Newspapers do their part to foul political discourse

There’s a growing trend — particularly among smaller newspapers — that’s doing nothing to improve the political climate. The newspapers are charging to have a letter to the editor printed in the local paper and posted online.

Anything for a buck.

The problem — as if it has to be pointed out — is you get content like what western Wisconsin’s Pierce Count Herald posted Wednesday.

The letter is actually written by a Republican and appears to be satire, but what’s the value?

In May, Forum Communications announced its new policy of charging for letters that promote political content.

“Letters to the editor are expressions of personal views on matters of current public debate and consideration,” Chuck Frederick, the editorial page editor of the Duluth News Tribune said at the time. “Newspapers publish letters to the editor as part of a commitment to the community to provide a civil and productive forum for opinions, with the belief that from many ideas the best solutions can emerge to our many shared problems.

“Those many “vote for him” and “pick her” promo-plugs that inundate newspaper inboxes prior to every vote hardly fit the definition. Rather, they are, often, an attempt by political candidates, their campaigns, or their supporters to take advantage of a newspaper’s sense of public responsibility by flooding a public space (opinion pages) to reinforce a candidate’s name recognition while squeezing out competition.”

The solution seems obvious: use your editorial judgment and amplify only those voices that advance intelligent discourse. That’s the job; it’s what editors do.

And it gives readers and members of the community the responsibility to elevate the discourse.

By cashing a check — $15 for the first seven column inches, $10 for each additional column inch — the newspapers are essentially selling their avowed responsibility to the community.

“Levying submissions that have little intention of contributing a thoughtful and reasoned opinion seems justifiable. Unless you are the reader. To the reader, a paid political endorsement-marked-ad could only further restrict their interest in the pages of a paper,” Colin Sheeley, a North Dakota native and a journalism student at Fordham University, wrote in an essay in the trade publication “Editor & Publisher.”

Moreover, a paid letter to the editor is advertising. Advertising doesn’t belong on the editorial page. [Update: Frederick says the letters are not printed on the editorial page]

And newspapers that claim to have a responsibility to their community should do their job.