Unsigned Letters

March 24, 2012

Should local newspapers publish letters containing personal attacks if the writer won’t let their name be used? Of course not. Only newspapers that want to publish unpopular opinions under the guise of a Letter to the Editor and a handful of cranks and soreheads would be in favor of doing so. I think the rest of us regard anonymous insults and attacks as contemptible and cowardly.

Look, I run this column in both Clare newspapers. Each has its own policies. I think the best policy is to publish any letter to the editor, no matter how poorly written or uninformed, if the writer is willing to put their name on it. We’re not the New York Times. Very few letter writers have PhD after their names. We’re local papers where everybody should feel free to express their opinion on local issues. Frequently in this column I encourage readers to let others know what they think by writing letters to the editor.  What they shouldn’t feel free to do is use a local paper to insult others and then expect the paper to let them run and hide behind “anonymous.” Newspapers should have more pride than to run that kind of stuff. If we’re going to call ourselves “journalists” we should act like it.

The Morning Sun, Mt. Pleasants daily paper, has a little column they run on the right side of the Editorial Page called Sound Off. They let anonymous people “sound off” about things that are bothering them. Looking at the Sun the day I’m writing this [March 16] the issues are; the Bellows traffic circle, basketball brackets, stop signs, feral cats, and driving on oilfield roads. None of these is a personal attack on other people. Who cares who wrote three sentences on feral cats? That’s not our issue. Our issue is whether it’s responsible or even good business for a small town newspaper to let its pages be used for cranks to attack other people anonymously. The answer should be obvious.

Small town newspapers have a special place in journalism. Big newspapers like the Free Press and Detroit News are staggering along on the edge of bankruptcy. They’re shadows of what they used to be. Small town newspapers are likely to be the last of the print media to survive the electronic age. That’s because they report on relatively small areas of interest and the activities of a small number of people. They will print virtually anything that will fill their pages. Again, the Morning Sun front page headline is; “Man arrested for shooting at train.” Well stop the presses. Here’s the scoop we’ve been waiting for! There are no Pulitzer Prizes for “rollover on M115.”

Because access to little newspapers is so easy it’s tempting for a handful of soreheads to use those papers to insult their neighbors and hide behind “name withheld at writer’s request.” It’s up to the newspaper to keep this from happening. The cost of not doing so is to have that small number of people that pay the bills by buying advertising decide that they don’t want to do business with people that allow, and thus encourage, anonymous attacks. There are plenty of alternative places to advertise and if that small group opts for those alternatives another little newspaper will bite the dust. Common sense says you don’t attack your customers and then expect them to buy your services. I think that as a matter of policy newspapers should require that their Letters to the Editor be signed, and those signatures verified, if they’re going to be printed. If you don’t have the courage to sign your name to a Letter to the Editor maybe you shouldn’t write it in the first place.

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One Response to Unsigned Letters

  1. will2568

    May 3, 2012 at 7:24 am

    There is a long tradition of anonymous publication of newsworthy commentary, whether it be the Federalist Papers or a concerned citizen speaking out against corruption in city hall or the police department. If the subject under attack in a letter to the editor is a government official, anonymous publication should be available as a safeguard against abuse of government power in an effort to chill dissent or conceal illegal or unethical activities.

    Prior to the Cold War paranoia of the mid-20th century, anonymous letters to the editor were common. Even now many editors will allow the publication of anonymous letters where the details of name and address of the author are not printed, but are disclosed to the editor. This can promote a debate of issues that are personal, contentious or embarrassing, yet are of importance to raise in a public debate.