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22.8.04

Astroturf

I guess I'm supposed to be outraged about the prevalence of astroturf letter writing coming from the Bush and Kerry campaigns -- that is, form letters provided by the campaign that supporters sign off on and submit to the letters page of their local newspaper. Certainly my editorial instinct would be to reject an astroturf letter if one was submitted to the Scarlet. But in a way I'm not sure what's so bad about them. The philosophy behind the letters page is to select letters that are clear, representative, and interesting. Providing an outlet for the personal creativity of readers is not (for commercial papers, at least -- I would say it is a function of college papers). Being written and polished by professional PR people, astroturf letters are as clear as anything a regular citizen is likely to write. Not everyone has the gift of elegant prose, so why should less articulate people be silenced by prohibiting them from getting help with expressing their views? This brings us to the question of representativeness. There's no reason to think that people who send astroturf letters don't fervently believe the campaign talking points that they're attaching their name to. Nothing will be changed about the ideas they're trying to communicate if we make them sit down and rephrase the letter in their own words. As far as being interesting, that's something of a toss-up -- there are loads of really stupid non-atroturf letters out there.

One argument that comes to mind against astroturf, though, is the exact reason campaigns go for it: it's easy. Writing a good letter to the editor is hard and time-consuming. It's far easier to get a bunch of letters published if people have a ready-made submission. This gives members of organized groups a decided advantage over other citizens.

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