Editorial Pages Fight Form Letters

By: Ari Berman

The “AstroTurf” phenomenon has rocked letters-to-the-editor pages from Medford, Ore., to Manchester, Conn., claiming victims large (USA Today) and small (too many to mention), but now newspapers are fighting back. Last Tuesday, for example, after reading a suspicious missive, Jim Peipert, senior editorial writer at the Fort Worth (Texas) Star-Telegram, called a reader and for the first time ever asked him, “Did you send in a form letter?”

Media pundits have dubbed this scandal “AstroTurf” — meaning, it’s a synthetic form of grassroots opinion. Although the practice isn’t new, it appears to be proliferating due to the growing sophistication of interest groups and the widening use of e-mail.

Last month, before running a letter submitted by Misty Haynie of Villa Rica, Ga., Virginia Anderson, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution‘s letters editor, called to confirm authorship. Then she edited the letter, which she found “wordy and badly written.” It began: “President Bush is demonstrating genuine leadership. The economic growth package he recently proposed takes us in the right direction.” Since Georgia conservatives often hammer the center-left AJC, Anderson was happy to run the note, she told E&P.

Shortly thereafter, Anderson learned it was a form letter generated by a Republican National Committee-funded Web site. Then, on Jan. 31, with Anderson handling another assignment, another editor OK’d a letter by Robert Rahm of Snellville, Ga. “When it comes to the economy, President Bush is demonstrating genuine leadership,” the letter began.

But the Journal-Constitution has plenty of company. So far, more than 70 newspapers have printed the GOP-sponsored form letter. A minimum of three other papers — The Deseret News in Salt Lake City, the Santa Barbara (Calif.) News-Press, and The Stuart (Fla.) News — also published the same letter twice. At least USA Today, The Detroit News, and The Providence (R.I.) Journal, among others, only ran it once.

Special-interest groups across the political spectrum often use this strategy during election campaigns, making it easier to halt. This time, the issue-based nature of the sentiment has made a few editors blush — but also produced rapid reform.

The Journal-Constitution no longer accepts out-of-state letters. It also asks readers directly, “Did you write this letter?” The Boston Globe now requires a telephone number for verification purposes. Globe Ombudsman Christine Chinlund suggested “adding regular online searches of key phrases” in any suspicious case, an idea the paper may implement. E&P also found that a number of papers are carrying out Google and LexisNexis searches on key passages.

At GOPTeamLeader.com, where the “genuine leadership” letter (and other form letters) sprouted, the Internet makes the process incredibly easy. After a user enters his or her ZIP code in the action center, the site lists the regional newspapers — and their letters-to-the-editor guidelines. Users select and send their form letter of choice, complete with name, address, and phone number. “Technology is outstripping etiquette,” declared Dennis Roddy, a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

But John Hughes, letters editor at The Sacramento (Calif.) Bee, said that technology may be part of the solution as well as the problem. Hughes created filters on his e-mail account to trash all messages from Capitol Advantage, a company specializing in form-letter distribution. The Bee only accepts e-mail messages with the phrase “opinion@sacbee.com” in the “To” field. Many mass-mailing campaigns do not include that address.

April Rowley, copy editor for the editorial page at the Post-Gazette, said newspapers should pay more attention to odd formatting, and noted that form letters rarely refer to previous articles on the subject.

At a small newspaper, the verification process can become more difficult. As the only staffer reading letters at the Journal Inquirer in Manchester, Conn., Associate Editor Jen Chapman can’t always crawl the Web for matching buzzwords. Printing letters referring to only local issues is one way around the mess. “I used to write form letters for Sierra Club so I know how this process works,” Chapman admitted.

Small papers need to know their constituents, said Brian Cooper, editorial page editor for the Telegraph Herald in Dubuque, Iowa. After receiving a form letter a few years ago, Cooper traced the address back to a vacant lot. Cooper printed the GOP letter Jan. 27 because he had seen the author’s work before and assumed honesty.

“Newspapers will always get stung by letter campaigns,” Roddy said. “Now, the difference is that we will expose these organizations and the individuals. … It will become progressively harder to get letters published. It’s an inconvenience for everyone, but papers aren’t here to get wallpapered.”

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