Editorial / Deceiving voters with letters to the editor
For generations, the letters-to-the editor columns of the local newspaper have been a great equalizer.
As forums for opinion and observation, they have been the one place where everybody has an equal opportunity to speak his or her mind -- regardless of job title or net assets. It is the one place where the bum and the banker both can afford to be heard, because it doesn't cost a cent.
It is a place for individual voices to be heard, and the integrity of the forum depends largely on it remaining a forum for individuals who write the letters they submit.
But the letters columns of this paper -- and likely three other news outlets serving Westport as well -- have been corrupted by political endorsement letters written not by individuals but churned out by officials of at least one campaign -- and possibly more.
The campaign of Jim Marpe, the Republican candidate for first selectman, admitted this week it routinely revises supporters' letters to its liking and sends them back to supporters, who then pass them on to editors as their own thoughts, ideas and words.
In at least a few instances, Marpe's campaign admitted it has written entire letters for supporters, who then submitted them to editors as their own.
Whether a campaign reshapes letters or flat-out writes them for supporters, the practice is deceptive -- an intentional bid to pull the wool over the eyes of the public. Is Marpe's campaign alone in this? Probably not.
For editors and readers, the insidious thing is that unless a campaign is caught in the act -- as Marpe's was this week when a supporter admitted that one of the candidate's lieutenants wrote the letter he submitted -- a reader really can't be sure which letters are genuine and which have been manufactured by or reshaped to its liking by a campaign.
Should the letters column carry a "reader beware" warning?
This newspaper requires that letters include a phone number and full address for verification of the writer's identity. It also refuses to accept letters from third parties (that rule was quickly adopted two years ago when a candidate for Board of Finance raised red flags by having supporters send endorsement letter to him "for forwarding.")
But campaigns know our rules and have ways to try to skirt them. How to, as Marpe advised a supporter in an email.
Computers and email have allowed campaigns to generate huge volumes of letters and flood media outlets with them.
The Westport News, in its Oct. 11 edition, printed 48 political-endorsement letters -- nearly four full pages -- and didn't have space for about 20 more.
This newspaper has had to ask itself: Who -- other than its editor -- would read all of those? Especially after three full pages of mind-numbingly similar letters ran the week before?
The Westport News traditionally has published every endorsement letter that met its standards. It has felt that its letters columns represent a pure form of democracy -- a forum that should be expanded during local elections.
But with the authenticity of letters now being questioned, and with unprecidented volume, the paper is ending that practice effective with today's edition.
Moving forward, the Westport News will print what it believes is a representative sampling of letters, taking care to be fair and balanced on both sides of contests and issues. All letters will be read, but not all will be printed or posted to its website.
That has been the practice of many news organizations for years.
Campaign advertising is expensive, especially for a local candidate in a small town. From an economic and exposure standpoint, campaigns never had a better deal than their supporters' unlimited, free access to the letters columns.
But any economist will tell you that when currency floods a market, inflation occurs. The value of every dollar, euro, yen -- whatever the monetary unit is -- declines in value.
With parties and campaigns flooding the letters columns, the same sort of inflation has occurred -- each letter has been devalued. And with this paper now drawing a line on how many letters it will print, the campaigns have strangled the very goose that laid their golden eggs.
By law, campaign advertising must disclosed who paid for it and who approved it. Ironically, a campaign that manipulates letters can say the same thing for free -- and put somebody else's name on it.
There is little question that many candidates are using mass emails to spoon-feed key themes to letter writers. And many of those letters have a broken-record-like redundancy. The same candidate resumes and "qualities" are repeated over and over.
Highly educated and urbane, Westport is legendary for its articulate residents who demand to be heard and push public meetings past midnight.
So it is both ironic and pathetic that many in the same town are willing to play the ventriloquist's dummy, sitting silently as somebody puts words in their mouths.