If you write for a newspaper that has syndication, you sometimes feel like you've hit the jackpot when your big story gets splashed in newspaper after newspaper around the world. Imagine the feeling for the public relations person (or people) who crafted some choice sample copy for letters that have been published, nearly verbatim, in dozens of newspapers across the country.
The practice of creating a fake grassroots campaign is known as "astroturf," and it has been employed by groups on all sides of political debate, mainly to create an organized groundswell of support for an issue or candidate with the hope that the organizational apparatus won't show through. But Republicans struck astroturf gold in 2003, with a letter on Bush "demonstrating genuine leadership" running in more than 100 newspapers including The Boston Globe and USA Today. That was one of many form letters generated by the GOPTeamLeader.com site, where volunteers earn "points" (redeemed for merchandise) for getting letters printed.
While that instance and others led to many media reports -- including my own -- on the practice, that didn't stop a recent outbreak of astroturf ("America's economy is strong and getting stronger") generated by the GeorgeWBush.com campaign site's letter-generating tool, this time hitting 29 smaller newspapers and counting.
Plus, the liberal MoveOn.org political action committee had success with a letter-writing campaign supporting Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11." My informal Google searches netted 22 newspapers running these MoveOn form letters in July, including the San Diego Union-Tribune and The Boston Globe. In some cases, the pro-Moore form letters ganged up and dominated letters pages. The Boise (Idaho) Weekly ran all four MoveOn form letters on one day, the Santa Barbara Independent ran three, and the Honolulu Star-Bulletin and Spokane (Wash.) Spokesman-Review both ran two.
The rise of easy-to-use, geographically targeted tools means that newspaper editors will have to use all the online tools at their disposal (Google, LexisNexis, etc.) and double-check for plagiarism if they don't want their letters pages overrun with professionally written political spin. Just last June, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ran dueling astroturf letters, with one anti-Bush form letter on mercury pollution running just above a canned letter praising Bush's jobs and growth plan. A real 'turf war.
Not surprisingly, liberal bloggers have had a field day with the Bush campaign's astroturf tactics. Two separate sites, Gary Stock's Unblinking and Maia Cowan's Fight Back Against Killer Astroturf, have listed common phrases and the publications that got burned. And many people on the left have used the Bush site's tool to their own ends, altering the Bush sample text or inserting their own messages to send out to newspapers. Of course, it didn't take long for a conservative blogger to uncover MoveOn's astroturf success.
But the fact remains that Bush's copymeisters have had the last laugh -- and have received the most distribution. Their cut-and-paste messages have gone from a presidential radio address in January to a U.S. Treasury press release to a letter to the editor (tracked down by the Disinfopedia wiki). In other words, they know how to stay on message, get their people on message, and even get letters to the editor -- that formerly freewheeling arena famous for pothole complaints and hair-raising screeds -- on message. Triumph for the consultants, failure for newspaper editors.
Michael Turk, e-campaign manager for Bush-Cheney 2004, says the campaign is providing sample copy, but only a tiny percentage of letters generated have used the copy verbatim. Citing listings on Maia Cowan's page, Turk says the GeorgeWBush.com tool only generated 41 sample-text letters in print out of the 330,000 sent out (including original letters). Turk has no way of tracking original letters that reached print. The online tool, created by popular advocacy technology company Capitol Advantage, lets a volunteer input her ZIP code, choose a number of newspapers in the region, and write her own letter or use sample text on issues. It's really as simple as 1-2-3.
"We'd prefer folks write their own, original letters, but if they feel our sample text clearly articulates a point they're trying to make, they are free to use it," Turk told me via e-mail. "We're pleased when supporters choose to speak up in support of the campaign and get a letter printed because we recognize the best messenger for the campaign is the individual voter telling others how they feel and why they support the President."
While the Kerry campaign has aped the letter-writing tool on its JohnKerry.com site, the talking points are not as easily inserted, and aren't in perfect paragraph form. MoveOn has done a much better job getting astroturf in print. The MoveOn letter-writing site only allows one person to send each form letter to a publication, thus eliminating easy-to-catch duplicate letters. Eli Pariser, executive director of MoveOn, told me the group had great success with its "F9/11" letter-writing campaign, but the majority of letters in print were original.
"We do include talking points, and we do show people (sample) letters, but we always encourage people to write in their own words," Pariser said. "For 'Fahrenheit 9/11,' we saw letters published in hundreds of newspapers. We tell people to look at the newspaper and tie it to a local story. Some people submitted the sample copy, but the majority wrote it in their own words."
Cutting astroturf at the roots
So what's an editor to do? Most letters editors are inundated with all manner of e-mails, faxes and snail mail. How can they possibly check the originality of every missive? At the very least, they should sign up to get e-mail newsletters from GOPTeamLeader.com, JohnKerry.com, GeorgeWBush.com and MoveOn.org. Maia Cowan, a technical writer who runs the astroturf site, told me she has become attuned to the cadence of a form letter, usually spotting one in the first paragraph because of its striking similarity to a campaign advertisement. Many newspapers will call up letter-writers to confirm they actually wrote the letter.
The Boston Globe was burned by running three pro-Bush astroturf form letters in the space of six weeks (from December 2002 to mid-January 2003). And just this past July, the Globe ran a MoveOn.org form letter in support of "Fahrenheit 9/11." Globe letters editor Glenda Buell told me that if anything in a letter is even vaguely suspicious, they call up the person to ask if they wrote it. But surprisingly, Buell told me she used no online resources to fight astroturf.
