Watchdog Blog

Gilbert Cranberg: On the Practice of Rebutting Letters to the Editor

Posted at 11:31 am, November 23rd, 2007
Gilbert Cranberg Mug

Who gets the last word? Editors can always claim it, but should they? Consider this:

Fred B. Walters of Harrisburg, PA., wrote to complain in the September/October Columbia Journalism Review about a couple of recent pieces by contributing editor Michael Massing critical of press coverage of the annual auto show in Detroit and of the Memorial Day observance. Immediately following the Walters letter was a six-inch “Michael Massing responds” defense by Massing of his work. He argued, in part, that Walters “seems to want to turn the clock back to a time when reporters dutifully stuck to the script at official ceremonies.”

I submitted a “to the editor” letter, not about the disagreement between Walters and Massing, but about the decision to give Massing space for reply. I wrote:

“The critic did not question his accuracy, professionalism or integrity, the sort of things that warrant giving a writer the opportunity for rebuttal. Instead, the letter-writer simply disagreed with Massing. Many editors refrain from tacking on editor’s notes to letters to avoid having the last word. As a journalism review, CJR should be especially careful to set a good example. It would be unfortunate if editors of the nation’s letters columns did as CJR did in this case and make it a practice to argue with readers who do no more than take issue with what they see in print.”

My letter touched off the following e-mail exchange with Mike Hoyt, CJR’s executive editor:

Hoyt: “A very interesting point to ponder… but just to push back, even if the letter writer simply disagreed, what’s wrong with answering his point. Why is silence necessarily a ‘good example’ when you think you have a reasonable answer. Why is that superior?”

Cranberg: “Would you then give the letter-writer a chance to reply? When does it end? Massing had his say initially. Just because you own the press shouldn’t mean you have the final word. The letters column is primarily for readers to sound off, not for publications to be defensive. I also think readers appreciate having a say without being one-upped. At least that’s the way I did it and believe that most edit-page editors make sparing use of rebuttals for the above reasons.”

Hoyt: “That’s the way we used to do it, and you have a good argument. But there is being defensive on the one hand and simply and respectfully defending your point on the other. I dunno. I like the crackle of dialogue sometimes…. Also, in this case, I would point out that the letter writer accused Massing of ignoring the story in order to push personal issues, and called his attitude ‘pedantic’ and offensive to Americans. Strays slightly beyond disagreement and at least close to the personal, no?”

CJR had the last word because it did not run my letter to the editor. Nor did Hoyt respond when I twice inquired why it wasn’t used.

Perhaps the most telling comment about who gets the last word came from Fred B. Walters, whose letter to the editor stoked the correspondence with Hoyt. When I phoned Walters I learned that he’d had a 50-year career in journalism. How did he feel about not getting the last word in CJR? It didn’t surprise or bother him in the least, he said, because he knew from experience that that’s what journalists do.

My predecessors at the Des Moines Register did not operate that way, nor did my successors. They, and I, operated from the premise that the space set aside for letters is for readers to vent, not for editors to lecture them. Editors control the space in that they select the letters for publication and edit them, sometimes severely. That’s unavoidable. Editor’s notes are avoidable, and my impression is that the nation’s editorial gatekeepers use them sparingly, if at all. It’s surprising that an exemplar of journalistic standards like CJR has to be convinced to do the same.

One Response to “On the Practice of Rebutting Letters to the Editor”

  1. Erik Sandall says:

    Like Hoyt, I’m all for spirited discussion. But I agree with Cranberg that the letters to the editor pages are not the proper venue for it. A publication cannot be all things to all of its readers; in fact, it should embrace the criticisms it receives. Readers subscribe according to their interests, and publications need to recognize that this interest leads to knowledge–whether that comes via a prestigious school or through personal experience shouldn’t matter. Letters to the editor pages are good customer service, and also offer an opportunity for a publication to improve. Publications can learn a lot from its readership.

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