Daily Herald columnist Jim Slusher: Some things to remember about writing, or reading, campaign letters
As much as we all claim to love democracy, elections do not necessarily bring out the best in us.
As the 2022 primary elections get under way, the behaviors and misbehaviors of some candidates and some candidate supporters are in full display. It's not all of them, of course. Indeed, keeping things in perspective, the real troublemakers are in the minority. But they can make up a substantial and noisy minority, so it bears taking a moment to emphasize how important it is for anyone following the news to be skeptical of the accusations, negative claims and emotional distortions that inevitably emerge during what we in the newsroom sometimes call "the silly season" of election campaigns.
You should especially keep this in mind if you are reading -- or if you are writing -- letters to the editor about candidates.
We began seeing a surge in campaign letters a couple of weeks ago, and the volume is swelling fast. We know readers and writers have interest in many topics beyond the elections, so we will strive to offer some variety in the topics of letters we publish. Even if we didn't do that, we likely would have trouble publishing all the campaign letters we get. If you're planning to write a letter on behalf of a candidate, here are some things to keep in mind:
• Keep it short. The maximum length we allow is 300 words, but it can be tough to squeeze letters of that length in -- even on Saturdays and Mondays, when we have more letters space available. If you write succinctly, you have a better chance of seeing your letter in print.
• Keep it topical, not personal. Letters that are focused more on insults than ideas have limited value. When they make claims that are difficult to confirm, outrageously sensational or offensive, they are quickly discarded.
• Mind your facts. All of us sometimes overlook the simple truth that interpretations of facts are not themselves facts. You may think that because Fact A is an irrefutable occurrence, the "logical" conclusion you draw from it is legitimate Fact B, but that is usually not the case. Whether you are reading or writing letters, keep in mind that interpretations are opinions.
• We look for variety. We already are being inundated with letters for certain candidates. When we get large numbers of letters for a single individual, we naturally must set aside some of them to make room for other candidates and other offices.
• And that includes subject matter. We publish letters without regard to the writer's political affiliation. Even in regular times, it is almost impossibly complicated to publish equivalent numbers of letters from the left, right and middle, so we do not strive to do it. Nor do we, say, reduce the number of right- or left-leaning letters we get, or letters we get about a given candidate, to suggest some sort of fairness or false equivalency. We strive to publish as many letters as we can, on as many candidates as we can, and we make a concerted effort to ensure that multiple points of view are presented. Beyond that, it is a mistake to read anything about our motives into the types of letters we publish. Our only goal is to present as diverse and as broad a cross-section of ideas from our community as space allows.
• Speaking of facts. As I've written before about our letters policy in general, we provide wide latitude regarding the veracity of a writer's claims. In especially outrageous cases or clear fabrications, we reject letters. If you make such claims, be prepared. But as a reader, especially, be skeptical of the claims writers make. You should always seek more than one source for information about items in the news, and in particular, never assume that claims in a published letter are verified fact. They are the result of the writer's impressions and they certainly may be worthy of consideration; but often, they also require further investigation for context, reliability and nuance.
• Who can write. It is probably more accurate to say "who cannot write," because we welcome letters from almost all corners. By all means, if you're moved on behalf of a candidate, we want to share your passion and your ideas. But there's an emphasis on almost. We do not publish letters from active candidates, members of their staff or their immediate family. Nor do we publish letters when we suspect or find that they are part of an organized crusade.
• Be aware of time. If you wait until the last minute or even late in the campaign, you may be out of luck. We rarely can handle all the last-minute letters we get, and we will stop publishing election letters on Friday, June 24, to avoid situations in which time will not allow a deserved response. If you haven't sent your letter by Monday, June 20, you'll probably be too late.
• Where to write. firstname.lastname@example.org. Be sure to include your full name and home town.
Public forums are a critical feature of a functioning democracy, especially at election time. Whether you are making a case as a writer or considering one as a reader, democracy will function better if you consider all ideas carefully and critically.