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Clarence F. “Rick” Olson, Published October 10 2010

Political letters paid ads?

Jack Zaleski’s Sunday column in The Forum on Oct. 3, “We’ll be a tad tougher on political letters to the editor” piqued my interest. As a former newspaperman, I sympathize with the situation that newspaper opinion page editors face during each election cycle with regard to the thousands of letters to the editor that are generated by election campaigns.

As Zaleski said, the blitzes of letters that he receives at The Forum, and no doubt that opinion page editors from newspapers all across the country receive, are sent at the behest of a particular candidate, a political party, or perhaps an organization that is backing a ballot measure.

Many of these letters are pointed and, as Zaleski points out, are full of unimaginative, canned, boilerplate talking points, which are distinguished by the writer’s lack of original thinking.

I remember during the summer months of 1988, I was working in my first newspaper job outside of college, having graduated from North Dakota State University that spring. I was working as the sole reporter-photographer on the Dodge Center Star-Record, a weekly newspaper in Dodge Center, Minn., which is halfway between Owatonna and Rochester.

The Star-Record at that time was, and probably still is, a member of the Minnesota Newspaper Association. We received a periodic MNA newsletter. In one edition of the newsletter, it was discussed that a handful of the weeklies in Minnesota had adopted a policy concerning political letters to the editor.

The policy was that all political letters would be treated as paid advertising. The assumption with such a policy would be that the person who sent the letter would be required to pay for the letter in advance as advertising in order for it to be published. The letter would be boxed and include the legally required disclaimer for a political advertisement.

My boss, who was the owner and publisher of the newspaper, and I discussed what the other newspapers were doing, and he decided to adopt a paid advertising policy for political letters. We published a notice. Our avalanche of political letters dwindled to almost none.

After all, the bottom line is this: Don’t most political letters to the editor amount to nothing more than free advertising in support of or against a particular candidate, ballot measure or whatever?

Today, 22 years later, I wonder how the public would respond if The Forum started charging letter writers for politically motivated letters. I suspect there would be a lot of people who would complain that such a policy would amount to censorship. I don’t see it that way. If a newspaper were to start charging people to publish political letters, it would be a business decision – nothing more and nothing less.

A newspaper is under no obligation, legal or otherwise, to publish any letter they receive. It could be said that it is a privilege and not a right that any letter you send to a newspaper winds up getting published.

Olson, Fargo, is an occasional contributor to The Forum’s commentary pages. E-mail rickolson@cableone.net.