Yesterday, I wrote about a local publication that ran two fabricated letters to the editor (also known as “astroturf”). I sent a brief note to the Editor in Chief of Sun Publications alerting him to the fact that both letters weren’t original letters but were in fact created at President Bush’s reelection website.
To his credit, Joe Corrado wrote back this morning. With his permission, I’ve included his response to my note (my original e-mail is below):
Thank you for the note. Yes, we’re aware of the problem, and like you, we do consider it a problem – we want our letters to be original compositions by our letter writers. It came to our attention earlier this summer, and since then, we’ve tried to be particularly diligent in weeding out form letters from original letters. We’ve been aware of the Bush site and have made it standard practice to check not only it, but other political sites as well for letters that aren’t a writer’s original work. I don’t know how many letters we’ve received, traced back to those sites and have held, but it would be in the dozens.
These slipped through, but shouldn’t have, and we’re doing what we can to keep more instances of that from happening again.
Thank you again for raising what I consider a serious issue.
Editor in Chief
From: Rick Klau [mailto:email@example.com]
Sent: Tuesday, August 17, 2004 5:57 PM
Subject: Form letters to the editor
[Not a letter to the editor, but a heads up to your LTE department.]
Both contain the exact language available on this page at <a href=“http://www.georgewbush.com/Economy/WriteNewspapers.aspx?AgendaID=2
“>the President’s website.
I’m not sure what your policy is on so-called “astroturf” – Editor and Publisher talked about this last year.
I give Joe a lot of credit for his prompt reply and his efforts at preventing this kind of form letter advertising-by-proxy. (And as I noted in the comments on my previous post, I don’t like this kind of tactic when employed by the Democrats either.)
I’m more than a little stretched thin right now, but I have an idea for how to solve this problem. If anyone’s interested in helping out, it would be a clearinghouse of astroturf language that would automate the process by which publishers could do a quick check against known astroturf campaigns. Let me know if you want to help out, I think with a handful of people we could tackle this in a weekend.