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Editorial / Preserving the integrity of the letters' columns

Published 4:34 pm, Thursday, October 4, 2012
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We live in an electronic age when anybody with an Internet connection can instantly become a journalist. Blogs abound and websites proliferate.

Yet for all the advances in communication, one of the last bastions of true, old-school democracy remains popular -- the letters to the editor columns.

It is the everyman's and everywoman's forum -- the one place where paupers and millionaires get equal access, equal voice.

It is during election season -- when scores of local residents scramble to submit letters endorsing their favorite candidates -- that the integrity of the letters columns is sometimes tested.

Unlike some of its competitors, the Westport News' letters policy requires full addresses and phone numbers so writers' identities can be confirmed. (Only the name and town of residence is published.)

The paper also insists that a letter be sent by the writer directly to the newspaper -- not relayed through a third party that can censor it or embellish it. And that is where local political campaigns eager for letters of endorsement can sometimes run into trouble with the editor.

The vast majority of letters -- probably 95 percent -- are submitted by email, and that's what the paper prefers. To accommodate those who don't have computers or Internet access, the paper accepts hard copy mailed through standard mail. The paper gets, on average, about one every three weeks.

Late last week, however, four arrived in one day. All were in similar envelopes addressed identically -- every single character and punctuation mark the same. As for the letters inside:

All were letters of endorsement of the same candidate.

All were formatted identically; no heading; date in the upper left corner, "September" spelled out, not abbreviated.

All were addressed "To the Editor:"-- with a lower-case "t" on "the" and an upper-case "E" on "Editor," followed by a colon, not a comma.

All were very short as letters go -- fewer than 100 words; all either four sentences or five.

Coincidence? Maybe. Maybe not.

Reached by telephone, the purported writer of one letter said he had written it and given it to the candidate's campaign staff, which he said "typed it up for me."

The candidate later said campaign staff was typing and mailing letters for supporters who did not use computers. The candidate was told they would not be accepted and was urged to tell supporters they had to send letters directly to the paper.

The candidate was cordial and agreed. Oddly, the supporter contacted said he had a computer and email access, so it was unclear why he needed the campaign to type his letter.

Why would it matter to the Westport News?

Because when a candidate's campaign staff in any way handles a letter purported to be from an ordinary citizen, it perverts what is supposed to be a pure, citizens forum -- not a campaign-staff forum.

At best, it raises alarming questions about the authenticity of the ideas and words of the "citizen." At worst, it might signal fraud and an effort to manipulate a free forum.

What reputable newspapers ultimately seek is the truth through the exchange of ideas and the gathering of facts.

For evidence in criminal trials, the courts have rigid standards for the chain of custody of that evidence. If the chain is broken, the evidence is thrown out.

The principle is similar when a letter passes through a third party who can alter it -- especially when that third party has a vested interest in the content and the way it is expressed. We're not talking about the guy who has his wife check his grammar or the senior citizen whose grandchild does the typing.

In the last municipal election, The Westport News quickly noticed that several letters endorsing one candidate had come from the same email address. On investigation, the email address turned out to be the candidate's campaign address. The candidate said he thought he was doing the paper a favor -- exactly how was never clear. But it was stopped.

Late this week, a candidate emailed a letter said to be written by the candidate's mother. Sorry; same rules for all.

Local legislative candidates don't have PAC money pouring into their campaigns for advertising and demographic research. For many, a few stacks of lawn signs, a couple thousand fliers and some stamps can put a nice dent in their personal credit cards.

So the Westport News is happy to provide space for their supporters and detractors to exchange ideas in the letters columns. Candidates would be silly not to encourage supporters to write letters.

But the Westport News would be sillier if it didn't work to preserve the integrity of the system.