About letters during campaigns…

By The Mercury

For years — and many election cycles — The Mercury has published letters from local readers in support of or opposed to particular candidates and issues. The editorial page, after all, is intended as a public forum for the exchange of political views as well as thoughts on other matters. Early in some hotly contested campaigns, we would issue guidelines for writers of what we’ll call endorsement letters.

Over the years, these endorsement letters changed. They came less often from individuals with strongly held views and began to read more as advertisements for candidates and issues. Campaign staffs became involved, sometimes through committees that solicited not just supporters who would write letters but also supporters who would allow their names to be used on letters that were generated by campaigns.

These letters sometimes came in great numbers. It hasn’t been unusual in the heat of campaigns for the editorial page to be filled with endorsement letters — political ads — sometimes to the extent they claimed space that could have gone to letters on other local topics as well as editorials from other newspapers on important topics of the day.

We continue to welcome endorsement letters, but in an effort to restore balance on the editorial page, we are adjusting our policy regarding them.

Effective immediately, we will begin charging by the word for letters in support of or opposed to political candidates and issues — including the countywide half-cent sales tax renewal in the present election. In future elections, the per-word charge will take effect on the candidates’ filing deadline and run through Election Day.

As is the case with all letters, we urge endorsement letter writers to be brief. The fee will be 15 cents per word. Payment must precede publication. These letters will be published under a separate heading to identify them as paid endorsement letters.

Endorsement letters must include writers’ names and postal addresses and will be expected to adhere to the same standards as other letters: No libel, personal name-calling or unsubstantiated statements of erroneous “fact.” Letters otherwise will be edited lightly, and writers will enjoy the same leeway they do now. Also as is the case now, Mercury editors will write the headlines.

There will be no charge for neutral letters during campaigns such as those urging people to become involved in the campaign. Also, there will be no charge for letters about political issues, elected officials or candidates that do not fall between the filing deadline and the subsequent election.

We suspect some readers will object to these changes and others will welcome them. Letters about our policies are welcome — at no charge — anytime.

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