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Columbia Missourian

Online debate brews over vetting of letters to editor

By Tom Warhover
July 10, 2009 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

Dear reader,

Just how much should a newspaper tinker with letters to the editor? Did the Missourian wimp out when it listened to a politician’s version of the facts?

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There’s been an interesting debate brewing on ColumbiaMissourian.com.

Some background:

Peter Hinshaw submitted a letter to the editor concerning a petition he and others delivered to Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer’s office. The group wants to be heard on health care reform – they’re for it, and Luetkemeyer’s camp says he’s against socialized medicine. (I presume that means he’s against the health care proposals floating around Capitol Hill.)

But I digress. The debate played out in the comments section after the letter had little to do with health care.

Hinshaw was upset that no one on Luetkemeyer’s staff would see them. A receptionist who works for several offices in the building took the petition. And so Hinshaw began the letter by saying the congressman stood him up: His group called to say they were coming to deliver the document, but the office was closed.

Enter Luetkemeyer press secretary Paul Sloca. He calls the Missourian to say there was absolutely nothing in the appointment book; that the office was open, though no one was available to meet Hinshaw and entourage; and that the congressman had indeed received the petition.

That’s where I come in.

Opinion section editor Jake Sherlock took the column off-line while he checked the facts. He even went to the Luetkemeyer office and talked to the building receptionist. Then he called Hinshaw, who wanted to talk to me. It seemed an easy decision: The office wasn’t closed, but the letter only required a slight revision to say “no congressional staff was available.”

Others didn’t see it that way. They saw a newspaper folding in the face of “bullying” by powerful people.

I believe opinion — in letters, blogs, wherever — should carry the same burden of accuracy as a news story.

In this case, a fact was disputed. Was the office closed or not? It would be irresponsible of the newspaper not to check it out.

The change did not, in my mind, alter at all the opinion expressed by Mr. Hinshaw. He opines that Luetkemeyer's office should be more accessible; that announcing his intention to deliver the petition at a specific time and date should have been a clue to Luetkemeyer's staff that they expected to be seen.

The newspaper doesn't vet letters to the editor as closely as, say, a news story — the letter didn't originate with a reporter and an assigning editor. But the letters are checked. The newspaper's copy desk reads all letters, and checks out information that looks dubious.

What it won't do is change the language that expresses the opinion of the letter writer.

But don’t take my word for it. You can read the letter and all the comments, and then make up your mind.

Tom