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The astroturf isn’t always greener

A couple of developments in the past week prompt me to offer a short refresher on our letters to the editor guidelines, with special attention to one in particular that opinion page editors refer to as “astroturf,” or fake grass roots.

The term actually was coined in the halls of Congress, where the phenomenon was first noticed by congressional staffers tasked with handling mail from constituents. Original, carefully crafted letters from the home district or state began to be supplanted by multiple copies of the same letter, word for word, on a hot topic of the moment.

After the first few dozen identical letters on, say, proposed changes to Social Security, the impact started to wane, and those individually crafted letters started to take on more importance by comparison.

It wasn’t long before these astroturf letters started showing up in newspaper inboxes as well. I recall seeing the technique used first by George W. Bush’s 2004 campaign. Then a Democratic-leaning group called MoveOn.org got into the act, followed by the Sierra Club, animal-rights groups and many others.

Visitors to the websites of these groups are encouraged to “Take Action,” or “Get Involved.” Slick software tools let the user plug in their ZIP code, select an issue, copy and paste “talking points” and hit “send” — and a letter goes off to their local newspaper.

Editorial page editors around the country became adept at spotting these letters — and comparing notes, tipping each other off. We don’t knowingly publish these letters, which tend to read as though they were composed by a public relations professional, because they were.

To be fair, the people sending or forwarding these letters certainly agree with the points being made. But they don’t require any real thought, and they don’t represent the passion or enthusiasm of an original letter prompted by current events. And — let’s not mince words — they amount to plagiarism: putting your name on something written by someone else.

A colleague was fond of telling readers who insisted that they agreed with every word of their astroturf letter, “I agree with every word of the Declaration of Independence, too, but I’m not going to put my name on it and say I wrote it.”

It’s taken years, but many groups have caught on and urged their members and supporters to craft their own letters. Not all, however. I received one this week that my colleagues across the country had warned about after receiving multiple copies. The letter urges newspapers to cover climate change this summer. We likely will — but we won’t print the letters.

One final note on letters: Sometimes things move so fast that we can’t get letters into the paper before the circumstances change. That happened last week, when several readers, upset about immigrant children being separated from their parents at the border, fired off letters demanding the policy end. On Wednesday, President Trump did that, leaving the letters in limbo.

In the news business, we call that “overtaken by events.” If yours was one of those, feel free to draft a new one reflecting the new state of affairs and we’ll run that instead.

Reach Editorial Page Editor Gary Nelson at gnelson@rosebudmedia.com.

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