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The Public Sentiment Machine

The pitfalls of automating letters to the editor

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Not long ago a letter to the editor required three things: time, an idea, and the ability to put it into words. All three impediments have been swept away. Once American bedrock, today a letter to the editor is often a chunk of computer-generated boilerplate.

When President Bush gave his State of the Union speech last month, the Republican National Committee did its bit to rally the loyalists. The Web site GOP.com posted language endorsing Bush's agenda on its "Write News Editors" page, and invited partisans to make a few clicks and send parts or all of the text as e-mail to as many as five newspapers in one go. "President Bush has a clear plan for victory that begins with training Iraqi forces," said the message, which went on to warn that "withdrawing from Iraq, as some Democrats in Washington propose, would send a dangerous signal to our enemies that we cut and run when the going gets tough. President Bush is offering a clear strategy to win, not a political quick fix."

The text went on to other issues. Social security, for instance, "is sound for today's seniors and for those nearing retirement, but it needs to be fixed for younger workers." The president is "committed to keeping the nation strong and secure" and "committed to providing American workers with the training that they need to succeed." It was all tried-and-true Republican rhetoric, stale as last year's bread.

I read the message on January 24, waited a few days, then did a computer search of the nation's newspapers. The canned language hadn't overrun the letters pages of America. But like spam, it sometimes got through.

I found the GOP boilerplate posted online in close to its entirety as a letter from a reader in Saint Charles to the Kane County Chronicle and as a letter from a reader in Marseilles, Illinois, to the Times of Ottawa. The reaction on the Times site was quick and fierce. The first poster to comment sneered, "I don't believe our President has a clear plan on anything" and called Bush's State of the Union speech "political hog wash." The second asked, "Are you talking about George Hitler Bush?"

Bush's allies rallied, and for the next two weeks the two camps slugged it out. (And what higher purpose can a newspaper serve than as a forum where belligerents have at it?) Finally someone from Columbus, Ohio, weighed in: "Everyone should know that this is not written by the person who claims authorship. It is a piece of text plagiarized from the official Republican Party website, GOP.com." Though someone else quibbled that the unattributed use of GOP-authorized text doesn't exactly qualify as plagiarism, a larger point had been made, and the debate ended.

The Pantagraph in Bloomington, Illinois, carried a letter from a woman in El Paso who repeated the GOP argument on Iraq word for word, then added a personal note--her son's a soldier who "expects to be deployed to train and finish the work that needs to be done." Other letters championing the president's "clear plan" showed up in papers in San Diego; Rochester, New York; and Decatur, Alabama.

I e-mailed Bruce Dold, who runs the Tribune's editorial page, to ask how his paper protects itself against canned mail. "I don't know of any filter that can catch canned letters such as this, but we're aware that it's going on and we watch for it," he replied. "The GOP letters are pretty easy to spot because they all use my name and address in the salutation and the writing follows a formula. I automatically delete them."

He went on, "We favor letters that respond to what has been in the newspaper, so a generic letter in support of the GOP (or the Democrats or any other group) is unlikely to make the cut anyway. Dodie Hofstetter, the letters editor, knows to watch for letter-writing campaigns. If a group encourages people to write, and then people write their own letters, we may publish them. What we most want to guard against is what you found on this Web site, where a standard text is suggested and people simply slap their names on it and send it."

At GOP.com the text is not just standardized but calcified. The rhetoric I found on the "Write News Editors" page hadn't been coined to hail Bush's State of the Union speech--it had been dusted off. My search for key phrases took me to bartcopnation.com, where a gloating "CarbonDate" was fielding virtual high fives from other posters who admired his detective work. CarbonDate had spotted a letter in his hometown Green Bay paper that claimed Bush "has a clear plan for victory in Iraq," that "we are making tremendous progress towards this objective," and that withdrawal, "as some Democrats in Washington propose, would send a dangerous signal." CarbonDate explained that he'd sniffed the telltale odor of "Astroturf" (as distinct from grass roots), had tracked the same "freshly fertilized GOP talking points" to papers in San Antonio, Lafayette, Indiana, and Lawrence, Kansas, and had identified the common source--GOP.com.

When did CarbonDate record this triumph? Last September.

I asked a spokesman for the Republican National Committee if it might not be time to freshen the language on "Write News Editors." He said the Republican National Committee had just gotten a new chairman (Mike Duncan) and he assumed everything would be under review. I also asked if returns on this kind of computer-driven mail campaign hadn't diminished to nearly nothing. He didn't think so. "If an editor sees the same letter over and over again, it shows there's a cause and people out there who believe in the cause," he said. "No editorial board would become numb to the feelings of their readers."

He might be surprised. When I told editors at the Kane County Chronicle what had gotten into their paper, they talked about this kind of mail as a scourge, not as a useful index of public passion. Chris Krug, vice president for editorial for the Chronicle and its sister Northwest Herald, described his "verification process," conceded it's not perfect, and reflected that it's a "heck of a lot easier" to spot scripted letters when more than one comes in at a time. Brian Slupski, the assistant opinion-page editor, recalled a ginned-up letter (on abortion, he thinks) he spotted a year ago. "I called up the woman and said, 'We're not running your letter. You didn't write it.' And she said, 'That's what they told me I was supposed to do.'"

Dodie Hofstetter says the Tribune is sometimes "inundated" with boilerplate (though interestingly enough the week after Bush's January speech wasn't one of those times), and none of it gets in the paper if she can help it. "We don't know who the real author is," she says. "We don't know whose thoughts they are."

She continues, "I don't think it's necessarily that these are people trying to be malicious. They're thankful some organization is trying to help them--'Gosh, they're giving me good words to put together.' But in the end I'd rather have a letter that's not the best written but is original."

The GOP is far from the only culprit here. "The funniest one I can remember is during the last presidential campaign," Hofstetter says. "There was a presidential debate, and the Democratic National Committee sent out suggested language. Four hours before the debate I started getting letters in identical language letting us know John Kerry had won the debate."

For more, see Michael Miner's blog at chicagoreader.com.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Archer Prewitt.

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