Monday, December 11, 2006

Banality-Induced Atrophy

Does anyone else find it curious how The New York Times' letters writers almost always express opinions akin to its editorialists'? Take today's, for instance. In response to New York City's recent ban on trans fats, six letters are printed, yet only one objects to the ban. Four are supportive and the last takes a shot at the tobacco industry. Of course, most letters-to-the-editor writers are also readers of the paper, so it's little surprise how closely related their opinions can be. From my own unscientific research, I'd guesstimate the ban's actual support is somewhere near the opposite, with only one in five in favor.

Having worked with letters to the editor for two of the Times' competitors, the general letters policy seems to be this: so long as a letter is coherent, in response to an article that ran in the paper, and reasonably well written, an effort will be made for its publication. If nearly all letter writers are opposed to the issue at hand, the letters section will reflect that. If the issue's evenly divided, the letters section will reflect that, too. Indeed, even in those rare situations where nearly every letter writer is angry with something the paper has done, an entire letters section will be devoted to printing letters from the offended. Just off the top of my head, The Post last did this when Sean Delonas drew a Page Six cartoon making fun of Cory Lidle shortly after his death. Two years ago, The Sun did the same after Andrew Stuttaford made fun of Ayn Rand. The Journal did this after running an editorial critical of conservative bloggers who unearthed a scandal involving CNN's Eason Jordan (which led to his resignation). Luckily, The Times never seems to have this problem.

Three of today's four trans-fat-ban-supporting letters make the same point: that the ban will improve the city's health and consequently lower health-care costs for all. (Which recalls another letters guideline: generally you try avoiding running multiple letters making an identical point.) Sample:

This comes after the welcome ban on smoking in all public places introduced a few years ago, which has undoubtedly given a respite to the lungs of millions of New Yorkers.

A large number of people working in our city depend on food prepared by a cross section of restaurants. This legislation will have a positive impact on their health in the long term as it steers people into healthy eating habits and staying fit.

If prevention is better than cure, as the medical mantra states, this ban, supplemented by proper enforcement by the city, will eventually ease the burden on our increasingly unaffordable health care system.

Atul M. Karnik
Woodside, Queens

The restaurant industry (and the makers of many processed foods) may dismiss the dangers of trans fats, but these fats are responsible for untold sickness and billions of dollars of avoidable health care expenses.

Jack Challem

When such [obesity] problems rise, so do costs. Guess who pays the Medicaid and Medicare bills? Taxpayers. And yes, those of us with private health care plans will undoubtedly face escalating rates.

David Meyerson
New York
Clearly, this is a popular argument. But is it true? If an "affordable" health-care system is to be the objective, why not encourage smoking and trans-fat eating? That way, people will die young and everyone else will enjoy cheaper health care.

If we're to take this argument at face value, agreeing with the value judgement that ranks "affordable" health care above that of civil liberty, three points must be made: 1) those who do not subscribe to the idea of a public (i.e., collectivist) health-care system are being steamrolled; 2) those who do subscribe necessarily endorse statist decision-making (e.g., any proposal that has some claim on creating a healthier society), and 3) the logical conclusion of point #2 is -- not to put too fine a point on it -- totalitarianism.

That might be what four out of six New York Times readers desire, but I seriously hope that's not a representative sample of the city at large.

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