You’d think that after nearly five years of handling our letters to the editor, I would have seen everything and figured out how to referee just about any situation.
And you’d be wrong.
Every election cycle, every new public controversy, brings something unexpected in the letters department and forces me to consider some kind of revised policy or approach.
This election cycle, for example, is shaping up to be one featuring an unusual amount of negative campaigning, at least for local races. In at least two contests so far, we have started to receive letters that don’t just endorse a candidate, but actively attack the opponent, sometimes in great detail or in personal terms.
This poses several problems.
The first is a practical problem. I try very hard to fact check letters and make sure that a person who is named or attacked has a fair chance to respond. Highly detailed letters criticizing someone require an enormous amount of time to check and get response. Neither I nor the candidates have the time for endless rounds of reporting, refereeing and responding.
The second is a philosophical problem. The letters section is a chance for members of the community to comment on matters of public interest, and certainly the performance or fitness of a candidate or public official is a legitimate matter of public interest.
But at the same time, the letters section is, or at least should be, a place for constructive and fact-based debate and discussion. Just as I don’t want the letters section to become a forum for spreading misinformation, I don’t want it to become a forum for rampant negativity and character assassination. I also don’t want to spend our precious space on relitigating old disputes or detailing inside-baseball grievances.
So, in consultation with St. Helena Star Editor Dave Stoneberg, whose mayoral race is one of the contests that is turning sharply negative, I’m working on a new policy: no gratuitous negativity in letters.
The exact details of this are a work in progress, so I can’t give you a precise set of rules yet, but here’s the simple guideline: You’re much more likely to get into print in the Register and Star if you spend more of your time saying why your candidate is the best, and less on saying why the other candidate is the worst.
Clearly, we don’t want to pretend that elections are all sweetness and light. Particularly for a challenger trying to unseat an incumbent, it is important for a campaign to draw distinctions or demonstrate why a longtime elected official should be unseated.
Therefore, we’ll have to allow some criticism of opposing candidates, but again, you’re much better off simply saying, for example, that your candidate will do a better job listening to public input than the incumbent, or perhaps do a better job of cooperating with fellow board members, than if you submit a detailed list of insider complaints or character flaws.
If you do raise a specific criticism, be prepared to cite specific sources. And be prepared for the candidate to be given a fair chance to see the relevant portion of the letter and to respond – most likely in the form of an editor’s note attached to your letter (though do note that we typically don’t identify the author of a letter in advance, even if we show the candidate all or some of the text before publication).
If you want to talk through a letter in advance to see if it is likely to meet our evolving test for this campaign cycle, feel free to call me or email me before you write.
And just on a technical level, remember that we’ll cut off election-related letters about a week before Election Day. The deadline for letters is the close of business on Friday, Oct. 26, and we’ll quit running those election-related letters after Monday, Oct. 29. We’ll run as many as possible between the deadline and the cutoff date.