In fairness to overworked newspaper editors…

Just in case my posts on astroturfing have been too harsh on them, here’s a report from the front:

I’m a long-time fan and reader, both of your strip (on Salon and when I lived in Nevada at the Reno News and Review) and the Web log. Generally, I agree about 100 percent with what you are saying, but I have to take exception to the astroturfing thread.

I am a low-level newspaper editor and serve on the editorial board of a small central-Indiana newspaper that has run at least one of these astroturf letters. I stumbled onto the issue through Cursor (which I also read religiously) and passed it on to the managing editor, and the copy editor who chooses the letters-to-the-editor. We were all appalled and vowed not to fall for the trick again, if we can help it. I plan on Monday to go through our archives and see if any other of the faux letters have made it into print and I am working on a story about how and why this happened.

BUT we didn’t fall for it because we were lazy or gullible or overtly conservative. We fell for it because we are a newspaper that likes to air our readers opinions. As part of our fact-checking, we call or e-mail the sender of every letter-to-the-editor and verify its source before publication. When we call or write a person at home and ask “is this your letter and is it OK to print?” we rely on the person’s response to make our decision.

Frankly, even at a small newspaper like ours, we are used to seeing barrages of form letters on a given topic. Few advocacy groups are above putting out a sample letter to which the true believers can affix their signatures and zip it off to the editor. It is not illegal and certainly not unusual. Generally, when we get a slew of these we either run the first one that comes in and ignore the rest, or we could run one letter with a list of the people that have sent it to us.

In fact, at a peace rally I was covering a few months back, an elderly gent asked if I could run an anti-war letter-to-the-editor that originally ran in his hometown Tennessee paper. I told him we would be reluctant to do so, but if he retyped the letter, reworded it slightly and attached his own name to it, we would probably be happy to run it. And in fact would have no way of knowing that it already appeared in the other newspaper.

I think the astroturf letters work because they are written in a simple, almost homey style that doesn’t raise any red flags. They don’t come across as polished, PR-agency created letters (and I don’t really mean that as a swipe at the literacy of the GOP Team Leader writers.) And the astroturfers are perfectly willing to lie through their teeth to get their grassroots campaign in the paper. And we have neither the adequate means, nor the time to check every letter to see if it has been published elsewhere.