What happens when the voice of the people gets as fake as a television laugh track?
That's what's happening to the "letters to the editor" column in scores of newspapers today, thanks to a tactic known as "AstroTurf." Borrowing a trick from lobbyists, interest groups are using phony grass roots letter writing campaigns to puff up their support.
This week, the Republican National Committee (RNC) was caught distributing a form letter praising President Bush that ended up printed, often verbatim, in nearly 75 papers, according to "Fight Back Against Killer Astroturf," one of the many Internet "blogs" tracking this story.
Earlier, newspapers in Wisconsin received a number of letters supporting abortion rights that originated on a Planned Parenthood website.
The GOP letter, which begins, "When it comes to the economy, President Bush is demonstrating genuine leadership," was purported to be the genuine feelings of writers from Rutland, Vt., to Palo Alto, Calif. The truth, as Internet sleuths soon discovered, was that the text was posted on a RNC website that even included links to local news outlets.
The website (www.gopteamleader.com), is described as "an online toolbox for Republican activists." Once a visitor registers, they'll receive Republican e-mail updates and even the exciting opportunity "to collect 'GOPoints' by completing Action Items [eg: letters to the editor] and redeem them for collateral of your choice, ranging from coolers to mouse pads."
Well, that's OK then; if there's a tote bag in it, abusing news ethics isn't so bad.
But is it really so out of bounds to plant letters to the editor? After all, you can find the hidden hand of professionals just about anywhere in the newspaper. PR firms "place" their clients' messages in opinion pages and advice columns. Press releases get printed as news. Mass-produced letters flood Capitol Hill every day.
But the letters column is supposed to be a breath of fresh air, an open and genuine discussion that reflects the community's views.
Local newspapers, unlike the World Wide Web, link people together over narrow boundaries. Readers share their lives by writing letters about the home team, the new school, or the bears that are getting in peoples' garbage. They also tell the newspaper how it is doing in fulfilling one of the press' most vital functions - maintaining public trust.
If the letters space is put up for sale, that bond and sense of community is weakened.
Newspapers may or may not be going the way of the dinosaur, but in the meantime they still provide the lively forum for democratic expression Americans have always enjoyed. Since the days of Tom Paine, we have looked to the printing press to harness the power of an informed citizenry.
The danger is when powerful interests overwhelm ordinary citizens' voices. Politicians scheme over two kinds of publicity - paid advertising and "free media," or news coverage. Operatives see the letters to the editor column as one more way to influence the news cycle.
This may seem like good political strategy, but it's bad for democracy.
One of the reasons Americans are turned off by politics is because of the inherent cynicism they see in the political debate. Every position seems like a commodity, espoused not out of belief but for tactical advantage. It's bad enough when politicians do it.
We shouldn't let our views, and the places we express them, be so cravenly manipulated. Keep off the AstroTurf, and let the sun shine in!
• William Klein writes about politics at www.headlineupdate.com.