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Battling for integrity. (NCEW vs. Planted Opinions).

Molly Ivins was the first person I heard use "astroturf" to refer to the generation of a phony grassroots movement, but someone else may have been the true coiner of the term.

Spotting these fake letters and warning other editors has become one of the most valuable and satisfying uses of the NCEW listserv. The New York Times, in a news story last winter, documented our association's battle against planted opinion. Several NCEW members were quoted about their efforts to prevent the letters columns from being co-opted by bogus letters generated by special interest groups.

I remember when the first fake animal rights letter was discovered after several editors compared notes on the list and discovered the similarities: illegible signature, toll-free number for verification, and a non-existent address. Though a woman answered the toll-free number and claimed she could verify authorship for a signer who was "out of town," I told her I needed to speak to the signer.

Surprisingly enough, someone called back. I asked him for his address, and he gave me the phony address that was on the letter. He was a good actor. He kept up the pretense, insisting that a house existed at that address even though I had driven the street that morning and knew that the house numbers didn't go that high.

I finally nailed him when I asked him for directions to the house. He never would tell me who he was, though.

Some editors wonder what the big deal is. They question why we are so concerned.

There are a couple of reasons. On a gut level, I think it satisfies the editorial writer's innate desire for a good "gotcha!" We like catching people in the act of trying to pull one over on us. It's good for the soul, and it makes us feel better about all those times we've been fooled.

But, more important, it is an issue of credibility and fairness. When someone's name is listed beneath a letter, it should represent that person's individual thought and expression. If not, the newspaper, in publishing the letter, is participating in a lie. Readers assume they are getting a spontaneous local viewpoint, not the thoughts of a distant public relations specialist working for a special interest group.

The newspaper's credibility is at risk--as well as the credibility of the viewpoint expressed in the "astroturf" letter--if readers see an identical letter under a different name in another newspaper.

But fairness is the main issue. Most newspapers have limited space. That space should go to readers who took the time to craft their own words. It shouldn't go to someone who cuts pastes, and signs, or -- even worse -- to someone who puts a fake name and address to a letter.

The NECW listserv is an invaluable early warning system for those committed to addressing this problem at the roots. A suspicious letter can be sent to 550 or so fellow editorial writers. Word comes back quickly if others have seen the identical letter. Lately, some enterprising members have taken to examining the technical information contained in the headers of e-mail to identify and track down astroturf.

The satisfaction from busting a purveyor of phony letters may not match the satisfaction from sending a corrupt governor to prison. But little victories help sustains us between the bigger ones.

Dan Radmacher is an active NCEW member whose career has included the editorship of the editorial page at the Gazette in Charleston, West Virginia.

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Title Annotation:National Conference of Editorial Writers
Author:Radmacher, Dan
Publication:The Masthead
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2003
Previous Article:The art of editing yourself. (Symposium Secrets to Stronger Editorials).
Next Article:A sophisticated attempt to deceive. (NCEW vs. Planted Opinions).

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