By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Show us the numbers

Today’s New York Times includes a letter to the public editor from Craig Adams of Egg Harbor, N.J., that highlights an ongoing dilemma for those who edit letters: How much fact-checking should be applied to vox populi? Adams’ letter — in which he objects to certain aspects of the Times’ reporting on the NSA no-warrant wiretaps — reads in full:

Was The Times, in the timing of publication, trying to deflect the importance of a story (the Iraqi parliamentary elections) that may have slightly benefited the Bush administration? The Patriot Act debate was particularly interesting, since many Democratic senators referred to the Times article in their effort to maintain the filibuster.

You did not address whether this leak disclosure was beneficial to the public. Given that a recent survey has shown that the majority of Americans think the surveillance was proper and justified, why wasn’t that point of view addressed?

What is the survey to which Adams refers? Certainly it’s not the one reported in this Associated Press story:

… 56 percent of respondents in the AP-Ipsos poll said the government should be required to get a court warrant to eavesdrop on the overseas calls and the e-mail messages of US citizens, when those communications are believed to be tied to terrorism.

Agreeing with the White House, 42 percent of those surveyed do not believe the court approval is necessary.

The “War On Terrorism” section of the maniacally updated leads with the results of that poll. Scroll down, and you won’t see any other questions pertaining specifically to the warrantless searches. However, there is an interesting finding from a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll conducted Dec. 16-18 in which respondents were asked:

Which comes closer to your view? The government should take all steps necessary to prevent additional acts of terrorism in the U.S., even if it means your basic civil liberties would be violated. OR, The government should take steps to prevent additional acts of terrorism, but not if those steps would violate your basic civil liberties.

The answer: “Take ALL Steps Necessary,” 31 percent; “Don’t Violate Basic Liberties,” 65 percent. A rare landslide for the Bill of Rights.

Now, back to Mr. Adams. Is there actually a legitimate poll he could cite to support his contention? If there is, shouldn’t an editor at the Times have insisted on including the details of that poll? Conversely, is this something Adams just thought he heard while listening to Sean Hannity for a few minutes while driving home from work? Could Adams simply be referring to polls showing that President Bush’s approval rating has gone up recently? Did an editor even ask Adams to substantiate his claim?

If Adams is right, I’ll be happy to correct the record. But, on the face of it, this strikes me as sloppy editing in the name of letting the readers have their say. No one benefits from such an exercise — especially the readers.

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  1. Anonymous

    I’m sure that SOMEWHERE, SOMEBODY can cite a poll in support of Mr. Adams. When the newspaper gets in trouble for letting up on an agenda, that alone speaks volumes. Adams’ letter is what it is. His letter is exposing his values, as are those who permit its publication. So what? Some disseminate misogynous rap music, some flee in disgust. I always thought the purpose of the Letters to the Editor was to get a variety of opinions? (Except at the Globe, of course, where opinions run the gamut from “A to B”….)

  2. mike_b1

    Anon, by your logic, this would be OK to print in the letters section: “A recent survey has shown that the majority of Americans think Mitt Romney has 14 wives, some as young as 8 years old.” Opinion is opinion. Opinion presented as fact — as is the case with this “poll” — is altogether something else. Get it straight.

  3. Steve

    Dan, you’re right. But in the last two weeks, we have two instances of the Globe allowing false “facts” to be cited by op-ed columns. If the columns aren’t subjected to fact-checkers, do you think they’d give any scrutiny to letters?

  4. Mitch

    There was a letter to the editor in the Metro about a month ago in which the writer suggested that Bush should “declare the Patriot Act a law and throw the senators who disagree with him in jail.” (As close to a direct quote as I can remember.) I wondered why papers choose to print letters like that; the act of printing them unfairly legitimizes them. I mean, I don’t just have a difference of opinion with that writer. He was advocating total contravention of the constitution.On the other hand, when the Globe published a letter of mine questioning the efficacy of the sales-tax-free weekend, some right-wing blogger called me a Neo-socialist who wanted to separate hard-working people from their money by any means necessary. Believe it or not, I disagree with that characterization.So how useful is the letters to the editor page? For the sake of brevity, I write a letter that sounds like I’m a communist, and the guy in the Metro writes a letter that sounds like he’s a fascist. Neither of these is true. (Well, probably. I mean, that guy’s letter really did make him seem like a fascist. He actually wanted to give the President power to imprison dissidents.)If I had a point in this post, it was probably that whoever edits the letters page has a responsibility to show a little more discretion. They should be printing letters of substance, and not simply attempt to represent all sides when one side is clearly wrong. Reading the letters page these days is like watching Hardball, Hannity and Colmes, etc.: it’s a screaming match from the far edges of the political spectrum intended to provide “balance.”

  5. Wes

    Two score of years ago, when with the Ted Bates&Co. ad agency, we all knew that polls are amnipulative and manipulated by those polling simply by the way the question is asked. This is also true with TV and Radio ratings. We often conducted our own “surveys” as we liked to call them to either confirm or refute the data presented. Those internal surveys were held in secret and the results carefully guarded. We gained a remarkable advantage by these surveys.

  6. DougH

    I believe the person writing to the times was referring to the Rassmussen Poll which said that “64 %of Americans believe the National Security Agency (NSA) should be allowed to intercept telephone conversations between terrorism suspects in other countries and people living in the United States.”Unfortunately, the poll omitted warrantless wiretapping, and thus missed the entire point of all the hoo-ha over the wiretapping scandal. I thought Rassmussen had been pretty reputable (right/wrong?), but that was a gigantic miss.

  7. Anonymous

    Dan, this is a can of worms I’m glad you’re opening, and I hope you’ll revisit from time to time. The letter you cite from the NYT is a great example. But I think the Globe needs some serious scrutiny on this.Their guiding principle seems to be, go ahead and print anything that presents an opposing view. Sometimes it seems to me the more extreme and out there a letter is, the better the chance the Globe will publish it.Also of some concern to me is the fact that while I have managed to get several (5, I think) letters published in the Globe over the past decade or so, and I have always provided all the requested contact info., I have never received a call or email for verification before they published.And more than once, they edited so heavily that it wasn’t even my prose anymore. At the very least, they should confirm authorship, and the letter should be published as written (or if abridged, only original text should be used).

  8. Steve

    The website “Media In Trouble” uncovers another case of a newspaper (in this case, the Times Reporter of Dover-New Philadelphia, OH) not fact-checking a letter. The letter writer gave a list of “Democrats who had taken money from Jack Abramoff”. At the end of the letter there was an Editor’s Note that a complete listing of Abramoff’s contributions is available at The trouble is, the names on the list given by the letter writer did not appear at the FEC website.The letter writer was making things up, the Editors knew where to check the facts and told the reader, but apparently the Editors didn’t do the fact-checking themselves!

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