I suppose that from now until the Longest Presidential Campaign There Ever Was finally ends, a disproportionate number of Ethics Scoreboard entries will have some connection to the upcoming election. That is because the peculiar fanaticism that has marked both of the political party's partisans spawns some unexpected issues. Take, for example, the matter of the canned letter to the editor.
Last week the Washington Post noted that it had received an odd letter to the editor praising John Kerry's performance in the first presidential candidate's debate …the day before the debate took place. The text of the letter was, in fact, taken from the Democratic National Committee's website, which urged Kerry supporters to copy or paraphrase the letter and send it to their local papers. The Post, fairly enough, noted that the point of a Letters to the Editor section was to share opinions, not to serve as a cog in the political spin machine. Other papers that received the canned letter (both before and after the debate) reacted similarly. But not all: many papers printed the pre-fab raves about Kerry's performance, and at least one, The Bergen [New Jersey] Record, printed two of them ("Media bias? What media bias?").
What are the ethics of all this? There's nothing wrong with the Democratic Party providing words for partisans to put their heartfelt sentiments on paper, I suppose. It's a dubious tactic, for reasons made all too obvious by the results. But at least real people appear to be sending the letter, and in that it is an ethical upgrade from the old-fashioned way of creating a favorable buzz using the mailbox, which is to have the staff of the DNC (or the RNC) write hundreds of letters by imaginary citizens. It also doesn't work as well. Are the people who send in such letters being unethical? I suppose they aren't honoring the spirit of the Letters to the Editor process, but I've never seen any requirement that you had to be the author of any letter you submit for publication; if there were such rules, most of those official responses from CEOs and government agencies would violate them. And how different, really, is this from the time-honored (and undeniably ethical) tactic of urging supporters of a particular point of view to flood the papers with their missives?
The defectives who sent in the letter before the debate, could, I suppose, be called unethical, as the letter could not be fairly expressing their opinions about an event that hadn't yet occurred; then again, such individuals probably knew with some certainty that their reaction to their candidate's performance would be positive even if he stood at the podium sucking his thumb. Thus their actions are less unethical than they are, well, incredibly dumb.
No, the only clear ethical violation here is on the part of newspaper staffs so lazy, inattentive or biased that they can't detect when they are being rolled. The Post and other newspapers who were paying attention (the existence of the DNC's canned letter campaign was well-publicized on the web and elsewhere) responsibly preserved the integrity of their letters pages. This is their job. Those papers that did not, and published the letter, did not meet their professional obligations to their readers. Interest groups have always attempted to use the independent news media to carry their messages; more than one profession is dedicated to achieving that objective. Newspapers have an ethical obligation to apply vigilance to make sure that their efforts do not deceive the public and distort the news.
If you believe that the integrity of the news is important, Ethics Scoreboard urges you to paraphrase the last two paragraphs into a letter, and send it, signed, to your local newspaper for publication.