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Published: Sunday, 4/18/2010

Editorial stances, letters policy raise questions

"Why don't your editorial writers sign their work?"

The e-mail asking me that was anonymous - but the writer wanted an answer. He (I presume it was the same person) left me an equally anonymous voice mail asking the same thing.

The answer is that the editorials are the opinion of the newspaper's editorial board and not of any one person.

Sometimes a single member of the board writes them; sometimes, they have input from several writers. Every editorial is seen by several editors before it appears in print or on the Web.

Naturally, John Robinson Block, the publisher and editor-in-chief, is first among equals in the process - but he does not impose his opinion on every editorial, much less dictate them.

If a member of the editorial board has particular knowledge in some area he or she will likely play a major role in formulating the newspaper's position on that issue.

And speaking of the Pages of Opinion - I have heard from a number of letter writers who were upset that their letters were shortened or edited before they were published.

I asked Dave Kushma, the editor of The Blade, about this. He replied, "The Blade receives many, many more submissions to Readers' Forum than it can possibly print.

"One of my priorities when I became editor was to increase the number of letters we do publish - I'd estimate we now average about 10 a day, where we previously published perhaps six or seven.

"Since we have not invented elastic pages, the only way to run that many more letters in the same amount of space is to shorten the letters we do publish. We simply tell readers each day that "letters should be brief and succinctly expressed.

"We also make clear that 'all letters are edited for accuracy, clarity, and length.' Our copy editors work very hard - and generally very well - to identify and compress letter writers' central arguments without fatally weakening or distorting them. We never select or edit letters to correspond with our own editorial positions; to the contrary, we prefer running letters that disagree with us."

Sometimes, clarity means adding some information. "If a letter refers to a specific article in the paper, we feel it's important to include that reference to provide context and to allow readers to find the original source, even if the writer did not cite it," Mr. Kushma said.

Newspapers edit their staff writers' work in much the same way.

Dr. E. Ford Crider of Toledo complained that his letter was shortened, saying, "There is no criteria granting [The Blade] the editorial freedom to delete or impose censorship on the submitted material."

Well, yes there is. Any newspaper edits everything, and smart writers are grateful for it. (I've been saved from embarrassment or worse many times by sharp-eyed editors.) Dr. Crider sent me a copy of a letter he had written, so that I could see what he meant.

Indeed, The Blade did not publish a section of his letter accusing the President and Congress of "bribery, embezzlement, secret deals, conspiracy, and deceit."

Most of those are clearly crimes, and these are unproven charges. I am sure Dr. Crider wouldn't want The Blade to publish a letter from someone who accused him of, say, malpractice.

Nobody's perfect, however, and I am happy to look at any case where a writer thinks what was published distorted his or her ideas. Send both versions of the letter to me, and I will check it out.

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Mike Schlee isn't happy about the way in which the wire services, and The Blade, refers to the suicide bombers in the Middle East. "The articles always reference these people as Islamic militants, or even martyrs. These people are very proud to read these articles in The Blade News Services to them it means they have done a good thing." His suggestion: We should call them "Islamic murderers."

"Believe me, if you were to start calling them what they really are, i.e., murderers, this would affect the way they think of themselves since they are doing this for 'religious reasons.'"

Well, I don't think anyone at The Blade has any sympathy for suicide bombers. But murder is a technical and legal term; properly speaking, you aren't a murderer unless you are convicted in court of that crime.

If newspapers were to start using that language, it would merely be seen as name-calling. I am no expert on Islamic theology, but I don't think the suicide bombers care what Americans call them.

And I have to admit that while we think The Blade is an important newspaper, I don't think the militants in the Middle East get their news from us, or indeed, read this newspaper at all.

Anyone who has a concern about fairness or accuracy in The Blade is invited to write me, c/o The Blade, 541 N. Superior St., Toledo, OH 43660, or at my Detroit office, 563 Manoogian Hall, Wayne State University, Detroit, MI 48202; call me at 1-888-746-8610, or e-mail me at OMBLADE@aol.com. I cannot promise to address every question in the newspaper, but I do promise that everyone who contacts me with a serious question will get a personal reply. Reminder, however: If you don't leave me an e-mail address or a phone number, I have no way to get in touch with you.

Jack Lessenberry is a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and a former national editor of The Blade.


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