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Letters to the Editor as a Forum for Public Debate

Karin Wahl-Jorgensen
Stanford University
August 1999

Scholars and laymen concerned with the current and the future state of democracy wonder how "the people" in today's mass societies can take part in and influence the political process. This research looks at one particular means of popular discussion, the letters section of the daily newspaper, and tries to develop notions of how those who edit the letters and those who write them conceive of their purposes. By understanding why letters are written and which ones are chosen for publication, the researcher hopes to help identify what the mass media can do to facilitate and increase political discussion among citizens.

These days, scholars, politicians, and pundits spend a lot of energy worrying about the state of democracy: They worry because voter turn-out has drastically declined following Watergate and Vietnam, and citizens express cynicism about politicians and political life. They worry about people’s lack of engagement in civic affairs. Democracy is supposed be “the rule of the people” but if people have become so cynical that they no longer care, how can they participate in governing themselves? How can political leaders get “the consent of the governed” that the Constitution sees as the basic requirement for democracy?

Historically, philosophers have argued that such consent is what happens when people get together and talk about politics. Thinkers of democracy look back to the governments of Ancient Greece as ideals of democracy. In the Athenian city-state, political decision-making came out of the face-to-face discussions that took place between citizens in the city square.

All but the most nostalgic of democratic dreamers acknowledge that face-to-face discussion is no longer a viable model for how we should go about governing ourselves. Instead, contemporary ideas about democratic practice advance representative democracy; the idea that citizens select others to represent their views. The problem, then, becomes one of how average citizens can pass on their views to elected officials and influence the political process. And since face-to-face discussion has proven impractical in large-scale, modern societies, many scholars instead vest their hopes in the media of mass communication, as the place where citizens can take part in the debate vital to a truly democratic governing process.

My research tries to take a fresh look at these problems of democracy and the public's role in it. It investigates how a debating public is created in letters to the editor of daily newspapers, and searches for an opportunity to revitalize democracy through this feature.

The letters section of the daily newspaper is one of the few arenas for public discussion to have survived unchallenged throughout most of the history of American mass media. Readership surveys show that the letters section is one of the most popular items in the newspaper. Editors view the section as "among the few outlets available to the public for voicing opinion," "the community's heartbeat," and "a debating society that never adjourns." Journalism scholars celebrate the letters section as a public forum "essential to the effective operation of the democratic system."

The letters section should be understood as a creature whose existence unfolds within the context of the daily newspaper. The newspaper is one of a few mass media that appeals to a diverse audience, and is concerned with topics of a timely nature and general interest. Put differently, it is a medium that speaks in the language of the common interest -- it is designed as the safe ground on which we can conduct a democratic conversation. Though the newspaper shares this "general interest" appeal with other media, such as radio, television, and some magazines, it is the prime site for debate of the issues that we all care about.

By studying letters to the editor, my dissertation takes up the question of how media structure or construct public debate, and how this affects our practice of democracy, the expression of concerns of all groups and individuals in society, and the forms of public debate. This is done by (1) analyzing articles about letters written by editors in The Masthead, the National Conference of Editorial Writers' quarterly publication, (2) conducting in-depth interviews with letters editors of Bay Area newspapers, and (3) eliciting responses from writers of letters to the editor.

Articles in The Masthead about letters to the editor and the opposite-editorial page, as well as the interviews with editors, shed light on the reasons for and consequences of the practices and ideologies that shape the letters section. At the most basic level, we can get at how editors construct a public debate by teasing out the rules -- written or not -- that editors use to select letters. Such rules get to the core of how editors view the role of letters to the editor within the newspaper, and in the larger context of U. S. democracy. The rules determine whose voices and concerns come to the fore, and whose never stand a chance of being heard. By interviewing letters editors, we can also grasp their understandings of "the public" and "public debate," and how they play into their construction of both.

To understand how citizens contribute to the construction of the public, I ask writers of letters to the editor about why they write letters, and what they wish to gain from it. By asking such questions, we may draw a more coherent picture of the dominant myths and concepts that we, as a society, use to understand the ends and varieties of public debate. And as we move the focus from the gatekeepers of public debate -- the letters editors -- to the public, we also widen our scope by examining not merely editorial practices, but widespread understandings of what public debate and democratic action are all about.

Ultimately, this research raises the question of how the media should engage in the hard work of democracy. It argues that we need to develop an ideal of media operation, tied to an emphasis on public discussion, and committed to a central role for the media in the democratic process, to create and maintain a diverse public debate. It envisions a goal for the media that goes beyond just selling more newspapers. Hopefully, the project can build on the knowledge of scholars across academic disciplines who work on democratic theory, and nudge us toward answering the question of what mass media should do to advance the conversation between and among citizens.