Columnists : Dianne Hardisty

Friday, Feb 10 2006 01:36 PM

The hunt is on for 'astroturf'

"Busted!" wrote Tim Mayne of Bakersfield in response to The Californian'srecent publication of a letter blaming the Democrats for all that is wrong with the Social Security system.

Mayne and other Californianreaders pointed out that the letter was not original it has shown up in other newspapers and the contents have been proven false. (See box below for the "facts.")

The letter "plagiarizes an Internet rumor that has been circulating for a few years," wrote Ann Gallon of Bakersfield.

Christopher Leithiser of Bakersfield asked, "Is it too much to ask that you screen (letters to the editor) for blatant, egregious falsehoods?"

First off, we're sorry. This one got by us. We will keep our radar up and continue to screen "astroturf" and falsehoods from the letters to the editor.

Astroturf is a form letter used to create the illusion of a "grassroots" campaign. Astroturf is not intentionally selected for publication because it is not the author's original work and it takes up space in the Opinion section that should be reserved for writers willing to express their own thoughts not simply parrot the views of some slick propagandist.

With the advent of the Internet and with political and special interest campaigns of all political stripes dedicated to creating astroturf just cut-and-paste text from Web sites we will goof once in a while. We goofed with the Social Security letter.

I was licking my wounds over the goof when I received an e-mail from Mr. Social Security Letter himself. It seems he had received quite a backlash from his letter and he had a bone to pick with The Californian.

"I think it is a bad idea to publish a person's full name and city where they are from," he wrote. "Wouldn't it be better to just name the person's first name and city? After my letter came out, I receive really radical mail from people I have no idea where they are or who they are."

I explained that the concept of letters to the editor is the sharing of ideas between neighbors, readers and community members. Often the ideas shared are controversial. Readers are entitled to know who is expressing them. It helps readers evaluate the validity of the ideas what ax a writer may be grinding, for example. For that reason, most newspapers decline to publish anonymous letters. Letters carrying just first names, initials or fake names are basically anonymous. I asked where he had obtained the "form" letter he submitted as his own.

"One of my family sent it to us not the same but similar. I sorta changed some of the words to reflect my feelings. The format is very true, though," he responded.

Give Mr. Social Security Letter credit. He was polite and honest.

He admitted he only tweaked the Internet letter he forwarded to us. When we have asked others about their obviously plagiarized letters, they howl, "FOUL!" and even deny guilt.

The Californian'sOpinion section benefits from the fine and original words of many many readers. For that we and the community are grateful.

Passing along Internet junk, and cutting and pasting thoughts from political Web sites do not enrich the public discourse.

Some of this junk is hard to spot. So the nation's editorial page editors help each other by sharing "astroturf alerts" over an Internet listserv. A recent contribution to the listserv demonstrates the difficulty. In analyzing a suspicious letter a colleague wrote, "I can't say I've seen it verbatim, but I've seen a version so close perhaps identical that if I were a professor and a student turned this in, I'd fail him for plagiarism."

So to folks who try to pass off astroturf as their own work: If we catch you and don't publish the letter, consider yourself flunked.

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