Letter to the Editor: More Rubbish, Please

GM has a curious exchange with the New York Times letters editor - and pulls its missive when the Times changes the kicker.

What would make you send a letter to the New York Times? Well, basically anger — a mighty sense of outrage that one of the most influential papers in the country has committed a grave injustice, a gross defamation, a gratuitous smear against you and all you stand for.

That certainly seems to be what motivated General Motors to issue a harsh rebuke to the Times and columnist Thomas Friedman. It came last month, after Friedman wrote about GM granting oil subsidies to buyers of its most gas-guzzling vehicles. Friedman used some pretty harsh language, accusing GM of being “more dangerous to America’s future” than any other company, and comparing it to “a crack dealer looking to keep his addicts on a tight leash.” There were also intimations that the company was in league with Ford and DaimlerChrysler to buy votes in Congress. Oh, and GM is also responsible for terrorism and the fact that our soldiers are dying in Iraq.

Friedman later admitted in television interviews that the column was a bit “over the top,” intended to get GM’s attention, but hey, he’s a columnist — that’s his job. The strange and illuminating part of the story is what happened when GM’s head of global communications, Steve Harris, tried to get a letter in the paper defending the company against Friedman’s accusations. GM’s blog, FYI Blog, made the exchange public (PDF file), posting the original letter and the emails between Brian Akre of GM’s PR staff and the Op-Ed page editors at the Times.

First, Akre was told that the original 490-word letter penned by Harris would have to be cut to 150-175 words. The Times told him this was policy for all letters but, as the GM blog rightly pointed out, the guidelines set by the paper only say that letters to the op-ed page “may be shortened to fit allotted space.”

Fine. This is understandable, in a way. We can only imagine how many endless diatribes the Times’ staff has to sift through on a daily basis. But after haggling over the word length (GM said 300, the Times offered 200), the editors did something that was a little odd. They changed a critical sentence. After listing what he called Friedman’s unsupported and irrational claims about the company, Harris had added this one-sentence punch line: “What rubbish.”

The Times was not happy with this and changed it to read: “We beg to differ.”

In response to this proposed emasculation, Brian Akre wrote in an email, “With all due respect, we’re a bit perplexed as to why the Times has a problem with ‘rubbish.’ Mr. Friedman defamed our company and its reputation. Even he has acknowledged in subsequent interviews that he used unusually strong words ‘to get their attention.’ Are we not entitled to have the strong reaction that he sought?? He can say that GM is the ‘most dangerous company in the world’ and we cannot opine that that is ‘rubbish?’ Come on!”

The Times answered simply, “Sorry, it’s not the tone we use in Letters.” This was unsatisfactory to GM, which rescinded the letter, and unleashed PR’s deadliest weapon — the blog. Now, it might be that the Times’ letters editors are heroically clinging to more cultured notions of linguistic propriety, while the minders of the full-time columnists have long since capitulated to the indecorous sensibilities of the heathen masses. But without going into whether or not Friedman is right to criticize GM so harshly in his column, it does seem a bit unfair to place restrictions on letter-writers, while allowing columnists to holler at will. And this is not the first company that the Times has purged from the letters page with dubious mutterings about “our tone.”

In any case, GM was not proposing a four-letter word. Harris even praised Friedman in general terms. The company wanted nothing more than to have its objection heard loud and clear, as would any company that found itself in the crosshairs of such an influential paper.

Every so often, the Times has these moments of seeming at once unaware of its power and content to exercise it. The paper has a very real effect on corporate reputations and, ultimately, sales. The least it can do is offer an opportunity for an honest rebuttal, allowing the target of the attack to hang or redeem himself with his own words.

Even if he is a rubbish-spewing flak for an addiction-feeding, terrorist-inciting mainspring of the coming apocalypse.

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Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.