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Don’t waste time writing a Letter to the Editor unless it’s adulatory.

Aug 18, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 46 • By KENNETH L. WOODWARD
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On June 23, something very rare appeared in the pages of the New York Times: an admission by a Times columnist that he had made a reporting mistake. The columnist was David Carr, who acknowledged that he had erred in an earlier piece which implied that the Washington Post had not paid sufficient attention to Eric Cantor’s upset in the Virginia primary.

Gary Locke

Gary Locke

Whether Carr discovered his mistake by himself or, more likely, someone at the Post called it to his attention, I do not know. What I do know is that the Times would never have published a Letter to the Editor pointing out Carr’s error. That’s because, as a matter of policy, the Times will not publish letters that challenge the facts in any piece written by its own columnists or reporters. I learned this the simple way: by writing such a letter myself. 

On April 24, I wrote a 190-word letter to the Times contesting a very angry column entitled “A Saint He Ain’t” written by Maureen Dowd on the dual canonizations of Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II. Dowd’s main beef was that Pope John Paul II did not deserve canonization because, she argued, the clerical sex abuse scandal and its cover-up occurred during his reign, for which she held him accountable. She also criticized the now-retired Pope Benedict XVI, whom she dissed as John Paul’s “Rasputin,” for rushing to canonize his “mentor.” In other words, Dowd was saying that here was a case of one conservative pope canonizing—and therefore justifying the papacy of—another.

In my letter to the Times, I did not question Dowd’s opinion of Benedict or John Paul II, or challenge her clichéd political categories for distinguishing one pope from another. What I did do was contest her basic assumption that the canonization of a pope means approval of everything he had done as a pope. On that point, I wrote, “Nothing could be further from the truth,” and then went on to give examples from history that disprove her point. 

Since the Times loves to publish letters from people with a claim to expertise, I identified myself as the author of the book Making Saints: How the Catholic Church Determines Who Is a Saint, Who Isn’t and Why. And because the Times trusts the judgment of its own reviewers, I noted that my book had been reviewed (at length on publication in 1990—and very enthusiastically, though I did not mention this) in the Sunday Times Book Review.

Two hours later I received an email from Mary Drohan of the Letters Department telling me that they wanted to publish the letter if I approved of their editing. Gone from the original letter was my dig at Dowd for once again reminding readers of her Catholic childhood, as if this credentialed her as a judge of which popes are worthy of canonization. Okay, I already knew that the Times does not publish letters that reply in kind to their sharper-elbowed columnists. But I did object to the editors’ replacing my “Nothing could be further from the truth” with “I disagree.” 

From a series of email exchanges with Ms. Drohan, during which we dithered over alternative phrasing, two things became clear. First, her editors wanted to publish the letter because it added information about how rare it is to see a pope proclaimed a saint, and I was obviously well informed on the subject. But, second, the paper would not publish this or any letter which claimed that a Times writer on this or any subject was in fact wrong. Even my offer to change my objection from “Nothing could be further from the truth” to “This is a common misunderstanding” was refused. 

Ms. Drohan was very gracious and straightforward in explaining why: “Here’s the problem,” she wrote. “Saying ‘this is a common misunderstanding’ sounds like a correction of a factual error (which in this case it is). We don’t use letters to make factual corrections. That’s for the corrections people. There is no such problem with ‘I disagree.’ ” 

For the same reason, she went on, another line I offered was unacceptable: “Likewise, ‘Ms. Dowd claims that Pope Benedict chose to make his predecessor a saint, but popes do not choose saints: they merely approve candidates found worthy after due canonical process.’ So unless we find a way around this, I don’t think that we’ll be able to use this letter.” 

We couldn’t and they didn’t, which was fine with me. 

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