In May 2011, the alt-weekly New Haven Advocate, which I edit, ran a story about the rising cost of rent in Connecticut and the challenges facing workers earning the minimum wage. Soon thereafter, we received a letter to the editor from a man named Michael Saltsman, who presented himself as a scholarly researcher at something called the Employment Policies Institute. Here’s an excerpt:
A new report claims that monthly rent payments remain out-of-reach for minimum wage workers in Connecticut (“Connecticut Sixth Most Expensive State for Rental Housing,” May 10, 2011). This is misleading; new research out of the University of Nevada-Reno shows that very few minimum wage earners are the primary or sole breadwinner in their household.
Saltsman went on to say that raising the minimum wage hurts minimum-wage earners:
Decades of economic research show that artificially raising the cost to hire and train these employees may force employers to replace their job with an automated, self-service alternative.
The letter sounded authoritative. (Decades of research!) All seemed aboveboard. All except that the Advocate’s story never raised the issue of raising the minimum wage.
The Employment Policies Institute calls itself “a non-profit research organization dedicated to studying public policy issues surrounding employment growth.” At its website, I found nearly ninety letters to the editor, all written by Michael Saltsman, all linked to small newspapers around the country. Many were duplicates that varied only to fit the subject matter of whatever article they were responding to. All said raising the minimum wage leads to a paradoxical conclusion: job loss.
Job loss? By adding pennies to $8.25 an hour?
I later learned that Saltsman’s employer is Richard Berman, whose lobbying and political consulting firm, Berman & Company, serves clients in the fast-food, alcohol, and tobacco industries. They all have a stake in keeping the minimum wage as low as possible. According to Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, Berman has established at least fifteen industry-funded “nonprofits” that “spread misinformation” and spend “millions of dollars distracting the public.” And we editors are evidently happy to help.
Obviously, we editors don’t mean to. Truth is our business, after all.
But let’s be honest. Of all the sections of the print newspaper, the letters-to-the-editor page is the most vulnerable to the machinations of moneyed interests. It’s beloved and well-read. It’s free of most professional journalistic standards. Its editors are always in a hurry. And it’s a forum, which for many editors means you can say anything you want, as long as it’s presented as opinion, not fact. Mark S. Murphy, editor of the Providence Business News, published the same letter that I got. “Reasonable people can disagree, and in economics, there can be a lot of disagreement,” Murphy said in an interview. “In my view, let people express their opinion. When the letter runs and someone says ‘How could you run that?’ I say, ‘It’s an opinion.’… I want [the letters-to-the-editor page] to be a place for discussion.”
Time constraints and complexity of subject matter also make establishing the provenance and validity of a letter challenging. I tend to think every editor in the business (myself included) knows that feeling. Letters don’t, and can’t, get as much attention as editorials and op-eds. They are important, but not that important. In the long mental checklist of daily priorities and concerns, letters are probably last, or close to it.
Trish Vernon is the editor of the Cape Gazette, a community newspaper in Lewes, Delaware. She gets a lot of letters. She can afford to toss outlandish ones. If they are obviously factually wrong, she asks authors for corrections. Most people comply, she said. But fact-checking is difficult with hard-to-understand topics like economics. If a reader says the author is wrong, Vernon invites the reader to send a letter in response. What’s most important on the letters page is providing a forum for expression.
“If someone comes along who has more knowledge and wants to respond, then we have them respond,” she says. “It doesn’t happen that frequently, but it happens.”
I contacted Judie Kleinmaier, opinion editor at The Capital Times in Madison, Wisconsin. She, like Vernon and Murphy, published the same letter I got. She said she didn’t have any reason to think the study it cites isn’t legitimate. Even if she suspects an agenda, Kleinmaier said, that doesn’t disqualify a letter from publication. “We like letters to take a strong position,” she said. Like other editors, she aims for a diversity of opinion, especially when the letter-writer’s differs from the paper’s.