Letters Man

Why the letters-to-the-editor section shouldn’t become a forum for flacks

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.

Again, I tend to think all editors know this feeling. We can sleep at night knowing that we gave a reader his say. But at issue is how the limitations of time and knowledge conspire to create an opportunity for someone to manipulate the public’s understanding of an issue. And Saltsman’s agenda appears to go beyond prompting a discussion or “taking a strong position.” It’s misinformation repeated in letters-to-the-editor pages in dozens and dozens of small-town newspapers around the country as if it were just another point of view.

According to Heather Boushey, a senior economist at the left-leaning Center for American Progress, it’s just not true that raising the minimum wage hurts minimum-wage earners. Boushey points to a March study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research that looked at three cities that had raised the minimum wage. It found that workers in Santa Fe, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., were not negatively affected. This study spanned three years, longer than previous studies on the possible “disemployment effects” of raising minimum wage.

Saltsman wasn’t lying when he said “decades of research” show wage increases cause job loss. But he wasn’t telling the whole truth, either, said Heidi Shierholz, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute. Economists used to believe that when the minimum wage goes up, the number of jobs go down. But since the 1990s, that consensus has cracked. Studies are now more sophisticated; they account for small regional differences. When you consider all of the economics literature on the minimum wage, you find that “minimum wage increases do not cause job loss,” she said. “In fact, in some places, there are job gains.”

That’s good to know. After the fact. At the time I got Saltsman’s letter, I didn’t know any of this, because, you know, I’m so not an economist. But I have a pretty good nose, and this letter wasn’t passing the sniff test. So I wrote to Saltsman and said: “Raising the minimum wage is bad for workers? Sorry, not buying it.”

Naturally, he took issue with my tone: “Are you suggesting that you don’t run letters that express a point of view different than your own?”

There’s a kind of dog-whistle messaging here that only journalists can hear. We’re supposed to portray both sides of an issue with equal weight. That’s “balance.” Don’t pass judgment. Let the reader decide. By implying real journalists do this (and poseurs don’t), Saltsman’s goal was to shame me professionally and get his letter into my paper. In other words, he’s gaming me with the rules of my own game. I do have an opinion about minimum wage, but my opinion is irrelevant to his objective. What’s relevant to him is that I expressed a shadow of a doubt, which is grounds enough for alleging that I have an opinion, which, according to the rules we journalists have developed over the years, is enough to cry foul.

I know this game metaphor is distasteful to some, but that’s what it is to propagandists. There are winners and losers. That’s why, to use Eric Alterman’s terminology, Saltsman is “working the refs.” If propagandists work us hard enough, we eventually wear down (we’re human, after all) and give them what they want. Of course, we don’t want to look like we’re caving, so we call it balance. Yet such false balance contributes to the equivocation, obfuscation, vagary, and hyperbole that are hallmarks of propaganda. Indeed, such false balance is antithetical to a journalism that serves the greater good, that serves an informed republic and a strong democracy.

I responded to Saltsman, saying this was “political manipulation under the guise of scholarship.” He wrote back to allege bias: “It’s economic consensus that runs counter to your point of view.”

Then I printed the entire exchange with the headline “Flack Attack: The reason we won’t print this letter.” By saying that I’m not printing a letter that I am obviously printing, I thought I’d found a way out of a journalistic rock-and-a-hard-place.

I’m lucky. My readers expect (and often appreciate) this kind of thing. “Your exchange was, sadly, a rare example of a critical thinking approach to the ‘research’ the Employment Policies Institute consistently—and pervasively—offers up to the public,” wrote Jen Kern of the National Employment Law Project, a nonprofit organization that defends the labor rights of minimum-wage earners.

But most editors don’t have that privilege. More often, they are victims of flacks “working the refs.” The Saltsmans of the world need merely allege bias. That, combined with the limitations of time and knowledge, often results in exactly what they want.

For us truth-tellers, that’s exactly what we don’t want.

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John Stoehr is a lecturer in political science at Yale and the 2016 Koeppel Journalism Fellow at Wesleyan. Tags: , , , ,