead, he asked a few hypothetical questions of the reader, who, admittedly, he thinks is likely to be interested in US presidential politics, much of which is centered on what is thought to be an ill-conceived plan of attack (with respect to the Iraq war). This is certainly a good example of how a message intended to mean one thing, is interpreted in a totally different way, based on the experience, viewpoint, and reading ability of the reader, in this case, you. I encourage you to leave your comments at the end of his article. This is the common method for authors to discuss their views with folks who read their columns. And, it encourages folks from different countries and cultures to exchange ideas and thoughts on the subject without stooping to throwing insults and threats at one another.

As for me, my REAL intentions are to produce and acquire content that challenges my readers to learn more about content and content technologies. Content is everywhere. It’s in education, religion, science, business, and in politics. It’s a part of history, math, manufacturing, sex, entertainment, healthcare, criminal justice and defense. No matter what topic you’re talking about, there’s a content issue related to it worthy of sharing with others. Along the way writers might offend folks—intentionally or unintentionally—in their quest to share their view of a content challenge. For me, this is an opportunity to learn, to differ, to discuss, and to grow.”

Of course, Leah didn’t like my response. She was far too pissed off to participate in a dignified discussion. She replied to my letter with an angry, rambling email riddled with CAPITALIZATION MISUSE issues, that can be distilled into one big gripe— “I am insulted simply because there IS an expressed [political] sentiment [in the words Zev wrote].” At the very least Leah expected “a sincere apology” for the words included in our monthly newsletter. At the most, she expected I would have “promised to prevent such things in the future.” I did neither. I simply told her I was moving this discussion to The Content Wrangler where the author could discuss the issue amongst our readers.

Leah wasn’t the only one to send in a comment about the article via email. Jim Howe also found Zev’s words to be worthy of a response. His email to me read:

“How do professionals find useful information about content development and presentation strategies offered by writers who develop their own content without resorting to intellectually lazy political commentary? Clearly it’s not through the Content Wrangler Newsletter.”

As you can see, political statements in articles or newsletters, can have all types of impact. They can make an article one of the most popular and most read. They can also irritate and upset readers—even those who don’t bother to read the entire article.

So, I ask, “Is it appropriate for a writer sharing his opinions on The Content Wrangler website to use politically-charged language to illustrate a point, lead the reader down a specific thought path, or tempt them into clicking on a hypertext link? When does a writer go too far in attracting attention? And, did Zev (and by extension, TheContentWrangler.com) go too far and why (or why not)? What do you think? Was it good writing or a poor choice of words?”