Teens Get Letters Past N.Y. Times Editors

A group of high school students in a summer program at Duke University (search) managed to get several letters published in The New York Times (search) — some under false pretenses — at the urging of a professor, an editor for the newspaper said.

The Times generally does not publish letters written for class assignments, but used 17 letters to the editor in a month from students in Mark Duckenfield's (search) international relations course.

Thomas Feyer, letter editor for the newspaper, said students, at the instruction of Duckenfield, wrote the letters about subjects ranging from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to American consumption as if they were submitted from their hometowns instead of Durham.

"They are clearly smart and good writers — they wrote very nice letters — but I want people to be up front," Feyer said. "The professor was urging them to deceive us, and it undermines the credibility of the paper if it's discovered as it was in this case."

Two students used pseudonyms after having previous letters published, and another letter, published Aug. 1, contained a misleading statement.

In the letter, the student said she was writing from London in response to an article comparing Americans' consumerism with Europeans' love of leisure and intangibles. She wrote that "her daughter" would prefer a vacation in Paris to the latest camera.

Duckenfield said he didn't want students to pretend to be from Durham, so he told them to use their hometowns. He also said he didn't believe the use of pen names — a practice he calls a "long literary tradition" — was a problem and that he didn't want to exclude students from the project because they already had letters published.

"I think that policy (of not printing letters prompted by school assignments) is an absolute disgrace and a real insult to their newest and most idealistic readers," Duckenfield wrote in an e-mail from the London School of Economics (search), where he currently works.

Duckenfield said students always gave contact information required by the Times, so the newspaper's editors could have reached them.

Feyer said the newspaper tries to get in touch, but sometimes can't contact the letter writers because of time constraints. "I'm not exactly sure what happened in this instance, but we've tightened our safeguards," he said.