AJR  Drop Cap
From AJR,   May 2003

GOPís Got Green Thumb for Astroturf   

Faux "grass roots" letter-writing campaigns are spreading like weeds thanks to the Internet.

By James E. Casto
James E. Casto is associate editor of the Herald-Dispatch in Huntington, West Virginia.     

From a distance, AstroTurf looks like real grass. But up close you can tell it's plastic. Similarly, at first glance, "astroturf" letters seem real. But they're as bogus as that artificial lawn.

Form letters--pre-written messages to which people simply sign their names--have bedeviled editors forever. They run strictly counter to most newspapers' requirement that only original letters can be printed. Today, e-mail has made form letters both easier to send and tougher to spot. After all, one e-mail looks pretty much like another.

Some unknown wit came up with the astroturf label for today's influx of form letters, and the term seems fitting, as the canned communications spread like crabgrass.

"Every paper in the country is being hit by phony grassroots campaigns," says J.R. Labbe, senior editorial writer/columnist at Fort Worth's Star-Telegram and former chairwoman of the National Conference of Editorial Writers' ethics committee. She says she first noticed the trend in letters from animal rights groups. Then, editors reported spates of identical letters concerning abortion rights and other causes.

Credit the Republican National Committee with raising the humble form letter to a high-tech art. A new Web site--www.gopteamleader.com--makes it a snap for people to send the letter of their choice from a pre-written menu of GOP musings.

And that's not all. The RNC has established a system whereby letter senders can earn prizes for their mailing prowess.

You get points--"GOPoints"--for sending a letter to a newspaper and more points if the newspaper prints it. The more letters you send, the more points you earn. Collect enough and you can redeem them for merchandise with the group's logo--95 points scores a mouse pad, while 200 earns a nifty baseball cap. (Sending a letter nets five points; getting it published is an additional two.)

The operation couldn't be easier. After calling up the site and registering, you get a message thanking you for your willingness to "play an integral role in helping President George W. Bush advance his Republican agenda." Points can be earned by contacting members of Congress, registering Republican voters, going door-to-door distributing literature and, of course, writing letters to editors.

Except there's no "writing" involved. There's not even any mailing, really. All you have to do is pick out a letter, click on the name of a newspaper you want to send it to and--zap!--it's on its way.

Users praise the instant democracy of it all. Josh Price of Middleport, Ohio, who says he's "disgusted" with liberal attacks on President Bush, says he's used the site to send 40 to 50 pro-Bush letters. Donald R. Rose of Bluefield, West Virginia, calls the site "an effective media vehicle for people like me who want to make a difference." And Katrina Bradley-Ison of West Liberty, Kentucky, says that while she used her points "to get a mouse pad that I could have purchased for 79 cents," she's excited not so much for the prize, but about having "a voice in my government."

That voice is exactly what the Team Leader program is all about, says the Republican National Committee. The program's aim, according to a recent RNC news release, is to give citizens "the tools to participate in the political process by quickly and easily contacting their elected officials, voice their opinions to their local media, register to vote and more." So what if "their opinions" are sort of, actually, borrowed?

The Democratic National Committee uses democrats.org to register people to receive e-mail "action alerts." Then, they can forward them to members of Congress or the White House, says Doug Kelly, the DNC's director of technology. The site also offers a list of e-mail links to newspapers "but we really want people to write their own letters," says Kelly.

But the "appalling" surge in astroturf from the Republicans and other sources worries NCEW President John H. Taylor Jr., editorial page editor of the News Journal in Wilmington, Delaware. He characterizes the letters columns as "the one place [in newspapers] where ordinary folks can have their say with a minimum amount of editing," and he worries that the pervasive canned letters will "do real damage to the integrity of these columns."