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McFeely: Fergus Falls newspaper drops columnist for 'body-shaming'

FARGO — The column that got Alan Linda yanked as an unpaid contributor to the Fergus Falls Daily Journal was not particularly entertaining, funny or insightful, but every columnist has been there. Trust me.

It was mean-spirited, but we've all been there, too. Trust me.

You write enough of these things and you're going to have bad days. You just hope the good days outweigh the bad and you don't go down a rabbit hole from which you can't return. Trust me.

Linda, at least in the eyes of the Daily Journal, reached the point of no return by making fun of an unnamed overweight person he sat next to on an airplane. His column, which ran once a week for 30 years in the Otter Tail County, Minn., newspaper, was dumped last week.

"Body-shaming is not acceptable. Bullying is not acceptable," said Tim Engstrom, the publisher and editor of the Daily Journal. "If we tell our kids to not bully, how can we as adults allow bullying?"

The column in question was headlined "Taking notice of the size of people in today's world" and recounted an experience Linda had recently in which he sat next to a large man on an airplane. Linda referred to larger people as "fat."

"Guess who my seat partners were? The one on my left was so big, I couldn't get the arm rest down. If he didn't weigh 300-plus pounds, then I don't weigh 165 pounds," Linda wrote. "I tried. The arm rest. Tried to get it down. He looked at me, kind of grimaced. And when a 300-plus guy has you effectively pinned in and you can't even run for it, when they grimace at you, your first thought is: 'Oh, man. He looks hungry.'"

Linda also worried about the man stealing his peanuts and lamented how when his seat mate went to the back of the plane to use the restroom, Linda wishes he would've followed to "watch if that worked."

The column ended with this line: "If airlines need to make more money, they should sell tickets by the pound."

The Journal announced it was dropping Linda's column in an editorial.

"Not only did this offend many of our readers, it offended us," the editorial said. "... There are some viewpoints that are out of bounds. Bullying others is not OK. Body shaming is not OK. Racist views are not OK. Homophobia is not OK. The list goes on, but you get the picture. Let's debate the issues, not make personal attacks on people."

Engstrom said the decision to drop Linda was made after the Journal received push-back through emails, phone calls, Facebook messages and face-to-face contact with readers. The Daily Journal has a print circulation of about 5,000. Fergus Falls is a lakes-country city of about 13,000.

"After the blowback, we felt somebody had to be held accountable," Engstrom said. "In a community like ours we are very close to the audience. Large numbers of people were upset something like that would run in their paper."

The community's response to the newspaper dropping the column has been "overwhelmingly positive," Engstrom said.

A couple of emails sent to Linda seeking comment were not immediately returned, although the Star Tribune newspaper in Minneapolis wrote that Linda "didn't understand what the dispute was about." Linda is from New York Mills, Minn., and his column runs in a handful of newspapers in the Otter Tail County area.

The odd thing is, Linda's column was every bit as harsh on Southern people as it was on those who are overweight. Linda wrote that the larger man was from Georgia and expressed concern over a tornado that ripped through the state. Linda mocked the man's accent, along with his apparent affinity for Wal-Mart and his pickup tires.

Fergus Falls residents weren't quite as upset about making fun of people from the deep South as they were about body-shaming.

Funny thing, too, is that Linda's column runs in the Perham Focus (owned by Forum Communications Co., which also owns this newspaper) and the editor there said not a peep was heard about this particular piece.

"Nothing. Not a word," said Debbie Irmen.

The question for the Journal is how it responds to public pressure next time readers get upset about a column or news story. Did the paper just set a standard that will determine future decisions? This is a question columnists (especially paid ones) want to know.

Here's a line from the editorial announcing the dumping of Linda: "It is one thing when letters come to us that we need to filter out. Fine. But it's another when our regular columnists are as much or more trouble than some of the letter writers."

Opinion columnists viewed as "trouble?" Huh?

Engstrom said he's proud of the editorial page he's built in two years at the Journal and all issues are welcome to be debated.

"This was an ad hominem attack and there's no place for that," Engstrom said. "If you want to write about obesity in America, then write about obesity in America. You don't need to call people names or make fun of them. Stick to the issues."

Mike McFeely
Mike McFeely is a WDAY (970 AM) radio host and a columnist for The Forum. You can respond to Mike's columns by listening to AM-970 from 8:30-11 a.m. weekdays.
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