Drawing on an ethnographic study, this article describes how the editorial-page staff at one San Francisco Bay newspaper think of the letter-writing public. It is suggested that the staff are skeptical about the value of the letters section as a site for democratic communication because of what they perceive as the poor quality of public participation, as well as the non-representativeness of the letter-writers. To be more specific, the editors speak the idiom of insanity', which plays off the idea that contributors to the section - the members of the letter-writing public - are insane or crazy'. This article examines the manifestations of the idiom of insanity and analyses its implications for deliberative democracy; it also suggests that the use of the idiom of insanity is a way for the staff to distance themselves from their work on letters to the editor, and renounce their responsibility to make democracy work.
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