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Sunday, April 25, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

James Vesely / Times editorial page editor
A letter a second about The Photo

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A letter a second.

If you stood behind the shoulder of Seattle Times letters editor Diane Albert Thursday afternoon, the letters addressed to came pouring in at a rate we have rarely seen before. There was a new one every second popping up on the computer screen as the e-mails arrived.

Of course, they were about The Photo.

The decision by news editors of The Seattle Times to print a photo of flag-draped coffins reached a national crescendo last week and through this weekend. Those editors speak for themselves on this topic — and have been doing so on talk-television programs for several days. I speak here of the obligation of the paper to present the views of our readers, even those readers now thousands of miles away who are drawn to this controversy through the Internet.

On Friday and Saturday, we devoted all our available letters space to reader reaction. We do so again today and will tomorrow.

Each year, The Seattle Times receives about 35,000 letters to the editor — about 100 a day. That number will spike this year because of extraordinary reader reaction to the debate about this photo of war and its consequences. Not since Sept. 11, 2001, have the letters reached the current volume on a single topic within a few days.

"As of 9 p.m. Thursday night, the incoming e-mails were reaching overwhelming levels," Albert said. By Friday morning, the screen showed 500 unopened letters waiting in the queue. OK, but what did the letter writers say?

"The first response to printing the photo was almost 100 percent favorable," Albert said. "It was all positive toward the decision to use the photo. By the second day, the ratios were about 50-to-1 in favor of printing the photo. By the third day, the ratio was dropping to about 30- or 40-to-1 in favor of using it. Those who support The Times' decision to use the photo are still the highest proportion of letters, but it's not as overwhelmingly positive as it was the first day."

That follows the pattern of letters to the editor and the respondents to those letters the second day. Because e-mail is instantaneous, we now track letters almost by the minute. But the pattern of give and take between letter writers is as old as paper and ink. It's the second wave of letters that contains the dissent and disagreement with the first batch.

Normally, there is an initial wave of letters taking the most obvious position on a controversy. By the second or third day, the letters are breaking into the factions the stories produce, politically left, right or — rarely — in the middle.

That's why objections to our letters page as biased miss the point. Because we use the letters in the rough proportion of those received, they usually represent a predominant viewpoint and then, by the third day, the opinions are fragmented as letter writers begin to disagree, not with The Times, but with each other.

Over the course of four days, the letters about the photo changed, from nearly universal agreement to the differing of opinion as the story develops. As with any national story, the inevitable letter campaigns arise. Albert and letters editors before her become pretty good at spotting the letter campaigns. Letters arrive with the same phrasing, the same initial points and the same words, disclosing a letter campaign that originates somewhere and asks people to add their own names to a prepared message.

That occurred in a small group of correspondents who asked why these pages carried cartoonist Garry Trudeau's Doonesbury panels about a wounded soldier in Iraq. The week's strips included a familial epithet which is normally not used on our pages.

I decided that after looking at the whole week's worth of strips, I could allow the epithet to be used in the context of soldiers at war. A few readers disagreed with that decision. But nothing in anyone's recent memory around here compares to what you had to say about The Photo.

James Vesely's column appears Sunday on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is:

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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