Doug Gibson, opinion editor at the Standard-Examiner in Odgen, UT, writes: “Do you know about this? We’ve received more than 7,000 of the same letter [about "Doonesbury"] in past 24 hours. …I’m still getting about 100 an hour.”
UPDATE: Bill Reader sent me the PDF of an “astro-turf” letters to the editor study he did a few years ago, and I’ve posted the “Discussion” section after the jump. Reader writes: “The pretty blatant ['Doonesbury'] astroturf of the Center for Reproductive Rights takes a page right out of the Bush/Cheney re-election campaign. Seems ‘fake grass roots’ is a shady tactic that spans the ideological spectrum.”
Question for opinion/letters editors: How many of these form letters have you received?
From Bill Reader’s paper, “Who’s Really Writing Those ‘Canned’ Letters to the Editor?”
What is most curious about groups that promote “astroturf” is that they recognize and adhere to some criteria editors use to select letters, length and authorship, for example, but they either ignore or attempt to circumvent others, specifically editors’ prohibitions against letters that are not exclusively sent to one newspaper and editors’ restrictions on how many letters from one writer will be published in a given time period. The contradiction is palpable. By encouraging letter writers to copy and paste text and also send multiple copies to various newspapers, special-interest groups promote practices that could make it even more likely that editors will reject the letters and possibly develop negative attitudes toward those organizations for attempting to trick the news- papers.
If the findings of this study can be generalized, it would seem editors’ fears that “astroturP” is an epidemic are somewhat justified. Perhaps one in seven special interest groups that encourage supporters to write letters also encourage them to simply copy and paste, and one in three provide text that can be copied easily. But is the practice as harmful as so many journalists seem to believe?
One possible defense of “astroturf” letters is that they represent views that the writers themselves believe to be true and important. “Astroturf” could be to letters to the editor as greeting cards are to personal letters: Why struggle to express your ideas when you can buy a pre-packaged idea you like and sign your name to it? Another defense is that “astroturf” may help reverse the erosion of the public sphere.^^ Duplicity aside, the practice does promote discourse among “the people” on serious issues. It allows those who are uncomfortable with writing their own letters to participate in debate. And for newspaper journalists, “astroturP” takes that debate from talk-radio and the Internet to the pages of newspapers.
With that in mind, editors might be encouraged that only about two-thirds of special-interest groups that promote letter-writing don’t facilitate “astroturf” through their Web-pages and, instead, provide only simple tips and encourage- ment for letter writers—the same tips and encouragement that newspapers also give to readers. As such, the majority of special-interest groups would seem to promote genuine “turf”—actual grass-roots activity that adheres to the letter- writing guidelines and editorial-page goals that editors express.
Such optimism must be tempered by the serious problems “astroturP” creates, however. One is that “astroturf” normalizes and encourages two “bad” behaviors—plagiarism and deception. Another concern is that “astroturf”
can erode individualism and promote group think, which further erodes the democratic ideal of people expressing unique, individualistic ideas, rather than adopting pre-packaged ideologies from well-oiled propaganda machines.
In the end, newspaper editors are wise to be on the lookout for “astroturP” letters and to be skeptical of both groups who encourage the practice and individuals who practice it. But when it comes to placing blame, editors would be wiser to focus on the groups that promote the practice and not so much on the individuals who do as they’re asked. Rather than simply castigate the “heretics” who send such letters, editors might be better off contacting those well-intentioned readers by encouraging them to write their own letters using their own words.