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Genuine letters help democratize our debate: letters give a window into how regular folks see the events of the day.

The Register once was truly an open forum. That is, virtually anyone with something to say could voice it in the letters columns. Often it was scripture. The objective was to jam in as many submissions as possible, even if it meant simply using sentence fragments. This pleased readers who enjoyed seeing their names in print, a major purpose of the exercise, but it left letters to the editor with a major image problem: Repeatedly, we were told about thoughtful letters that went unwritten because their would-be authors refused to be associated with the eccentrics who had taken possession of that corner of the paper.

Finally, a decision was made to upgrade letters. The kooks and cranks were evicted. More effort went into editing to tighten and make letters more readable. In short order, we were rewarded with an upsurge of more meaty and responsible, if no less provocative, commentary. It has been decades since I have heard anyone disparage the letters column. On the contrary, I hear pro and con comments about the points made in letters, but none about the sanity of the authors.

The switch from a forum open to nearly all comers to one closed to a significant number has not made the forum unrepresentative, because by no stretch can letters from readers be regarded as typical of opinion among readers or of the community. Letters are invited from readers, or should be, not to provide a cross-section of views (well-run public opinion polls do that already, more reliably) but because they serve a different purpose for opinion pages.

These pages primarily are platforms for professional pundits and propagandists; letters, at their best, area window into how events of the day are seen by folks who don't pontificate for a living, and who are not necessarily experts, but who simply take the trouble to express convictions of ideas in their own way. By so doing, they add to the public dialogue and contribute an important dimension to opinion pages. In a sense, letters democratize debate.

Having said that, consider the letter from Greg Wheeler, of suburban Des Moines, which ran June 2 in the Register. It was under two hundred words, expressed a clear point of view (critical of gay marriage), and its opinions were buttressed by facts--exactly the sort of literate letter the Register hopes to attract. The problem is that the only thing Wheeler contributed to the letter was his name.

When I discussed it with him, he explained that, since he works with computers, it was natural for him to turn to the Internet for help in expressing his thoughts about gay marriage. Indeed, the website he visited, NoGayMarriage.com., was exceedingly helpful:

"We've made it easy for you by giving you all the talking points you need to assemble a compelling letter--and you can send it with just a few clicks of the mouse."

Wheeler's final product, backing the Federal Marriage Amendment to outlaw same-sex union, consisted of four tightly written paragraphs, selected by the "author" from among three choices for each paragraph. Wheeler discriminated, selecting the third choice for his first paragraph, the first option for the second paragraph, and so on.

When I asked if he had qualms about submitting under his own name a letter composed this way, Wheeler had none.

He pointed out that he had not plagiarized, since the writer had given permission, that he agreed with the sentiments but couldn't articulate them as well, and, since he wanted it published, "I don't see a problem."

Which may well be the problem. Since his reasoning is not obviously implausible, it's reasonable to expect that many more well-meaning Greg Wheelers, armed with computers, will enlist in the propaganda wars to spread their views, without troubled conscience, via well-read letters columns. In other words, prose by pros.

In my experience, there's plenty of reader confusion about newspapers. Not least of the confusion is the difference between columns, letters, and editorials. It's unrealistic, therefore, to expect readers to understand the dos ands don'ts intuitively, and to realize that borrowed letters are a no-no. Editors will have to make that clear to them, prominently and often.

When I mentioned the assignment to do this piece to a friend, Herb Strentz, former dean of Drake University's journalism school, he volunteered to craft a sample notice to readers. (See box.)

Strentz's strong medicine won't be to everyone's taste, but much more than the standard keep-it-short, signed, etc., instruction is required to deliver, and explain, the message that canned commentary from readers is not welcome.

Gilbert Cranberg is the former editor of the editorial pages of the Des Moines Register. E-mail gilcranberg@yahoo.com
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Title Annotation:Turf wars: the editor strikes back
Author:Cranberg, Gilbert
Publication:The Masthead
Date:Sep 22, 2004
Words:780
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