It’s election time in many of the towns around Newburyport, and that means you’ll be seeing more letters to the editor about the candidates.
We encourage people to write about issues, politics, candidates and politicians. We do, however, restrict who can write. We don’t accept letters from the candidates, their immediate family members or their campaign staff. My feeling is that it’s paramount that a newspaper give each candidate an even platform, and we can do that through news coverage. Letting candidates have free reign over the letters page can skew that balance badly.
What if a friend of the candidate, or a cousin, wants to write? What about a neighbor? Well, that’s OK. You could make a legitimate argument that no one who personally knows a candidate should be allowed to write a letter, because that letter could be part of a letter-writing campaign orchestrated by the candidate. That’s an argument that works well in thory, but in practice it’s hard to draw the line, especially in small cities and towns. So we try to make our policy as specific and understandable as possible.
Lastly, one more thing about election-related letters: We don’t accept letters that arrive less than 6 days before the election. Most elections take place on a Monday or Tuesday, so that allows us time to publish letters up to the Friday before the election. Why do we do this? Because races for political office can become heated, personal and nasty, especially in the few days before the election. “Dirty tricks,” like the mass mailing of flyers that have explosive accusations, sometimes happen on the weekend before the election. It’s a strategy that can suddenly put one candidate on the defensive with no time to respond, thus the term “dirty trick.”
We don’t want the letters page to be used to launch “dirty tricks,” and so we publish our last letter at least 3-4 days before an election. If in those last few days we publish a letter that has some accusations, the candidate who is the target has a decent chance to respond.
There’s few events we cover that generate more anger and accusations than elections. Democracy can be ugly sometimes. But it’s still better than the alternatives.