Letters to the Editor: In Praise of a Dying Cranky Art Form

Before the onslaught of Grammy tweets that led to inevitable think-pieces, the slow news weekend did provide a tale of two medias. First there was Ezra Klein saying “peace out” to the Washington Post, and hello to Vox Media. Watching one of journalism’s bright young stars buy a plot of land in hopes that it will soon start paying back dividends isn’t much of a shock, considering that today’s “new media” will be tomorrow’s “traditional media.” As Klein told David Carr, “We are just at the beginning of how journalism should be done on the web.”

The old vs. new trainspotting has been done over and over: print is dead, print will survive as a luxury item, etc. Billionaires want to spend small fortunes to revolutionize journalism. We get more up-to-the-minute news coverage on Twitter than you do on CNN. Yet nobody seems to care much about what will happen to the letter to the editor — a format that represents the best and worst of all media — when we’re all downloading #longform stories directly into our brain, what exactly will happen to one of the best and worst of old media, the letter to the editor.

I got to thinking of that this weekend while reading venture capitalist Tom Perkins’ letter to the Wall Street Journal, “Progressive Kristallnacht Coming?” Yes, this is indeed a piece in which Perkins likens the plight of the wealthy to the plight of Jews in the years leading up to the Holocaust. “I would call attention to the parallels of fascist Nazi Germany to its war on its ‘one percent,’ namely its Jews, to the progressive war on the American one percent, namely the ‘rich,'” he writes. This is the sort of batshit, off-the-wall manifesto that only an ostentatiously wealthy ex-husband of Danielle Steel (Perkins, it turns out, is a bad romance-novel writer in his own right) could concoct — and instead of publishing it on his Tumblr or trying to get it on Medium, he took the old-school route, and wrote a letter to the editor. He did it because Tom Perkins just wanted his voice to be heard, his thoughts to be published, and the world to understand (over two years after the heyday of the Occupy movement) that the 99 percent are basically the same as Nazis.

None of that makes sense, except for the fact that the letter actually became national news — and the crazy ideas Perkins sent to the section of the newspaper usually reserved for get-off-my-lawn rants and nitpicky corrections from academics ended up broadcast all over the place. With a little help from an old-media convention, Perkins got his incredibly stupid theory to go viral. He showed that a round of old-school trolling could still get traction.

I’m a fan of letters to the editor. My late grandfather (mostly unsuccessfully) wrote them to newspapers such as the Chicago Sun-Times, the Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, and the Jewish Daily Forward, just as soon as the crossword was finished. It was his ritual to regularly inform editors that their publication got it wrong, and those editors’ ritual to sift through them so that only two or three actually ended up in print.

But now that internet comments sections are the new letters to the editor and publications have started lumping 30-second reactions in with the thoughtful if misguided missives of people like my grandfather, these shining examples of crankiness are a dying art. To write a noteworthy letter to the editor, and get it published, used to be a worthwhile achievement. Online, these contributions are too often obscured by dozens of lewd, sexist, racist, or just plain stupid one-liners. Whether it’s constructive criticism, important corrections, or even just — as in the case of Perkins’ letter — tellingly warped theories from maddeningly successful crackpots, letters to the editor gave us something comments sections rarely provide. And that’s why I, for one, will miss them when they finally fade into the darkness for good.