January 27, 2003

Newspapers Weed Out Astroturf from Grassroots

Editorial page editors, confronted with an increasing number of preprogrammed letters sent by political organizations, are adding a new "editor" to their staffs: Google.

The New York Times reports that the amount of astroturf, as the cloned letters are cleverly called, in editors' in-boxes is growing as interest groups become more technically sophisticated. To sniff out these imposters, ed page editors are Googling letters whose wording seems suspiciously similar to others.

"We type phrases into Google all the time. We hate to be fooled," said Denver Post letters editor Susan Clotfelter, who said the Post published at least two form letters last year.

The Times cites one letter from the Republican National Committee (distributed via this organizing site) that "has appeared in more than 20 papers since Jan. 8, including The Boston Globe, The Cincinnati Post, The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, The Press-Democrat of Santa Rosa, Calif., and The Star Press of Muncie, Ind."

The letter begins, "When it comes to the economy, President Bush is demonstrating genuine leadership." (Here it is in the Globe. Here is a Google search of that sentence.)

Is astroturf really a bad thing? Should newspapers demand originality from their readers?

Yes and yes. Newspapers already have enough of a credibility gap (see this ASNE study) without giving readers further cause to doubt their veracity. Letters to the editor should reflect the efforts of readers who want to be heard, not the effectiveness of those organizations that share their views.

 New York Times Editors and Lobbyists Wage High-Tech War Over Letters
 ASNE Credibility study

Posted by Tim Porter at January 27, 2003 10:18 AM

Even better would be to publicize the attempts, along with whatever information about the spammers is available.

Posted by: David Weisman on January 27, 2003 06:41 PM
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