Media Reaction to 'Ellie Light' Scandal: You're Welcome for the Letter

January 28th, 2010 5:15 PM
After getting caught with their pants down on letter-to-the-editor pages, newspapers around the country apparently haven't embarrassed themselves enough yet.

Instead of admitting Ellie Light's submission should never have gotten published, editors have recently tried to save face by using remarkable spin: opinion pages are a "privilege" that people should be thankful for, even if they are full of partisan talking points.

On Tuesday, talk radio host Michael Smerconish expressed legitimate concern about astroturf showing up in hometown papers under false pretenses - a personal concern of his since he also writes columns for the Philadelphia Daily News.

The next morning, the News lashed out with some venom:

We at the Daily News are proud of our letters page. Many of our readers are as scrappy and opinionated as we are, and we are proud of the fact that the page shows that. Our letters pages embody our mission as "the People Paper," and we publish about 2,000 letters a year. We see the pages as a town square where everyone has a right to speak. And we make sure that people without e-mail and Internet access have as much speech as those who do.

In fact, that's why newspapers are so important. That the Ellie Light letter got so much attention in a world where so much online commentary is anonymous speaks to the power of newspapers. Our brand of democracy requires only 75 cents to enter, not a computer or Internet access. We believe the conversation on our pages are richer because of it.

This wasn't the first time a paper used the scandal as a chance to brag about its own popularity: the Los Angeles Times spun that same yarn on Monday.

The growing consensus in the media is that the little people should be happy for a chance to speak at all. And when this process is corrupted by deception? According to the News, you should look for some cheese to go with that whine:

THE BOTTOM line: Having your say is a precious privilege we have in this society. Ellie Light took advantage of this privilege, while taking advantage of the newspapers in question. We'll continue to verify basic facts, but we'll also continue to rely on the good faith of our readers. If a few readers of less-than-good faith get through, to us, it's a price worth paying.

So you see, these professional editors get paid to act more like bystanders and less like security guards. The privilege of getting published is such a "precious" thing that anyone can do it. Free speech is so sacred, so special, so important, that common liars are granted access without anyone caring.

Perhaps this lackadaisical approach to editing, coupled with the arrogant assumption that they're doing the public a favor, has something to do with the News's struggling profits, which forced the owner into bankruptcy protection less than a year ago.

Only in the liberal media can a newspaper exist on life support while lecturing others about "a price worth paying."

Meanwhile, the Cleveland Plain Dealer has been handsomely rewarded for providing honest coverage of the scandal. The article that broke the story earned more than half a million hits in just three days and resulted in the paper claiming ownership of an internet wildfire.

But no matter. The News is content to pay a more noble price of printing bogus spam letters as a service to society.

As to an explanation for why Light's letter was chosen, it offered exactly eight words: "it was short and made its points well."

Too bad the News didn't feel that way when dealing with George Bush. When the Philadelphia Inquirer sought to hire a Bush attorney in May 2009, the News complained about free speech being so freely available:

Will Bunch of the rival Philadelphia Daily News wrote, "It's not about muzzling John Yoo from expressing his far-out-of-the-mainstream opinion in the many venues that are available to him, but whether a major American newspaper should give Yoo, his actions, and the notion of torture advocacy its implied endorsement by handing him a megaphone."

Criticizing a newspaper for "handing him a megaphone" sounds a lot like muzzling, but hey, that was a Bush supporter. Ellie Light was a brilliant defender of Democrats who kinda sorta lied about her identity - an "implied endorsement" of her was just fine.

Not to be outdone, the Lebanon Daily News, just a few miles west in Lebanon, PA, also published an angry screed against its own critics that began with - wait for it - congratulating itself on printing letters from the little people:

Space in any newspaper is always at a premium, and we try to provide as much as possible for the people's voices, particularly on the editorial page. So when Light responded to our inquiry and said she was from Cornwall, that was good enough for us, and we rolled with it.

We usually have to write a variation of this editorial at least once a year. The titillating idea of "gotcha" is too much to pass up for some folks. Fine. We have a liberal - and we mean in the sense of what we allow, not the political leaning - policy on what's allowed on our editorial page. We always have. We welcome conventional views, opposing views, third-party views (especially those, frankly), alternate views and even the occasional skewed view. We provide a significant chunk of real estate for one to bring one's message. Most news papers don't allow upwards of 400 words for letters. We do.

How kind of these papers to welcome a variety of opinions from the very readers who patronize them. It's almost like they're starting to realize normal citizens pay their salaries.

In the middle of a hard recession that's caused newspaper profits to plummet, perhaps it would be wise of these editors to humbly apologize for making a mistake. Instead, readers are given snarky rants about "gotcha" scandals and warnings to be thankful for a paper that prints any letters at all.

If predictions about the future hold true, the newspaper industry might eventually find itself completely out of business...and Ellie Light will be remembered as a big reason why.