Seems like a no-brainer, right? But when it comes to editing letters to the editor — one of the most challenging and delicate aspects of this job — the answer is not always so simple.
Take the daily barrage of letters we have received for months now, proclaiming some version of the view that Sen. Barack Obama is a Muslim with evil intentions toward Israel. Do you trash such mail because it is mean-spirited and based on unfounded rumors, or do you consider publishing at least a sampling as representative of the kind of mail the newspaper receives, regardless of the veracity?
After all, aren’t letters to the editor supposed to reflect the views of the readership? And if you get a dozen letters making a similar point about a given topic, how many do you print to indicate the volume of mail on the subject?
Over the last few weeks, in response to reports we published about alleged racism among Jews as a factor in the presidential campaign, we received a number of letters confirming that some people would not vote for Obama because he is black. But wouldn’t publishing them be irresponsible — not only embarrassing the community, but also probably reflecting a skewed view of the overall responses?
There are few guidelines for these and other decisions that have to be made each week. (The best advice I ever got on the Letters section, from a former editor of the Baltimore Sun, Joseph Sterne, was that “the more space you leave, the more letters you’ll get.” He was right.)
But as for the quality of the letters, the range is awfully wide, from thoughtful insights and perspectives, brief and to the point, to hand-scrawled ramblings that reveal more about the writer than the subject at hand.
In the 15 years as editor of The Jewish Week, we probably have averaged about a dozen letters a week that would qualify for publication, meaning they are written specifically in response to articles we have published, are within our word limit (under 300 words) and have something enlightening to say about the article in question or offer a fresh point of view on the topic. Many other letters we receive each week are either unrelated to articles we’ve published, too long and unfocused or off-point, too nasty (bordering on libelous) and often unverifiable, or written by people who send us letters every week — or some combination of the above.
Consistently, the mail we receive regarding Israel and the Middle East tilts heavily to the right, regardless of whether the prime minister at the time is Rabin or Netanyahu, Peres or Sharon. Does that tell us how our community really feels about the issue, or is it more indicative of who bothers to sit down and write a letter to the editor?
The fact is that people tend to write letters when they are upset, if not aggrieved. It’s only natural. I, for one, have never taken the time to sit down and compose a letter to The New York Times or Wall Street Journal to say, “Thanks for that informative article,” or “You guys do a great job, day in and day out.” But if someone published an article about an issue I cared about and I felt they got it wrong, I’d be more likely to make the effort to respond.
What’s particularly fascinating, and not uncommon, is when a specific article or column evokes letters that draw opposing conclusions, as in “That article proves you are biased for McCain” followed by a letter referencing the same report and accusing us of being pro-Obama.
Observing these kinds of reactions over the years, especially on Middle East coverage, has led me to conclude that when we read newspapers, we are looking to confirm our own point of view about a subject. That’s perfectly normal; we all have biases. The point, though, is that we should at least acknowledge and recognize that simple fact and adjust. And please don’t judge a newspaper’s coverage of a subject based on one article, but rather on the overall reporting of that subject over a period of time, because no newspaper can produce a completely balanced piece, every time.
I regret that during this heated presidential campaign we have disposed of a number of letters submitted to us about the candidates. But we did so when they were based on rumors or false reporting. Had we published them it would have only served to misinform or confuse rather than enlighten our readers.
As the election campaign winds down, editors will still be making delicate judgment calls each week about which letters to publish and which not, but bottom line, our advice to you is the same: keep ’em coming.
(Gary Rosenblatt, the editor and publisher of The New York Jewish Week, can be reached at Gary@jewishweek.org. This column previously appeared in The Week.)