Thursday, Feb. 8, 2007 | Letters to newspapers, whether to print or on-line journals, are always popular. Polling shows letters to the editor are the most-read feature on most opinion pages, and on opinion pages such as in The San Diego Union-Tribune, it is no contest.

Opinion pages reserve different spaces for different contributors. The publisher has his space in the unsigned editorials. The columnists have their space. The cartoonist, if there is one, has his space. And the readers have theirs. Everybody gets his say, and, in principle, there is no censorship. With letters to the editor, the newspaper enters into dialogue with its readers, with the community.

Newspapers receive many more letters to the editor than they can print, so there must be a selection process. Having dealt with this issue on various newspapers, I know the complexities of it and offer some observations.

Dumb, gassy, vicious, obscene, libelous and form letters are the first to be rejected, and you’d be surprised how many fall into those groups. Newspapers hope to maintain a civilized dialogue with readers on even the most difficult subjects, but it is often impossible.

Beyond those categories, selection gets more subjective which is where the issue of censorship comes in. When I resigned from the Union-Tribune two years ago over the killing of a column by publisher David Copley, I addressed the subject of letters’ censorship in a speech to the City Club and Catfish Club. Nearly 1,000 letters had come into the newspaper and to me directly about my resignation. The newspaper printed a carefully-culled three. Here’s what I said about letters in my address:

“On the Union-Tribune, letters are manipulated not to reflect the readers’ views, but to support the publisher’s views, whether on the ballpark, the mayor’s race, the Iraq war or the Bush administration.” I might have added “or my resignation.”

Some might say censorship of letters is not the same as censorship of a columnist, but it is the same thing. It grows out of a Fox News-type mind-set that says opinion must be tailored to fit the owner’s views, whether he be named Murdoch or Copley. I had the option of resigning when I was censored, but what is the poor reader to do when told his letter was rejected “for space reasons?”

Two years ago there wasn’t much a San Diego reader could do. Now he has as an alternative.

My thoughts turned to letters to the editor a few days ago after reading a column by Maureen Dowd in the New York Times. Dowd, who has an inimitable, impressionistic style unusual on the Gray Lady, was writing about a putative similarity between George W. Bush’s war in Iraq and France’s war in Algeria 40 years ago. She wrote:

“President de Gaulle had all the same misconceptions as W., that his prestige could persuade the Muslims to accept his terms; that the guerrillas would recognize military defeat and accept sensible compromise; and that, as Mr. (Alistair) Horne writes: ‘time would wait while he found the correct formula and then imposed peace with it.’”

I wrote the Times a critical letter, quoting from Horne’s own book “A Savage War of Peace,” which makes it clear de Gaulle knew in returning to power in 1958 that France must leave Algeria; that his action in Algeria was the exact opposite of Bush’s invasion of Iraq. Horne wrote: “He (de Gaulle) would achieve his dream of restoring the grandeur of France, even though in the course of it Algeria would be lost, had to be lost.”

I wrote that letter suspecting it would not be published, could not be published because it was critical of a Times columnist.

The Times makes a point of printing very few letters critical of its columnists, and in that sense, is as censorious as the Union-Tribune (currently the Times is making an exception for letters critical of David Brooks and his preposterous columns defending the Iraq war). The Times‘ former public editor, Daniel Okrent, was openly critical of the newspaper for protecting its columnists, including not correcting their mistakes.

The Union-Tribune, on the other hand, regarded its columnists as fair game (especially when they disagreed with Copley policy), which is why it eventually lost so many of them (Bauder, Morgan, Perkins, Goldsborough). I have no problem with making columnists fair game or making the Union-Tribune my own fair game today. If you opine strongly, you should expect to be challenged.

The problem is when newspapers, purporting to be fair, actually cheat. The Union-Tribune does it by censoring letters critical of its editorial policies. The Times does it by censoring letters critical of its columnists. In this sense, they surreptitiously do what Fox news does overtly.

Censorship is a word bandied about too freely. A person’s right to his own opinion does not imply another person’s obligation to publish that opinion. There are always questions of accuracy, quality and originality in publishing. But when newspapers are hypocritical about censorship, they should be exposed, and it matters not whether the censorship touches columnists or readers. To censor either is to break the bond of trust newspapers must have with their readers.

I resigned from the Union-Tribune because Copley killed a column I wrote following the 2004 election, a column quoting a long-time Jewish friend of mine about why the Jewish vote had gone, 3-1, to John Kerry — just as it had gone 4-1 to Al Gore in 2000. “It’s impossible Jews could ever vote for Bush,” he said, laying out his reasons. Copley called the column offensive to Jews and killed it, when it was really only offensive to Bush and Iraq war supporters like Copley.

A few days later, the killed column ran on the front page of “Forward,” the national Jewish weekly, under the headline: “Too Hot for San Diego.”

Censorship, whether of letters or columnists, is not only wrong, it is silly. Copley made the Union-Tribune, with its “ring of truth” motto, look bush league.

James O. Goldsborough has written on foreign affairs for four decades, both from the United States and abroad, where he worked as a foreign correspondent for The New York Herald Tribune, International Herald Tribune and Newsweek magazine for 14 years, reporting from more than 40 countries. Visit his website here. Submit a letter to the editor here.

Leave a comment

We expect all commenters to be constructive and civil. We reserve the right to delete comments without explanation. You are welcome to flag comments to us. You are welcome to submit an opinion piece for our editors to review.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.