MANY, MANY YEARS AGO while teaching at the State University of New York at New Paltz I tried to capitalize on what I considered the insane competition for grades in a large political science class. I made a challenge to the group, to wit: if a student could get a letter into the nation’s greatest newspaper, The New York Times, I would give them an A in the class. The idea was to get the students to appreciate the fact that they were as good as anyone else and could compete in the intense intellectual marketplace.
It is not easy to get a letter into The New York Times and never has been. Well, unbelievably it happened. One student, who was of a fairly conservative nature, wrote a letter to that august institution making a modest proposal. As I recall, he took the position that if you caught someone stealing in our society, the quickest and most efficient way to get that person and others of his or her ilk to stop that behavior was to cut their hand off, a punishment some authoritarian societies have long enforced in order to minimize criminal behavior. It was simple and well written and, despite my reluctance to give the promised reward, I did. All these years later, I am not sure that I was right in making my offer but a deal is a deal and I consummated the agreement. In any case, my conservative, right wing student got his A by making his simple argument. He sent his letter in and sure enough, a representative of the world’s most important newspaper called me up to check on the credentials of the student. I told the caller what he wanted to hear and gave, let’s call him Joe, the promised A grade.
Over the many years since that time, I have thought about my intemperate offer. Naturally, I was giving credence to the fact that The New York Times is the world’s greatest newspaper and if not that, it is at the very least a hard paper to get a Letter to the Editor into. If you get a letter into the world’s greatest newspaper you have really made it. I have always posited that in order to do that you have to meet at least one of three conditions. If you are an ambassador or a member of Congress, your chances of achieving success are much better. If you are making a unique argument that is really cogent, the letters editor might choose your letter for print. Finally, if you wrote what one might call a “brilliant-stupid letter,” the editor might pick it up to prove that people who believe as you do are really stupid. In other words, it is just a good way of doing what a newspaper does in its editorials, making the point that we (the newspaper) are smarter than the letter writer but also benevolent in that they will print letters from people who might just be inferior. Then, too, there are good newspaper editors who print letters that might just bring forth new ideas. Let’s face it—when newspapers print controversial editorials, part of their thinking is that their words will get others to express their own opinions.
Let’s just take the matter of newspaper endorsements of candidates. I find some of these just plain self-serving. We know that the editorial page is often known as the “Publisher’s page.” We don’t know details about the personal relationship between the publisher and a particular candidate. Under those circumstances, you can hardly think that the newspaper is conducting the people’s business as opposed to the publisher’s business.
Anyway, the more you write to the editorial page of a newspaper, the more honest you might keep them.