My son Max learned the concept of duping recently and he employs this little trick often enough that he straddles the line between amusing and annoying.

He waits until your back is turned or your attention focused elsewhere, then he makes some claim and, when you react with appropriate urgency, he’ll quickly say, with great enthusiasm, “duped you.”

He garnishes this pronouncement with the sort of grin that defines “mischievous.”

As a 7-year-old, Max’s ability to discern between the plausible and the implausible is not fully formed. But occasionally he’ll invent some scenario — he spilled a can of soda on the new carpet, let’s say — that is all too believable.

I’ve been thinking about duping this week after a reader alerted me to the possibility that the Herald, and me in particular, had been scammed by people who submitted letters to the editor under false pretenses.

False names, anyway.

Suzan Ellis Jones, who is chair of the Baker County Republican Party, said she and others were unable to find evidence, such as voting records or property ownership, proving that the purported authors of three letters published in the Oct. 26 issue are who they claim to be.

(Suzan’s letter on the topic was published in Wednesday’s issue.)

I think Suzan likely is right about the authenticity of at least some of the letter writers’ names.

This bothers me.

Actually it infuriates me.

But although I think it’s an act of cowardice to write a letter to the editor under a pseudonym, I reserve by far the greater share of my anger for myself.

The fault, as regards the letters being published, is mine alone.

The Herald’s policy for confirming letters is not foolproof. Absent an FBI-like level of forensic scrutiny it hardly could be.

Even when someone I’ve known for 25 years delivers to my desk a handwritten letter, I can’t be completely certain that his hands wrote the words, or that his mind conceived the sentences.

But of course there is a distinct difference between someone who enlists some ghostwriting aid, and someone who invents a name to go with a letter.

The former at least represents the feelings of a person who has the courage to put his or her name to an opinion.

The latter is a sort of fraud.

I don’t doubt that whoever wrote the letters in question, if indeed the name is false, sincerely believes the opinions expressed.

I don’t understand, though, why a person would not take pride of authorship and accept the potential rebuttals, or validation, that come with putting your name on a piece of writing that attempts to persuade readers.

Dozens of other people have done just that over the past month, in advance of a Nov. 6 election that has a variety of compelling races.

Every year hundreds of people do the same on this page.

That I might have neglected to nab a few imposters feels especially galling because in this very space in the Oct. 26 issue I contrasted the virtues of the Herald’s Opinion page with the vices of online comment functions, message boards and the like.

Specifically I pointed out that in the online arena, anonymity is common, and I believe this contributes to a coarsening of the debate.

I suppose this brands me as a hypocrite, although it’s a charge I deny.

My failure — and if the letter writers used fake names then failure is a perfectly valid word — arose because I was too eager to enrich the paper with as many opinions as I could fit on the pages.

I feel an especially keen pressure during campaign seasons to ensure that readers have a chance to display their wares in the marketplace of ideas.

Over the past couple weeks, letters to the editor have dominated the Opinion page. On Oct. 26 I devoted two pages, rather than the usual small part of one, to accommodate the onslaught.

I mention this not as a feeble attempt to excuse my lack of diligence in confirming the authenticity of letter writers’ names.

But as with everything else in life, my actions are influenced by experience. And over the years I’ve had to explain to quite a number of people, some of whom I know, that their letter didn’t run because they didn’t answer the phone when I called or didn’t respond to my email message.

Ultimately, though, what matters — all that matters — is that the letters on this page are the work of the person whose name is printed at the bottom.

It pains me to think that I might have allowed unscrupulous — and I need to reiterate, cowardly — people to pervert the purpose of this page. In my Oct. 26 column I disparaged the online “cloak of anonymity,” and I feel sick at my stomach to imagine myself serving, in effect, as the tailor who draped that garment over people who choose to slink beneath its dubious shelter.

I’m distressed as well that the letters could have had any influence on voters. Two of the letters endorsed Bruce Nichols for Baker County Commission chairman. Nichols told me he is disgusted that someone would use a false name — he didn’t recognize them, either — even though the writers supported his candidacy. Nichols told me he thinks the letters polluted the political process and were unfair to his opponent, Bill Harvey, and to himself.

I agree with Nichols on all counts.

Each of the three letters Jones cited arrived, as most letters do, by email. Before I received Suzan’s letter I had sent multiple requests for confirmation to all three purported writers, and I did the same after. As of this morning I hadn’t received a response.

Whether this silence is tantamount to a confession I can’t say. But I presume that even if the person, or people, who submitted the letters are liars, they probably also read the paper, and enjo yed a meager thrill from their handiwork.

Perhaps the next time they think of trying such a stun t they’ll consider, if they lack the fortitude to claim responsibility for an opinion, whether they truly believe the words they wrote.

J ayson Jacoby is editor
of the Baker City Herald.

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