AMG's Media Watch: BDN and the Strange Case of Ellie Light - Updated 1/25/10
AMG’s Media Watch
The BDN and the strange case of Ellie Light
A year ago, if we had read in the paper that employers were hiring again, health care legislation was proceeding without a bump, and Afghanistan was a nice place to take your kids, we would have known we were being lied to. We recognized that the problems Barack Obama inherited wouldn’t go away overnight.
During his campaign, Obama clearly said that an economy that took eight years to break couldn’t be fixed in a year, that Afghanistan was a graveyard of empires, and would not be an easy venture for us.
So starts a letter that appeared on Jan. 21 on the editorial page of the Bangor Daily News. It was a well-written defense of President Obama and signed by an Ellie Light of Bangor. It attracted almost 100 comments from BDN readers.
There was a major problem, however. Similar letters signed by Ellie Light appeared in many newspapers across the country. In every case the writer listed a hometown located in the paper's circulation area.
Somehow this came to the attention of Sabrina Eaton, a political reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, who used Google and Nexus to track down the Ellie Light letters, many of which went to big metro dailies -- and even to The Politico, perhaps the most prestigious political website on the internet.
Apparently it was never questioned. Which should raise concern about how well newspapers monitor readers' letters. If Ellie Light is an example, the oversight process is not good. And that is disturbing indeed because it could indicate how easy papers could become victims of letter-to-the-editor scams. Especially, a cynic might argue, when editors agree with the letter's viewpoint.
Nobody at the BDN or anywhere else, for that matter, questioned it. At least not to the extent that Ms. Eaton did.
She found Ellie Light. The strange story is HERE.
The Ellie Light scam spreads across the nation
Mon, 01/25/2010 - 11:21pm
The Ellie Light saga continues to grow -- in Maine as elsewhere across the country. Among the known victims of this spreading political scam is the Free Press, a Rockland-based weekly.
The Ellie Light letter to the Free Press (otherwise similar to those received by papers across the nation) listed the writer's hometown as -- you guessed it -- Rockland.
New additions to the list of nationally-known papers that published the now infamous Ellie Light letter are USA Today and the Washington Times. It appears that at least 65 publications in 31 states -- including the Bangor Daily News -- have published the letter, and more are being added every day.
How did this happen? Clearly too many newspapers were not following their own procedures to verify the identity of letter writers. But there may be more, much more, to this. Some, perhaps many, editors decided not to enforce letter-writing rules on Ellie Light (who remains a shadowy character) because they agreed with what she said.
Ben Smith, columnist for The Politico, the nation's best-known political website, provided evidence of this when he wrote:
"I get a lot of unsolicited e-mail and should probably publish more of it; this defense of Obama, sent in by someone named Ellie Light, seemed to crystallize a point his supporters have been trying to make for a while."
Then Smith ran the letter in its entirety.
So what's going on here? Are strict editorial rules on letters to be followed -- except in cases where the editor strongly agrees with what is said?
What is that going to do for the public's already-declining faith in journalistic principles? You decide.