Be yourself, not ‘Ellie Light,’ when writing a letter to the editor

A long time ago at another newspaper, I filled in occasionally for the letters editor, and one day I opened a missive from someone who had signed it “John Galt.”

“Who IS John Galt anyway?” I thought with a smile as I tossed it in the trash (I didn’t read “Atlas Shrugged” in college for nothing).

That was my first experience with people who append names other than their own to their letters. But as with the recent “Ellie Light” revelation by our reporter Sabrina Eaton, who works in our Washington Bureau, it has been a challenge for newspaper editors since the 15-year-old Benjamin Franklin posed as a middle-aged widow named “Silence Dogood” to get his letters published in his brother’s newspaper.

A bit of electronic gumshoeing by Eaton and Bureau Chief Stephen Koff exposed “Ellie Light” as a Californian named Winston Steward, who had sent letters in support of President Barack Obama to newspapers all over the country. Presenting “Ellie” as someone who lived in each newspaper’s circulation area, Steward got virtually the same letter published in more than 40 papers before Eaton’s reporting made Ellie something of a household name and exposed the ruse.

Thanks to prominent mention on the Drudge Report, Fox News and some conservative conspiracy theorists who imagined it all as an administration plot, Eaton’s stories wound up getting more than 800,000 Internet page views before the smoke cleared. Embarrassed, some of the papers who printed the letters apologized to their readers, and there was a lot of editorial harrumphing around the country.

The consternation was not without irony.

After all, most of the very people who were upset at being tricked by “Ellie” routinely publish comments in print and online that are obviously attached to made-up names.

What’s the difference?

Part of it is transparency. Readers should be able to trust us. When you read an opinion from “Hegel” or “Indep1,” you know it’s a made-up name, with no intent to deceive. Apparent real names are different, and introduce a measure of doubt.

The other part is location. The editorial page is the one place in most newspapers where readers know whose opinions they are reading. To some, that makes no difference, but to those of us who take more seriously the opinions offered by people willing to attach their names, it is an important distinction.

At The Plain Dealer, Racquel Robinson is the letters editor and thus the person responsible for making sure the letter writers are who they say they are. She confirms every letter, calls every writer she hasn’t dealt with before, relies on her experience and instincts to ferret out the fakes. But even that doesn’t mean the system is foolproof.

“I don’t know how many slip through,” she said. “I’m inclined to think not many. I think the majority of letter writers have good intentions. When one does slip by, I think it says more about the person who tries to deceive than it does about us.”

We didn’t publish a letter from “Ellie Light” here. We didn’t get one. But knowing her system, I think Robinson would have gotten wise to this particular scam if we had.

I would never say it couldn’t happen here, though. Chances are, “John Galt” is still out there.

Where are the movie listings? Last Monday, many readers were chagrined to discover that our daily movie directory had been cut in half.

The listings for Regal Cinemas, which operates multiplexes at eight locations around Northeast Ohio, were missing. Almost immediately, we began hearing from people who count on their newspaper to tell them which movies are playing at what movie theaters and when.

Why did we take Regal out of the listings, they wanted to know.

Well, “we” didn’t.

Regal did.

The movie directory is advertising space; the theaters pay to be listed there. Somebody at Regal’s corporate headquarters decided that it would be more efficient for their customers to use only the Internet or the telephone, so they withdrew their listings.

I happen to think it’s a lot more convenient to just pick up the paper and scan the directory. Of course, I would think that. I work here.

But if you agree with me, here’s the number to call to let Regal know: 865-925-9643.

This column was originally published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer on February 6, 2010.

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