The Trickiest Job In Editing
10/17/2008 - 00:00
Gary Rosenblatt

Friday, October 17th, 2008

Would you publish information you know to be false?

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 my 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 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 a sampling as representative of the kind of mail the newspaper receives, regardless of their 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 probably reflecting an overly 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 at my post at The Jewish Week, we probably average about a dozen letters a week that would qualify for publication, meaning they are within our word limit (under 300 words) and have something enlightening to say about an article we have recently published, or offer a point of view that offers a fresh look at 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 all of the above.

Consistently, the mail we receive regarding Israel and the Mideast tilts heavily to the right, regardless of whether the prime minister at the time was Rabin or Netanyahu, Peres or Sharon. Does that tell us how our community really feels, or is it more indicative of who writes Letters to the Editor?

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 the opposite conclusions about what it said, as in “that article proves you are biased for McCain” followed by a letter that accuses us of being pro-Obama. And so it goes.

The presidential campaign is winding down, finally, but I guarantee you our mailbags (or more accurately our e-mail address) will still be filled with readers’ responses and rants on presidential politics and everything else we write about.

Our editors will still be making delicate judgment calls each week about which letters to publish and which not, but our advice to you is the same: keep `em coming.

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