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A look at the perpetrators: the list of interest groups encouraging "astroturf" is as long as the list of interest groups.

Crabgrass may spread on its own, but "astroturf" must be manufactured. So where does it come from? The sources are as varied as the institutions and organizations that stand to gain by perpetrating a hoax--the hoax that their philosophy and ideas are shared and promoted by ordinary members of the community.

In an election year, many of the culprits are political parties and campaigns. Republicans scored what turned out to be a Pyrrhic victory when dozens of nearly identical letters were printed in newspapers across the nation praising President Bush's "genuine leadership" on the economy.

The effort, which originated on the gopteamleader.com website, was a little too successful, drawing considerable attention to the tactic. The site's organizers say they no longer offer canned letters, but "team leaders" still earn points and prizes for getting letters published in newspapers.

The practice is not limited to one party. If you become a member of John Kerry's Media Corps (johnkerry.com/onlinehq/mediacorps/), you'll be given "talking points" to help you construct letters to the editor on topics suggested by the campaign.

At George Bush's website (georgewbush.com/GetActive/WriteNewspapers.aspx?aid=37), you'll not only be offered talking points, but you can easily add or subtract paragraphs to an e-mail form allowing you to create customize your "astroturf" with a couple clicks of a mouse.

The phony letters aren't just promoting candidates. In March, family.org's Citizen Link offered its members a way to easily craft a letter to the editor supporting a constitutional amendment to ban the legalization of same-sex marriage. Participants were offered a selection of paragraphs for each of four sections of the letter. The instructions promise, "No matter which ones you choose, the result will be a finished letter of no more than 225 words"

A variety of interest groups encourage sympathetic readers to send in handy form letters. Planned Parenthood offers either talking points or a sample letter to the editor at its website (saveroe.com/content/index.php?pid=7). Local and state Planned Parenthood chapters also frequently have even more sophisticated turf generators that supply direct e-mail addresses and allow people to assemble letters by putting together paragraphs.

Animal rights activists are some of the original turf generators. They're still at it. A group called World Week for Animals in Laboratories offers a letter to the editor on its website (wwail.org/index.cgi?page=letter_to_the_editor). A group called Viva! USA has a sample letter about the plight of ducks in factory farms (vivausa.org/campaigns/ducks/newspaperletter.html).

The list of interest groups encouraging "astroturf" is seemingly as long as the list of interest groups, period.

The Minnesota Smoke Free Coalition will send you a sample letter to the editor in response to an e-mail request.

The Class Act Group, dedicated to improving health care to military retirees, offers a sample letter to send to Congress or local newspapers (www.classact-lawsuit.com/Itrtoeditorexam.html).

Project Protect--self-described as "a coalition of resource-based communities and activists [who] urged the federal government to move quickly to implement the Healthy Forests Restoration Act in light of the early fire season in the West"--offers a variety of sample letters on its website (landsense.us/staticpages/index.php?page=20030410235738958).

The Sierra Club offers a sample letter to the editor about sprawl, and an easy way to find e-mail addresses for local newspapers (sierra club.org/sprawl/getinvolved/sample_letter.asp).

A group trying to convince the Postal Service to issue a commemorative stamp for missing children has a sample letter (mcstamp.org/let.htm).

Not all turf comes from an official website. Last September, newspapers across the nation received a touching letter from soldiers in Iraq touting accomplishments the letter said had been ignored by the media.

But the identical letter was sent by dozens of soldiers, none of whom claimed authorship when contacted. Some even said they had no knowledge the letter was sent in their name. Eventually, a battalion commander took responsibility for writing the letters and distributing them to soldiers' hometown papers.

"We thought it would be a good idea to encapsulate what we as a battalion have accomplished since arriving in Iraq and share that pride with people back home," he said.

There you have it. Turf producers cover the gamut of politics, special interest groups, and even military commanders. The only common factor is the intent to deceive our readers in order to give their message the appearance of legitimacy.

THE CHICKEN LETTER ...

I can't imagine how anyone can chew on a drumstick again after watching the animated movie "Chicken Run," which opened last week to great critical acclaim.

The delightful British film recounts the story of a group of brave hens plotting to escape from a factory farm. The story is both poignant and funny, and the characters quickly earn our empathy, was impressed with how these animals, which we view as food, share our quest for life and liberty as well as most of our feelings of joy, affection, frustration, sadness and pain.

Thankfully, my local supermarket carries a selection of delicious "mock chicken" foods, which, unlike dead chicken flesh, are free of saturated fat, cholesterol and salmonella ...

This letter, from 2000, is an early example of a turf letter that was Sent to dozens of newspapers around the country, in many cases signed with the names of non-existent people.

Dan Radmacher is an editorial writer for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. E-mail dan.radmacher@heraldtribune.com
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Title Annotation:Turf wars: the editor strikes back
Author:Radmacher, Dan
Publication:The Masthead
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2004
Words:918
Previous Article:It's a cheap form of propaganda: now they are offering prizes to people who trick newspapers into publishing fake letters.
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