Updated: Letters and Limitations

July 6 update follows.

June 23–On June 7, 2005, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer published an inflammatory, unsubstantiated letter to the editor by Emily Horswill. Horswill compared “the Israelis” to Hitler and claimed Jewish soldiers recently “tormented and threatened” a young Palestinian child and, “when the little schoolgirl responded, killed her.” She added, “Surely, the Israeli citizens will stand up and shout, enough! But the heinous cruelty goes on. It seems the Israelis have adapted Hitler’s methods well. How much longer till the rest of the world gets involved and finds a jail cell for the Israeli crime ring?”

Horswill’s letter raises two important questions about letters to the editor. 1) Does any and every opinion merit publication in a mainstream newspaper? and 2) Does factual accuracy matter?

  • While certain inflammatory letters should–and will–be published in mainstream papers, there is a line that most decent publications will not cross. Letters with provocative ideas that threaten the status quo may be inflammatory, but are an entirely appropriate part of civil discourse. However, letters that promote baseless hatred, trivialize and mischaracterize the Holocaust and/or impugn all the citizens of a nation (particularly when the insult is based on a non-existent event) cross this line.

  • More straightforward is the need to avoid publishing falsehoods in the letter section. In this case, there is not the slightest evidence the writer’s allegation about Israeli soldiers intentionally murdering this Palestinian child is true, and the writer provides no substantiation or details. But despite the obvious hostility of the letter writer and the outrageousness of the charge, this defamation was allowed to pass with no attempt by the editors to fact-check the writer’s accusation. (Newspapers often do contact letter writers to ask for substantiation before publishing a letter, particularly when an inflammatory allegation is made.)

    While the Seattle Post-Intelligencer stood by its decision to publish this inaccurate and incendiary letter, other newspapers recognize that there are limits to what should be published.

    Factual Accuracy

    New York Times

    About factual accuracy, New York Times Letters Editor Thomas Fayer emphasized that “letter writers … are entitled to their own opinions, but not to their own facts. … we do try to verify the facts, either checking them ourselves or asking writers for sources of information. Sometimes we goof, and then we publish corrections.”

    Indeed, the newspaper has on numerous occasions published corrections to letters to the editor.

    Los Angeles Times

    The Los Angeles Times also clearly understands the importance of factual accuracy in letters, having itself published formal corrections to erroneous statements in published letters.

    For example, CAMERA prompted the following correction in the Dec. 3, 2004 Times:

    Mideast conflict – A letter Nov. 29 said soldiers were the majority of the 900 Israelis killed in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict since 2000. The majority have been civilians.

    And on Sept. 10, 2004, the paper published this correction because they were unable to corroborate a claim made by the writer:

    In a Sept. 8 letter, Bradley Parker of Salt Lake City wrote that his brother was killed in Iraq “defending a Halliburton convoy near Basra.” The Times is unable to corroborate the soldier’s death and retracts the letter.

    Offensive Content

    The comparison of “Israeli citizens” to Nazis trivializes the Holocaust, and is considered by many, including historian Deborah Lipstadt, to be a form of Holocaust denial. Furthermore, Amnon Rubinstein, a former minister of the dovish Meretz party, suggested that “drawing comparisons between Israeli policy and those of the Nazis” is a form of Jew-hatred, and noted that the European Union also considers it as such.

    Clearly it is not appropriate to publish anything and everything submitted to a newspaper. Would the Post-Intelligencer also publish a letter claiming that only one million Jews perished in the Holocaust, or that the Holocaust never happened? What about a suggestion that African Americans should not be eligible for certain jobs? Or a call to randomly execute Muslims? One would hope not.

    New York Times

    Thomas Feyer, Letters Editor at the New York Times, wrote a column about that newspaper’s standards for publishing letters to the editor.

    He noted:

    We are eager to print all points of view – liberal, conservative and anything in between – expressed according to the rules of civil discourse…And no subject is off-limits, within the bounds of good taste.

    Tucson Citizen

    If a letter that does not fall “within the bounds of good taste” is published due to carelessness, a lapse in judgement or any other reason, it is not unprecedented for an editor to acknowledge the mistake, apologize or retract the letter.