"There are two of us going over the e-mail letters, and every now and then we find identical letters under two different people's names, because we know it's a form letter," Buell said. "I am getting nervous now with the election coming up, that people will be getting desperate, so I'm going to be reading letters very carefully. I don't know which party -- or maybe both parties -- will get desperate and start sending out astroturf."
Most publications running this round of pro-Bush astroturf are smaller newspapers, suburban freebies or weeklies, with less staff for filtering letters. In many cases, when the astroturf was exposed by bloggers after publication, the newspaper ran a light-hearted editorial clarifying they wanted original copy from letter writers.
Terrie Peret, editorial assistant at the Waukesha (Wisc.) Freeman, was called out by bloggers for running pro-Bush astroturf, but she says it was likely only a canned phrase and not an entire form letter. Once alerted, Freeman editorial page editor Dennis Shook handed a "dart" to the GeorgeWBush.com site in his opinion column.
"Letter writers are able to select prewritten paragraphs praising Bush's work on the economy," Shook wrote. "Like a pizza pie, they can select their own ingredients and throw it in the campaign cauldron. The finished product is then sent out as if it were an original work by that person, which it is clearly not. So it appears that creativity is not 'Job Number One' with the campaign's flacks ... Using a Web site to cobble together an opinion seems inappropriate when they are competing for space with letters featuring original opinions, which we encourage on any topic -- including Bush and jobs."
Now Peret is keeping an eagle eye out for astroturf, and is questioning more letter writers by phone. As a smaller paper, they rely on letters to take the pulse of their community. But the Freeman has another good reason to check out the identity of writers and their copy. "There was one (letter) that was so hateful to minorities, and we called them up, and sure enough, the person didn't even write it," Peret said. "They were out of town. (The real writer) used someone else's name and address. That has happened twice in the last couple months. So if it's questionable, we call them up. If we print this, and the person didn't write it, we can get sued."
Much ado about nothing?
In the vast sea of letters to the editor, astroturf is still only a tiny slice of what gets printed. The St. Cloud (Minn.) Times got burned twice running astroturf in the past year -- once after someone lied about the letter being original -- but it all depends on your perspective.
"Anything that appears in the paper that is not legitimate (or correct) hurts all newspapers' credibility," said Randy Krebs, editorial page editor at the Times, via e-mail. "That's why we do make calls and confirm letters before publishing them. Overall, I think/hope readers look at the big picture. For example, we publish more than 1,000 reader submissions a year. We believe we've been astroturfed twice. Obviously, we need to find ways to achieve perfection. If any other paper knows how to do that, please give them my contact information."
While veteran political consultant William Klein -- who has represented liberal causes -- wrote a scathing article on astroturf in the Christian Science Monitor, he believes the onus is on the reader when it comes to calling out PR language for what it is.
"I don't think it's considered unethical, after all, even astroturf letters do reflect the public mood," Klein told me via e-mail. "It's like professionals writing op-eds for other people's bylines; it's part of the process now and yes, probably contributes to the devaluation of written thought. But McDonald's contributes to the devaluation of 'real' hamburgers too. Bloggers who 'catch' these letters are perhaps too easily shocked. I'm not excusing astroturf political letters to the editor, because I do think it's antithetical to the 'vox pop' debate, but I think the best solution is to be aware of how it happens and train ourselves to recognize canned language."
And the company responsible for the technology for GOPTeamLeader.com and GeorgeWBush.com takes a less harsh view of form letters. Bob Hansan, president of Capitol Advantage, says he's been working with the Bush team for three or four years, along with campaigns of various political bents and even media outlets themselves. In 2004 so far, Capitol Advantage's online tools have helped people send nearly 14 million constituency messages, including to members of Congress and administration officials.
"We've followed this particular debate (over astroturf) and we think it's much ado about nothing because we're finding people are taking action, and they're writing letters to their local newspapers," Hansan said. "That's very progressive. It's a step in the right direction, in terms of more people getting their message out there. If the newspapers have a problem with that, I believe now more than ever they'll figure out a way to make sure they can get a letter a certain way. That's fine. Each newspaper has to come to their own decision on how they want their letters. The fact that our tool enables that to happen, we don't feel at all that there's any deception or misdeed going on."
Ironically, one of the major newspapers that ran an astroturf form letter on its letters page, USA Today, also uses Capitol Advantage's platform to help people send letters to editors around the country. That's the type of disconnect that has to end for letters editors to start catching canned copy and start using the power of online tools and communication to make sure "Letters to the Editor" don't become the final resting place for recycled political talking points.
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A letter to the editor of MPG Newspapers in Plymouth, Mass., after a call for reader opinions on astroturf form letters
To the editor:
You're complaining about receiving Dear Editor 'form' letters from people? (Editor's notes, July 28.) You should be thankful that people take the time to 'cut and paste' words to send to the newspaper and are willing to put their names to it. That takes courage. At least they're attempting to have an honest discourse with the public, unlike your ridiculous 'Speak out' section where fearful people hide behind anonymity willing to take no stand at all. Personally, I'd rather read a whole page of 'form' opinion letters from the left or right with signatures, then waste my time reading one line of the cowardly rants and rages of the anonymous in 'Speak out.' A forum like 'Speak out' does not belong in a respectable newspaper. You should demand accountability from your readers if they choose to opine whether it's in their own words or with a form letter. Be grateful that people are even reading your paper.