The Californian’s Opinion section received two letters this past week that stood out from the batch of usual suspects. One was signed “anonymous.” The other was signed “Anne Ohnemus.” We threw out the one from “anonymous” without a thought because we don’t consider letters from people who don’t identify themselves.
The one from Ms. Ohnemus, however, actually worked its way down the pipeline toward publication before an alert copy editor mouthed the name out loud to himself and alerted the proper authorities. More on Ms. Ohnemus in a moment.
The process of vetting letters for authenticity of authorship is one of the more mundane tasks that come with the job of letters editor (who, in our case, is Mark Powell). Sometimes it can be intriguing but most of the time it’s like balancing your checkbook — dull but necessary.
It’s easier, of course, when people don’t sign their letters at all. It’s still amazing to me how many readers seem not to have noticed that we never, ever publish letters to the editor signed “Name Withheld” or “Concerned Taxpayer.” (Or that we don’t publish phone numbers.) Our letter-signing policy is in evidence every day — just look at the page. And yet we still receive painstakingly crafted essays from people who sign their work “Someone Who Cares.”
It’s a little more involved when people use fake names.
Four years ago, with the help of property records, I tracked down a letter-writer who called herself Ellie Light. She had written letters to newspapers all over the world, providing each one with a phony but believeable local address. More than 70 had published her letters in one form or another — The Washington Times, USA Today, The Baltimore Chronicle, even The Bangkok Post.
Turned out Ellie was one Winston Steward, a Pine Mountain Club liberal with insomnia who whiled away the pre-dawn hours writing letters to newspapers that chastised fellow liberals for abandoning President Obama.
This sort of thing happens everywhere. Three years ago the Duluth (Minn.) News Tribune busted a local assistant high school principal for trying to convince a friend to submit a letter to the editor on his behalf and represent it as his own. The assistant principal, hoping to defend his wife, a school board member who'd been criticized in an earlier letter, blew it by cc’ing the newspaper’s opinion-page staff in the email to his friend. Oops.
Then there’s so-called astroturf — letters send to newspapers en masse by organizations with agendas. A few years ago the Boston office of a national political consulting firm tried to create the appearance of a groundswell for Medicare Advantage by “borrowing” the names of real, unwitting senior citizens and putting them on letters to newspapers calling upon Congress to protect that particular type of health insurance.
Back to Anne Ohnemus. I found her real name through a telephone reverse directory service. I called and left a message: Talk to me about your letter.
It was a perfectly fine letter, by the way. “Parents complain about the inappropriate language found in certain books that student are required to read in school,” she wrote, “yet have no hesitation to yell those exact words during a school’s sporting event.”
Anne called back. Ohnemus, she said, is her actual maiden name and Anne is a nickname bestowed by family. She provided web links to news articles and deathrecord.com as evidence. Separately, I found corroboration that Ohnemus is a legit surname.
But here’s the thing: Fact-based or not, we don’t allow letter writers to use any but their true, current name. I hope Anne will allow me to reveal her identity to the world because I too dislike obnoxious parents. But, if not, I have just received a nice letter on the subject from a reader named Nnamdi Ploom.
Email Executive Editor Robert Price at firstname.lastname@example.org.