NEWSPAPERS are strange operations. We provide a prominent forum for people to criticize us. In fact, when there’s a choice between publishing a letter to editor or guest column that praises us and one that criticizes us, we pick the one that criticizes us.
The criticism is nearly always based on an honest disagreement with our editorial opinions or with people’s beliefs that their story wasn’t fully told, or that mistakes were made in news coverage. Occasionally, though, the criticism is inaccurate or misleading, in a way that it’s hard to believe is accidental.
Which brings us to Michael Letts’ guest column on today’s Commentary page, which takes us to task for, essentially, refusing to let him spread his conspiracy theories about November’s Richland County sales tax referendum across the pages of our newspaper. Although we’re happy to provide that forum for people to criticize us or others, we don’t let them say things that we know are untrue, or to traffic in rumor and innuendo.
My colleagues on the editorial board and I weren’t initially crazy about the idea of publishing Mr. Letts’ latest piece, because it has too many problems to publish without a response, and writing that response seems to give him more stature than is warranted. But we think it’s useful to explain why we do the things we do, and the choices that go into our decisions. Besides, I’d say the ability to put a four-month hold on implementation of the bus plan authorized by that referendum, until the Supreme Court had time to throw his challenge out of court, makes Mr. Letts worthy of some note.
The central complaint Mr. Letts has been making anywhere he can find an audience concerns a guest column he sent us two days after the debacle that was the November election. In today’s column, he writes that we refused to run that earlier piece and that our reason “hinged on my view that the Board of Elections and County Council are essentially part of the same governmental entity.”
Unfortunately, his November column didn’t say the two entities were “essentially” part of the same government — which would have been a huge stretch, but not as much as what he said. What he wrote was this:
“A government entity proposes a public referendum on a very controversial tax increase, and that same government entity botches the election to such a degree that citizens are nearly unanimous in their outrage. Further, thousands of citizens are disenfranchised due to an apparent decision by this government entity to use a fewer number voting machines than required by law.
“It’d be disingenuous for this government entity — in this case, Richland County — to move forward with its tax increase knowing that their own actions deprived people of the ability to participate in the decision-making process.”
After this opening salvo, he demanded that county officials throw out the results and hold a new election.
I wanted to run his column, because it was the first one I had received about the debacle, and it also included spot-on criticism of election officials, but as I explained in an email to him, it was simply inaccurate to say that “the same government” that proposed the sales-tax referendum had botched the elections. The referendum was a creature of the Richland County Council, which has absolutely no control over the independent election commission, whose members were appointed by the county’s state legislators. Which is an outrage.
I also told him I was not aware of any law that would allow a do-over referendum. And here’s the critical part that he keeps forgetting: I told him I would be happy to consider the column if he would 1) fix the “same government” problem and 2) identify the law or explain the legal theory under which a new referendum could be called.
Frankly, I could have come up with a half-dozen ways to fix the first problem, and done it in five minutes, but anything I did would have changed his central point — that opponents lost the referendum because of an elaborate conspiracy — so this was something he had to do.
Mr. Letts never responded to my email.
Instead, he sent the column to other publications, along with the sob story about my refusal to print it. My note to Mr. Letts, along with his original column, are posted HERE. I hope you’ll read both.
In today’s column, Mr. Letts goes on to accuse reporter Dawn Hinshaw of lying when she wrote that she had been unable to reach him for comment after the Supreme Court refused last month to hear his challenge to the election, charging that “I checked my phone and my email. No one from The State had even called.”
Ms. Hinshaw told me that she distinctly remembered calling Mr. Letts twice that day, because she was surprised she didn’t get his voice mail the first time; she did the second time, and left a message. What makes his claim so bizarre is that the article included a quote from an email he sent Ms. Hinshaw; she said she included the couldn’t-be-reached language because she wanted to convey that she had not actually spoken with him.
Mr. Letts’ other complaint is that my colleague Warren Bolton didn’t talk to him before writing a February column critical of his meritless appeal in the Supreme Court. And that’s absolutely true. Mr. Bolton didn’t ask him for permission to criticize him, just as I often don’t ask public figures for permission before I criticize them for their public actions.
I was amused by the complaint that Mr. Bolton had “refused” to mention that Mr. Letts had urged county officials to offer voters the option of endorsing a sales tax increase to cover only the cost of bus operations. Yes, it was irrelevant to a column about Mr. Letts’ behavior after the election. But more to the point, it’s something our editorial board had urged local officials to do, for years. I guess, using his own logic, Mr. Letts “refused” to mention that in his criticism of us.
I’m not crazy about publishing Mr. Letts’ innuendo about local politicians, and I wouldn’t have done so but for the fact that it seemed unfair to write about the facts behind his attacks on us without including the allegations he keeps claiming we’re trying to cover up. Judge them for yourselves. I find them flimsy at best — worthy perhaps of a 200-word letter to the editor, but nothing more.
I have seen nothing, from Mr. Letts or anyone else, to credibly suggest that anything was at play in the election debacle other than incompetence, grown out of an incestuous political system that we ought not to have to tolerate. And the more people like Mr. Letts keep fixating on their fantasy conspiracies, the less likely it is that we’ll be able to do anything about that.
Ms. Scoppe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (803) 771-8571.