Taking Over The Times?

Taking Over The Times? – letters to the editor

William F. S. Miles

“Anybody who publishes a letter in the New York Times will receive an automatic A for the course.”

For about a decade I have ritually thrown out this challenge to my freshmen in our first meeting of Introduction to Politics. Few students, I thought, would ever take me up on my challenge; none, I suspected, would ever in fact win the New York Times letter lottery. Having myself managed to get only one letter to the Times published since I began teaching (well, two, if you count the Sunday travel section), I wagered that the odds of an undergraduate doing so were not much better than winning the Power Ball. Still, if the challenge were to succeed in stimulating any interest in the Letters page and, even more importantly, in the articles that give rise to the letters, then it would be worth the semesterly offer. At the very least, the public gambit alleviated some of the grief inevitably expressed by my Boston-based students required to read the New York Times.

But then, last semester, the unlikely began to occur with bizarre regularity.

It started with Geren, a quiet communications coed, who approached me hesitantly after class one afternoon. “The New York Times told me my letter is going to be published today or tomorrow,” she informed me, with just a trace of hesitancy in her voice.

I restrained my own incredulity. “That’s great,” I responded. “Make sure you give me a copy if they do.”

Sure enough, on May 11, Geren’s letter appeared, expressing outrage at the withholding of AIDs medication for an experimental subject. Pedagogically, I was ecstatic. I couldn’t wait to tell the class that “it had happened!” Finally, after all these years, one of their fellow students had netted that automatic A!

After class, Regina–a tall but otherwise nondescript criminal justice major–approached me. “Professor, I’m getting one published, too.” I must have looked at her as if she’d told me she couldn’t take the midterm because her grandmother had been hit by lightning on two successive days. But sure enough, four days letter, there it was, in black and white Times New Roman: “ADS in Africa.”

After a decade of epistolary drought, twice in a week? And both about AIDS, a subject that, while far from taboo, was hardly of primary focus in my introductory course? But it was far from me to analyze the phenomenon. I merely reported the amazing coincidence to the student newspaper.

Sara, a graduating senior, was happy to get the assignment. It was to be her last article written for the Northeastern News. She got copies of the letters, spoke to me at my office, and interviewed Regina and Geren. The article about the amazing coincidence and high-grade windfall was all set to go to press in the paper’s last issue of the year.

And then Arria, a petite African-American girl, approached me.

“About those letters to the newspaper, professor?” she began, in a distinctive inner city accent. “I’m getting one published, too.”

Dumbfounded, I listened as Arria then told me the subject of her letter: “It’s about Harry Potter.”

“Help me out,” I pleaded, helplessly. “Explain how this relates to politics, so that I can justify giving you the A.”

“Well, remember how you said ‘Politics is all about who gets what, when, and how?’ This is about which kids will actually get access to the Harry Potter books when they become available online, as the article says.”

“Which article?” I asked. I didn’t recall any Times news article on Harry Potter books.

“In the business section,” she answered. “I kind of like reading the articles there. I find them interesting.”

That clinched it. I’d explicitly not required students to read beyond the primary news section. Arria would get her A.

Pleading “Stop the Presses,” I was able to get Sara, the school paper journalist, to rewrite her article on my (now) triple class coup with the Times so as to incorporate Arria and the Harry Potter letter. Although their class attendance was now strictly voluntary, Regina, Geren, and Aria agreed to attend the last session of the semester and to have their picture taken by the newspaper photographer. Overcoming severe shyness, each in turn addressed the class about her experience with the Letters editors of the Times. It had taken each about half a dozen tries, on different issues, before scoring. Arria emphasized mounting frustration at prior rejections. It was a good lesson, among other things, in perseverance.

As I scanned the sea of student faces listening to their classmates’ account, and my subsequent discussion on “letter writing as a mode of political activism,” I noticed expressions of envy, disbelief, and befuddlement. Only one face expressed unmitigated pleasure. Hedi, a finance major from North Africa, was beaming. Perhaps, I thought, he was marveling once again about the unfettered political freedom in America, a phenomenon on which he had remarked in an after-class chat about his native Tunisia. Or perhaps he was vicariously enjoying the “anything is possible in America” outcome of his fellow students, who so recently were struggling, like him, to succeed in the competitive grading environment.

At the end of class, as students filed out for the last time before the final exam, Hedi uncharacteristically addressed me–for he was generally too shy to do so in front of the American students–in French. “Professeur,” he began, excitedly, “moi aussi, j’ai une lettre qui va sortir dans le journal. [I, too, have a letter that is going to appear in the newspaper.] Demain, vendredi, or pendant le weekend. [Tomorrow, Friday, or over the weekend].”

“Sur quel sujet?” I eeked out, incredulous. “What is your letter about? La Tunisie?”

“Non,” he replied. “A propos de l’Irelande.”

Sure enough, on the very next day–the last official class day of the semester–Hedi’s name followed a New York Times letter about Ireland. Never had I been so relieved that the end of a semester had arrived: I was beginning to worry if the Times was about to skew my entire class’s grading curve!

Upon reflection, though, I’ve begun to wonder: who was skewing whom?

Without intending to, in the space of a few short weeks I had been responsible for a disproportionate share of Times letters emanating from the same bunch of “A”-hungry undergrads assembled in a single room in Boston. For sure, there had been no concerted effort to infiltrate any particular viewpoint: I hadn’t been “spinning” published reader reaction to advance a specific agenda. Still, would it not bother the Letters editors to know that a good portion of what they had elected to publish actually stemmed from a class project?

Who can be confident, moreover, that New York Times letter spinning is not already occurring, albeit in a more systematic manner? We already know that publishing houses manage to stack the Times’ Best Seller list via strategic and wholesale bookstore ordering. Now, I’d stumbled on to how easy it was for a “leader” (myself) with only a hundred “followers” (my students) to influence what millions of people were reading in a prominent section of the nation’s newspaper of record. Could I really have been the first to make such a discovery? In an age of fine-tuned lobbying, professional spinmeistering, and acute media manipulation, surely others have exploited the ease with which a concerted campaign mounted upon a small group of newspaper editors can yield partisan results.

Not to be neglected, either, is the emerging role of technology in potential newspaper subversion. My classroom experience highlighted the power that comes with the Internet. When you combine a universal issuance of e-mail accounts (as prevails at my university) with a Times policy that encourages electronic submissions, avalanche-by-letter becomes inevitable. To write out an optional letter, address an envelope, affix a stamp, and then walk to a mailbox or post office constitutes a difficult hurdle for many an undergrad. (Why else hadn’t any of my students “scored” with the Times in years gone by?) But to keyboard out a few lines and then click on the “Send Now” icon? Why, what could be more quotidian for today’s youngster–and easier for tomorrow’s ideologue?

The belated but overwhelming success to my Letters-to-the-Editor challenge has proven more instructional–for instructor as well as students–than I had anticipated. Now, however, I must reassess the reward structure. For if I issue automatic A’s to all my pupils who get their letters published in the New York Times, what do I promise for the next step? How do I reward monopolizing the Times’ op-ed page?

William F.S. Miles is the Stotsky Professor and professor of political science at Northeastern University in Boston.

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