    The example above about random executions of Muslims comes from an actual letter published in the Tucson Citizen (republished here). The letter writer felt that “whenever there is an assassination or another atrocity we should proceed to the closest mosque and execute five of the first Muslims we encounter.”

    A few days after the offensive letter ran and after receiving numerous complaints, the edit or and publisher of the newspaper, Michael Chihak, apologized for printing the letter. He wrote:

    Let me begin today’s column with a sincere apology to the Muslim community and to all of Tucson for a serious error in judgment we made this week at the Tucson Citizen. That error was printing a letter to the editor that called for the execution of Muslims as a way to stop the killings of American soldiers in Iraq.

    We should not have printed it. We are sorry that we did.

    Never before have I publicly disagreed with the writer of a letter to the editor of this newspaper. And only once before in my memory have I thought that a letter to the editor should not have been printed in this newspaper. After all, the free expression aspects of the First Amendment don’t belong just to the media. They belong to everyone, and we in the media should strive to encourage as much free expression as we can. This week, however, I saw a limit to that, and the Citizen went beyond the limit.

    Chihak further admitted that editors have “ultimate responsibility” for what runs in their newspaper, and noted that editors were taking steps to “improve [their] knowledge of and sensitivity to issues of cultural and religious diversity.”

    Arizona Daily Star

    Dennis Joyce, editorial page editor of the Arizona Daily Star, in a column commenting on the scandal at the Tucson Citizen, noted that “Editors across the land, in interviews this week, also agree [with the Citizen‘s decision to apologize], saying they would never publish such a letter ….”

    Seattle Post-Intelligencer

    The Seattle Post-Intelligencer published three letters protesting Horswill’s letter. It is commendable that the paper allowed the public to respond. (The Tucson Citizen published 21 letters in reaction to the anti-Muslim letter.) However, as with the Citizen, publishing letters of protest is not enough.

    Horswill’s anecdote–a scandalous, unsubstantiated accusation about an extremely controversial topic–should have been fact-checked. If it could not be substantiated, the newspaper should have published a correction or Editor’s Note.

    Her comments on Israelis using Hitler’s methods are far from accurate and serve to trivialize the Holocaust and incite hatred towards Israelis. They seem to lie beyond the self-defined limits governing what will be published in respected newspapers. While continuing to allow diverse opinions, the Post-Intelligencer–and all respectable newspapers–should avoid publishing ones that cross the line into hate-mongering.

    UPDATE: July 6, 2005

    Emily Horswill, author of the letter comparing “the Israelis” to Hitler, contacted CAMERA in an attempt to substantiate her allegations that Israeli soldiers “tormented and threatened” and then killed a young Palestinian schoolgirl. Claiming that the Seattle Post-Intelligencer “absolutely refuses to publish” her “documentation,” she has requested that CAMERA “publish the documentation the PI hides.” Below is Horswill’s documentation:


    That’s my answer to Robt.Kaufman’s challenge. (P. I. 6/11), Space prohibits printing the articles, but I’ll steer you. Go to “google advanced” Type in “Israeli soldier taunts Palestinian school girl.” Scan to 4th paragraph to N.Y.Times reporter Chris Hedges 10/30/01, “And I walked out towards the dunes— I, speak Arabic—so I heard the worst swearing… from an Israeli army Jeep… they were taunting these kids, insulting, cursing them… kids 10, 11, 12 years old. They started to throw rocks the size of a fist at an armor-plated Jeep. I doubt they could even hit it. I watched the soldiers open fire.. .” You read the rest.

    Horswill’s “documentation” fails to corroborate her shocking accusation. If anything, her substantiation – a highly questionable, error-ridden personal anecdote by Chris Hedges – disproves her claim. Not only does she rely on a dubious source, but the anecdote she cites says nothing at all about the killing of a “schoolgirl.” Rather, in an allegation that itself has never been substantiated, Hedges accuses Israeli soldiers of targeting a rock-throwing boy.

    Horswill’s non-documentation underscores the problem with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer letters policy. It is the responsibility of newspaper editors to request writers provide their sources for inflammatory claims. Had the editors at the Post-Intelligencer done so, they would have found Horswill was unable to substantiate her claims in any way.

    Letters with baseless but damaging allegations are considered defamatory and should not be published.

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