Saturday, June 09, 2007

Back in the day...

Jessica McBride notes that a conservative state legislator submitted a letter to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in her support, but that the paper didn't run it. She ponders:

Pretty telling. Imagine what happened to the conservative voice on various issues in the days before blogs. It just didn't get through the media gate.

Now, as it happens, I have some experience in this area. Over the years, I've written, and had published, a number of letters to the Journal Sentinel, and to the Journal before it. And I can tell you from experience that the media gate wouldn't just sit on the conservative voice. Even when they let it through, they'd work to dilute it, with every loophole in their arsenal; if you didn't know the rules of the game, you were screwed.

A couple of examples:
  • My very first letter to the editor, written way back in the days of the Milwaukee Journal, blasted an aspect of the pro-choice position prominent in the abortion debate at the time. (I haven't changed much, as you can see.) I never heard back from the Journal; my letter just suddenly appeared in the paper one day--almost half a year after I sent it in. Lesson learned: always respond to specific events/articles.
  • When the Journal and Sentinel merged, one of the first editorials the new paper put out described the board's position on abortion. I didn't think much of their reasoning, and sent a letter blasting the paper's stance as "journalistic cowardice." (Hey, cut me some slack--I was still in high school.) The Journal Sentinel printed my letter, all right--again, many months after I sent it, long after anyone had any idea what editorial my letter was referring to. Lesson learned: always include the date and/or title of the event/article you're responding to.
There have been other examples. The paper used to have a "Talk Back" feature, where the editors would respond to selected letters. They once picked one of mine--another abortion letter, to which they flippantly replied that Roe v. Wade was the law of the land, so there. (They ended up printing another letter about a week later blasting their response, so I count that occasion as a win for me.) On a number of occasions, I've had letters edited--changes that seemed to me to be more about blunting the effectiveness of my wording than about conserving space, though I suppose that is open to debate.

My most interesting experience, though, came when I once had a letter published in response to another letter that had recently appeared in the paper--this one on the subject of US promotion of birth control internationally, if I remember correctly. A few days later, the Journal Sentinel printed a response to my the author of the original letter, in blatant violation of the paper's "1 letter every 2 months" limit. (I tried sending in a response to the response--sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, I argued--but the paper did not print it.)

Even more interesting--I received an anonymous letter a few days later claiming that the letter-writer I'd just been clashing with had been dead for several years. I didn't investigate then (and I've since forgotten the name of the deceased scribe) but that, in combination with the paper mysteriously waiving its normal restrictions, leads me to believe that I'd stumbled over a member of the Journal Sentinel staff, publishing his/her own letters under a pseudonym.

(I once mentioned this incident to someone who works at the paper, and was told that some time ago, the paper tightened up its verification procedures. Certainly, sometime after that incident, the paper started contacting me for verification before publishing my letters, so something like that last one probably wouldn't happen anymore.)

So yes, it would happen--and that's not counting the letters of mine that never made it into the paper. And given that it happened so often to me--an above-average wordsmith, in my not-so-humble opinion--I can only imagine what the "gatekeepers" did with other writers.



Dad29 said...

Evidently the JS published an article (or letter) "written" by Frank Zeidler long after he died, as well.

COULD be the same person to whom you referred, but I don't think Zeidler was "pro-choice."

Shack said...

If I remember correctly, Zeidler was still alive at the time that fake column was published. At any rate, though, that was a different incident.