I’d like to second Eugene Volokh’s report on the frustrations Andy Pincus experienced in sending letters to the editor of the New York Times. I’m not much for sending such letters, since I think the effort futile. But a friend once persuaded me to join her in a letter to the Times disagreeing with an op-ed that had appeared there. The letter did ultimately appear, just as the Mayer Brown letter in Eugene’s story did.
As in Eugene’s story, our letter was heavily edited, and the editing leached all the color and attitude out of the letter, leaving simply a husk that blandly recited our disagreement with the op-ed. It was like replacing a real, full-blooded Scalia dissent with the notation “Justice Scalia dissents.”
I thought at first that it was a matter of space, and I suggested edits to restore some color while staying within the same number of words. Nothing doing. Our new letter to the editor, which might more aptly have been called a letter by the editor, could not be changed. It appeared in the form chosen by the editors of the NYT.
I puzzled over the policy. After all, if the NYT didn’t like our views — and it didn’t — why not just ignore them? Why give us a forum, then neuter our expression? I concluded that the policy was a throwback to a day when the NYT set not just the news agenda but the acceptable range of responsible opinion. The NYT published letters to show that it tolerated some dissent, and in so doing it gave respectability to the dissent it tolerated.
But the imprimatur of the NYT was so valuable in those days that it had to be rationed. To fulfill its role of defining responsible opposition on as many issues as possible, the NYT edited letters down to their nub. I suspect that no harm was intended when the practice began, but once the NYT started editing the letters heavily, taking out the persuasive parts was an irresistible temptation. Few complained, and their complaints, in any event, were not published, not even as letters to the editor.
Now, of course, very few people who dissent from the views of the NYT really think it matters whether their dissents are acknowledged on the Letters page of the NYT. The Times’s ability to define the range of legitimate debate has vanished. But still the old policies lumber awkwardly on, zombie relics from the golden age of mainstream media.
It will all be gone soon. So, Andy , I suggest that you treasure the experience of being edited into mush by the Letters page of the New York Times. Like those of us who’ve taken an overnight sleeper train or eaten at an Automat or bought a new Detroit automobile with real tailfins, you’ve now had an experience whose power your children will never quite understand.
UPDATED: To leave Eugene out of the actual editing experience. And fix a broken link.