Times Letters Unfit to Print
The New York Times's letters page has a reputation for being the nation's liveliest. Here appear brief but beautifully crafted commentaries from top government officials, diplomats, scholars, researchers, lawyers, physicians, educators and, of course, everyday readers, offering their insights on the great issues of the day. The one thing you won't find here, however, is substantive criticism of the Times itself. For all the appearance of debate and contention on this page, it seldom features letters challenging the way the Times covers the news. Its real purpose, in fact, seems to be to shield the paper's reporters and editors from any outside reproach.
My enlightenment on this point came in mid-November, when the Times ran an article headlined "Italian Sociologist's Goal: Make Opium Farming Fade Into History." The piece described the efforts of Pino Arlacchi, the United Nations' top antinarcotics official, to stamp out opium production in Afghanistan and surrounding nations. "Afghanistan is now the world's largest producer of opium," the article stated. "If Pino Arlacchi has anything to do with it, however, opium should become as much part of history in Afghanistan as it now is in Thailand, which is getting ready to open a museum of opium." Arlacchi was attempting to accomplish this, the piece noted, by setting up a 300-person antidrug unit in neighboring Tajikistan to seize drugs coming out of Afghanistan and by lobbying Western governments to give the Taliban government assistance so that it could compensate farmers who stop producing opium (the raw material for heroin).
Overall, the article provided a very optimistic account of Arlacchi's efforts, leaving the impression that if only the West cooperated with him, opium production in Southwest Asia could be eliminated once and for all.
Sure, I thought. Based on years of research I did for a book about US drug policy, I knew of periodic crusades to eliminate the Asian opium trade, none of which ended successfully. Whenever one source of supplies was wiped out, another quickly emerged. As long as there's a demand for drugs, history shows, someone will find a way to supply it. No suggestion of this appeared in the Times article, however. It cited no independent assessments of Arlacchi's work. Nor did it question his highly debatable emphasis on law enforcement as the best way to fight the world's drug problem. From start to finish, the article read like a puff piece.
Irritated, I sat down to write a letter to the editor. To increase its chances of getting published, I did not mention my sense that the article was excessively flattering toward Arlacchi. Nor did I refer to its lack of balance or absence of historical depth. The only hint of criticism I allowed was to call the piece a "rosy account" of Arlacchi's efforts. Otherwise, I simply described my own view that, based on the long history of global antidrug efforts, Arlacchi's campaign was doomed to fail.
I e-mailed the letter to the Times--and heard nothing back. Nothing unusual there. Only a small portion of the letters sent to the Times actually get published. Two weeks later, however, the Times ran another letter, commenting on an article about US antidrug efforts in Colombia, that made many of the same points I had made in mine. Unlike my letter, however, this one contained no criticism of the Times's coverage; instead, it simply recounted the writer's own views. Which made me wonder: Was it my inclusion of the word "rosy," with its gentle chiding of the Times, that kept my letter from being printed?
Curious, I began scrutinizing the Times letters page. While editorials and Op-Ed pieces were sometimes criticized, news articles almost never were. Overwhelmingly, letters about news stories conveyed the writer's own views about the subject in question, rather than challenged the way the Times had covered it. Many of the letters began with a bland "Re," followed by the title of the article, followed by a summary of the writer's thoughts about the subject at hand. "Re 'Ease Up, Top Colleges Tell Stressed Applicants' (front page, Dec. 7)," a typical letter began. "I do not foresee college applicants being less stressed any time soon. Society, especially in the Northeast, reinforces the idea that getting into a top college is the only way to be successful...."