In letters to the editor, too many copycats?

Newspapers complain that zealous special-interest groups are putting words into the mouths of letter writers.

Anyone with an ardent desire to show support for US Supreme Court nominee John Roberts will find a useful tool in the Focus on the Family website. There, a "letter writing wizard" encourages visitors to choose from a selection of paragraphs to copy and paste into a letter to send to newspapers for publication. The website even includes a listing of papers throughout the country, so that a user can compose a 200-word letter, sign his or her name, and e-mail it to media outlets in a matter of minutes.

It may seem too easy to actually work. But if past efforts of Focus on the Family are any indication, the letter-writing campaign will achieve what the conservative advocacy group hopes it will - seeing its position repeated in print.

The group's recent campaign to end the Senate filibuster, for example, resulted in at least 31 such letters being published in daily papers across the country, including the Baltimore Sun, the Arizona Republic, and the St. Louis Post Dispatch - twice. It claims to have succeeded in getting hundreds of letters into print on different issues.

Focus on the Family is one of several advocacy organizations to use a technique called astroturfing, a play on the idea of fake grass-roots support. Newspaper editors say they first noticed the mass arrival of form letters about five years ago, although the practice of signing one's name to a newspaper-bound letter written by someone else is probably as old as newspapers themselves.

But astroturfing reached new heights during last year's presidential campaign, editors say, and it continues to thrive. The practice is no longer an occasional prank or attempt to shed light on a particular issue, but a common tactic used by groups across the political spectrum.

Editors aghast

With many of those groups seeing their memberships growing, they find more and more people willing to dash off a copied letter.

"It is a serious and deeply bothering threat to the integrity of newspaper letters columns," says Frank Partsch, editorial page editor of the Omaha World Herald and a former editor with the National Conference of Editorial Writers (NCEW). "The integrity of our letters columns depends on the spontaneous discussion of readers. We don't operate these columns as bulletin boards for political movements or business promotion or special-interest crusades of any kind."

One of the more successful groups at placing letters in newspapers is MoveOn Political Action, the liberal advocacy nonprofit also known as MoveOn.org.

The organization claims that more than 35,000 letters to the editor were sent through its website pushing for the firing of White House political adviser Karl Rove. Nearly 60,000 letters went out during its campaign to prevent Senate Republicans from ending the use of filibusters. Ben Brandzel, MoveOn's advocacy director, estimates that 1 in 5 of those letters was published.

MoveOn doesn't explicitly ask its members to copy portions of its letters. In fact, its website contains an algorithm that prevents an identical letter from reaching the same newspaper. But the group does give a list of talking points, and those who wish to send letters frequently copy those in their own communications.

After MoveOn launched a letter campaign in June calling for a US timetable for leaving Iraq, at least 45 letters containing verbatim portions of its talking points appeared in newspapers across the country, including the Los Angeles Times, the Miami Herald, and the Seattle Post- Intelligencer.

Letter-to-the-editor campaigns are central to MoveOn's efforts, says Mr. Brandzel.

"It probably has the most bang for your buck for any delivery system there is, because the people who read it are their friends and neighbors," he says. "They know it's people who are coming from their community. There is no other form of political communication that is that personalized and effective."

Is it OK to copy?

Different groups take different stances on copying. Naral Pro-Choice America provides a sample letter opposing Mr. Roberts's nomination, but the website tells users to "make sure to add your thoughts and voice." The Republican National Committee offers no such disclaimer along with its choices of sample letters.

Focus on the Family defends the practice. Gary Schneeberger, editor of the group's newsletter, wrote an article on his website that takes editors to task for accusing his group of promoting plagiarism.

"All we are offering them is the service of a professional communicator to help them frame their ideas to give them a reasonable chance of being published," Mr. Schneeberger said in a phone interview.

Schneeberger, a former editor with the Palm Springs Desert Sun in California, helps write the sample paragraphs with members of his staff. Newspapers often print stories under the byline of a reporter that was substantially written by an editor, he notes. Moreover, the media quote the president's speeches as if he's the one who wrote the words, instead of one of his speechwriters.

Editors "are accusing readers of doing something that they themselves do," he says. "And I think that is disingenuous. It doesn't hold up logically."

Consent may be key

MoveOn's Brandzel essentially shares Schneeberger's stance, saying copying portions of letters is usually OK.

He does, however, point to a 2003 letter writing campaign by one US Army regiment as an example of problematic tactics. At the time, one battalion commander wrote a first-person account proclaiming pride in serving in Iraq, and soldiers in the regiment signed their names to the letters and sent them off to newspapers. Brandzel says some of the soldiers actually never signed and were unaware that their names were being used.

But so long as the letter writer and the person who signs his or her name to the letter agree to the tactic, Brandzel sees no problem.

"Copying is fine," he says. "Copying is ubiquitous. What matters is whether or not you believe in what you are saying." It's not imperative that every individual letter-writer find a fresh way to make the same point, he says.

When duplicity surfaces

Editors, however, note that newspapers usually phone letter writers to ask them if they in fact wrote the letter they are submitting. If the submitters of astroturf letters answer yes, editors argue, they are guilty of more than copying. They're lying.

An individual who e-mails such a letter to a paper is not necessarily the loyal reader of that paper that he or she claims to be. Dan Radmacher, an editorial writer at the Roanoke Times in Virginia who fights against astroturf in his work with the NCEW, says he investigated one questionable letter by driving out to the listed address.

"The address they had given didn't exist," he says.

And at least in California, such actions are considered a crime. The state's penal code section of "False Personation and Cheats" reads: "Every person who signs any letter addressed to a newspaper with the name of a person other than himself ... is guilty of a misdemeanor."

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