Marolt: Real people write fake letters
November 20, 2013
The Aspen Times gets settled into its new digs, and a few of my skeletons fall out of its closets. I figured it had left them in the old building to be hauled to the dump with most of the rest of the historical structure not worth saving during the remodel.
On Tuesday, my editor, Rick Carroll, wrote a column kind of beating himself up over what appears to be a pseudonymous letter published in The Aspen Times recently. It happens. For background, he brought up my shenanigans from the '90s when I managed to submit almost 200 letters to the editor via 18 different made-up characters over the course of nearly four years.
Rick said a lot of nice things like calling the episode a "31/2 year folly," saying that I "took the editorial pages hostage," that I "created phony dialogue and influenced public discourse" and that I basically dishonored the "unwritten honor codes," all of which is true, but I am humbled nonetheless. Heck, if anyone still cares, they're all in a book called "Dear Editor:," which is available on Amazon, I think.
I do have one minor squabble with Rick, though. He said that I dared pursue my bogus letter-writing campaign because both small-town Aspen newspapers "are without the resources to double check every letter with background checks and NSA-type operatives."
Well, the fact that I could do it was not the reason I did do it, and further, lack of resources for screening was not the main reason they were published.
I believe the phony letters that get published do so mostly because they are interesting. Don't get me wrong — nobody is letting them slide on purpose. I just think that when interest in the content goes up, the guard comes down and, WHAMO, there's a left jab to the editorial pages. The fake letter about growing marijuana that Rick is gnashing his teeth over was exactly that!
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During my serial nom de plume spree, I also had letters written locally and published nationally. Sports Illustrated, The Denver Post, the syndicated column Ask Amy and the respectably small but well-read Mountain Bike Action magazine fell prey to my pen. Apparently nobody in the publishing business has the resources to enforce verification policies, or there is something else at work … play … whatever.
When then-Aspen Times reporter Brent Gardner-Smith found out about me getting one over on Sports Illustrated, he called the magazine. Linda Verigen, then director of the letter department, said, "I pulled that letter myself. … We got tons and tons of mail. His was a bit longer than some that we run, but … it was well said. … It's not quite on the up and up, but I still think it's a good letter."
Closer to home, on Thursday, Aug. 26, 1999 (aka Sweet Thursday, in my mind), I had seven letters published in The Aspen Times and one in the Aspen Daily News. That's eight in one day by the same person! Now, you tell me what kind of screening process was going on then. NSA-type scrutiny? More like MIA.
To my point, I wrote some downright stupid letters during the spree, and interestingly/thankfully, some of those did not get published. In character, I cried censorship. Several of us letter writers (me) were talking about a letter writers' boycott in the papers. But, on Sweet Thursday, I wrote good ones. And they all were published, not one question asked.
After I was busted, I had the temerity to claim that my ruse actually helped sell more papers. I believe that still, but considering the circumstances, I should have been more humble. Rick said I was full of it and how the heck do you sell free papers anyway? I said that you sell free newspapers to advertisers, who will pay more for space in a paper that more people pick up for free because it's interesting.
The upshot is that I think there is a place in the local papers for anonymous letters; not comments on stories but short pieces of writing that can stand on their own; people saying what they need to say. I understand that there are liability issues with a completely anonymous free-for-all. Maybe the answer is a hybrid format where the author is known to the publisher but not the reader. One of the rules could be that the editor can chuck any letter for any reason. Censorship? Yes, but not by the government, so that's OK. Really, you don't want vulgarity or vendettas in print, anyway. All you need is to keep it interesting.
Roger Marolt thinks it's ironic that newspaper offices are made out of sticks and stones. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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