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THUS SPAKE ZIMMERMAN : Prolific Letter Writer and Others Like Him Let Editors--and the Public--Know What They Think

April 30, 1988|MARK LANDSBAUM | Times Staff Writer

Noteworthy letters to the editor:

I am eight years old. . . . Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus? --Virginia O'Hanlon, 8,

to the New York Sun in 1897.

The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated. --Mark Twain, 62,

to the Associated Press in 1897. Even though no U.S. citizen would want our country to be taken over by an outside force, after watching the mini-series "Amerika" probably few Americans would seriously object to the Soviets taking over ABC in an effort to improve the network's movie-making abilities. --Kenneth L. Zimmerman, 41,

to American Film magazine in 1987.

In the past five months his name has appeared more often in the Los Angeles Times than the bylines of some of the newspaper's own staff writers. During that period, about once every three days his opinions were published by a newspaper or magazine somewhere.

He doesn't have an exalted title or hold sway with muckety-mucks or big wigs. He is just an everyday guy from Cypress with something to say and a knack for getting it published.

Meet Kenneth L. Zimmerman, man of letters.

When he was 16, Zimmerman wrote his first letter to the editor. A quarter-century later he has emerged as perhaps the most prolific, diverse and successful letter-to-the-editor writer in Orange County. If he isn't, he is close.

Get a good grip on your opinion page and consider this: Since last year Zimmerman's letters have appeared in the St. Louis Post Dispatch, TV Guide, the Houston Post, the Sporting News, the Long Beach Press Telegram, the Orange County Register, the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, the San Francisco Examiner, the San Diego Union, U.S. News & World Report, and American Film magazine--and he doesn't even subscribe to a daily newspaper.

Zimmerman has written to comment on presidential politics, cold-blooded killers, football heroes, Supreme Court justices, a paraplegic Playboy centerfold, tall people, drug trafficking, coffee drinking at the cemetery, San Francisco street renaming, Spuds MacKenzie, the crisis in nursing, the alligator shoe industry, rock and roll--well, you get the idea.

"I don't just write in for the sake of writing in; I have to be interested in something," said Zimmerman, who apparently is interested in everything.

Although he has written letters to editors for years, it was only last fall that Zimmerman began his remarkable binge.

Since November in The Times alone, Zimmerman's letters have been published in the Sports, Book Review, Orange County Life, Real Estate, View, Business, Television Times, Metro and Calendar sections, Los Angeles Times Magazine and even the once-a-week Ventura County section of the paper.

In one seven-day span in March, there were eight Zimmerman letters published in various sections of The Times.

"I know people at work who just read it (the newspaper) and they toss it away and that's it," he said with a perplexed shrug. "When I write, I'm more involved in an article; I feel I'm more a part of it."

For Zimmerman, a man of boundless enthusiasm, the newspaper is his oyster and it is chock full of pearls.

"Every day you go through a paper there's always something to write on because so many interesting things are happening."

Nevertheless, Zimmerman (an analyst for the Long Beach Health Department when he is not writing to editors) is at a loss to explain his sudden outburst of unsolicited epistles, except to say: "I've always wanted to be a writer."

Ross Quillian, UC Irvine associate professor of social science, admits he doesn't "know anything about letter writers, except what I read in the newspapers." But Quillian has definite feelings about the contribution of people like Zimmerman.

"I spend my life trying to say how one would organize a media system if it were really done right," Quillian said. "All communications ought to be from people who think they have something to say and send them in and get it accepted or not, in the way scientific journals are done. Scientific journals don't hire reporters. In effect, all scientific journals are written by letter writers. That has very good results for society."

Quillian concedes that his scheme is utopian "in that it isn't going to be instituted tomorrow. But it's not utopian in that I think it could work.

"If you did the whole thing that way, truth would emerge, or at least the best and most defensible views."

The best and most defensible views. Noble aspirations, to be sure. Could that be the motivation behind letter-to-the-editor writing?

Let us ask Costa Mesa City Councilman David Wheeler, himself a frequent contributor to those columns in local newspapers.

"You gain immediate gratification and hopefully you contribute to the clash of ideas that will shape the future," Wheeler said of letter writing. "That process is very important in the overall clash of ideas that results in the best idea prevailing.

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