How far should letters to editor go?

By David Stevens: Freedom New Mexico Editor

Eva Torres presents a journalistic dilemma. The Clovis woman has written a letter praising staff at Plains Regional Medical Center and would like to have it published on our newspaper’s Opinion page.

“They had compassion, utmost patience and caring, loving attention for my brother,” she wrote about the intensive care unit staff’s response to her brother’s medical emergency in July. “They went above and beyond their job requirements. May God bless them for their caring.”

The dilemma is that Torres’ letter is focused on a private business. We don’t usually publish letters about private business.

Here’s one reason we have that policy:

A few years ago, a woman wrote a letter praising a local garage owner for efforts she said went above and beyond expectations in repairing her disabled vehicle. She said he provided immediate road-side service in the snow, replaced an expensive defective part — and didn’t charge her a nickel.

Having grown skeptical of all things warm and fuzzy in my 30-year newspaper career, I decided to check out her story.

Turns out, every word of it was true. She just didn’t mention the garage owner was her son.

When confronted, she said the purpose of her letter was to help promote her son’s business. In my business, we call that advertising and you have to pay for it.

Most letters to the editor we receive targeting private business are not promotional. They’re just the opposite, which is another reason I’m uncomfortable publishing those letters.

The great majority of letters aimed at a private business are critical of that business: The service is too slow. The owner refuses to accept returns. The quality stinks.

I’m not sure those issues are of great public concern. They’re private disputes easily settled by shopping somewhere else. Why would the newspaper give public voice to private disputes? We do allow a few letters expressing opinions about private business practices, but mostly it occurs when those practices have been the topic of news reports.

For example, Wal-Mart is often in the news, over things such as employee health coverage, traffic congestion, low prices, running off mom and pop, etc. It has become fair game for comments positive and negative from Opinion page writers.

But I think even Wal-Mart letters should be limited to topics of public interest — “My evening commute is 10 minutes longer because of all the traffic trying to get in and out of that place.” — and not private disputes — “I didn’t like that band, but they refused to give me my money back when I returned the CD.”

I guess the big problem I have with publishing letters about private business is the difficulty we’d have in trying to confirm the accuracy of the claims.

How do we know if someone was charged twice for a single box of detergent? How do we know if the manager was rude? How do we know if the prices are too high?

Maybe the complaint is coming from a competitor trying to redirect customers their way?

Truth is, I don’t lose much sleep worrying about someone getting mad because I won’t let them publicly praise or criticize a for-profit business on our Opinion page.

But Eva Torres’ request is a tougher call.

If you don’t like the way you were treated at Plains Regional Medical Center, you can’t go to the health-care provider across the street. And PRMC doesn’t sell widgets. The hospital is in the business of saving lives, which raises the stakes considerably.

So when somebody wants to tell everybody what a great job the hospital does at saving lives, isn’t that a topic of public interest?

And when somebody else wants to tell everybody how that same hospital is responsible for the death of their loved one, isn’t that a topic of public interest?

I’m sure hospital officials would love to see the letters of praise published in the newspaper. I’m sure they’d rather not see the letters critical of their work, especially since privacy laws often prevent them from even defending their actions.

Eva Torres’ request has been granted. Her letter praising PRMC staff has been published in this column.

But what should we do the next time somebody wants to say thanks … or publicly accuse hospital workers of malfeasance?

I’d be curious to hear readers’ opinions.

David Stevens is editor for Freedom New Mexico. Contact him at 1-800-819-9925 or by e-mail:
david_stevens@link.freedom.com