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Many fight a lonely battle: let's keep real voices, original writing, and unique perspectives in our letters.

In the battle against "astroturf"-those cut-and-paste letters to the editors flooding our inboxes--the real enemy is the source. These organizations understand the power of the press and make armchair activists believe that they can make a difference by simply hitting the send key.

When these well-orchestrated campaigns use their supporters to plant letters on our opinion pages, they waste our time and undermine our authenticity by replacing readers' voices with polished spin.

Any good gardener knows that you have to pull the weeds, root and all. Just tearing away the leaves may get rid of the problem temporarily, but it returns relentlessly. And applying herbicide means you end up with poison on your plate. Editorial page editors should be taking a figurative hand trowel to our equally prolific inorganic nuisance.

While it's easy to become frustrated and think readers are trying to put one over on us, empowering and educating them is a better defense than berating them.

Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

Turf letters are often easy to spot, especially when you get six identical letters in a row.

When the guy who addressed his letter to "The Harold" is suddenly using words like "nefarious" and correctly spelling Abu Ghraib, we suspicious journalist types begin the drill. Cut and paste a sentence into Google. View hits from nine papers that carried the letter verbatim. Enjoy a Perry Mason moment. Curse truemajority.org. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

For at least the past four years, it seems hardly a day or two has gone by without a "Has anyone seen this letter?" post on the NCEW listserv. There has even been discussion in recent months of creating a separate message board or a members-only website where editors can check for turf alerts.

As of the 2002 count, there were 1,457 daily newspapers in the country and about 6,699 weeklies. There are 559 active members in NCEW (this includes print, broadcast, professors, students, and retirees) and of those, roughly 337 use the listserv. That means the vast majority of our colleagues are out there fighting this battle alone--or, worse, are too overwhelmed to fight.

Blacklisting readers

Some newspapers keep names of those who submit turf. Others give a verbal or written warning to turfers, letting them know that if they try to sneak one more phony letter into print, they will be cut off. Yet others have considered running the names of letter writers who turn in turf.

Some listserv members have cautioned against overreaction. They don't see why it matters if the phrases are not original work, so long as the submitter agrees with the sentiment and the person doesn't try to pass off a phony name.

It matters. Readers notice.

Omaha World-Herald editorial page editor Frank Partsch wrote an editorial in 2000 thanking a reader who saw a letter in the Omaha paper repeated two days later, over a different signature, in USA Today. The reader wrote for an explanation. World-Herald editors traced the letter to FARM, the Farm Animal Rescue Movement--it had been printed in papers from Seattle to Maryland. This experience with the so-called "Chicken Letter" was one of the first instances of a coordinated listserv effort to protect other newspapers from a turf outbreak.

The World-Herald editorial pointed out that these form letters are undesirable because they create a "false impression of a groundswell."

Is that you behind that five-syllable word?

One reader I called admitted that the website truemajority.org had sent out a letter using his name. "This was not supposed to be sent if someone else had sent the message to the same paper," he said. "I do believe in the exact wording or I would not have allowed this 'form' letter to be sent out under my name"

Jack Doppelt, a professor at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, says the concept of turf is nothing new. It's just been made more widespread by the Internet.

"This is ancient stuff," he said. "You have somebody out on the street who has a petition drive. How many people actually read it? They don't. They say, 'Sign me up, I like the ACLU'."

Doppelt compared it to pre-Internet letter drives where groups provided people with information and told them to write their congressional representatives. One major difference, of course, is that those letters aren't printed in the mass media--and that the senders couldn't hope to send out thirteen hundred a day to win a coffee mug with a picture of George Bush on it.

"In an odd, goofy way you don't want to close this off," Doppelt said, "because there are one thousand other people who believe these things and think the same way they think, but they just leave it to someone who can write better:'

There's the rub. Doppelt also sees the importance of keeping real voices, original writing, and unique perspectives in our letters columns.

"The proliferation of it makes it annoying to the gatekeepers because you've lost the real freshness" he said.

The good ol' offense as defense

Rather than making these writers wear a scarlet "A" why not band together as a professional organization and make a stand for honest-to-goodness original thought?

* Begin by talking to your readers. As a profession, we have a deservedly dismal reputation for explaining what we do and why we do it. We often act like we are above or afraid of the people we are writing for.

* Write a column explaining your views on turf and how it shortchanges your readers. Help readers feel empowered to contribute and understand that their own words have more impact than someone else's.

* As an organization, we can take a firm stand by letting these think tanks and lobbying organizations know we're mad as hell and we're not going to take it anymore. NCEW carries weight as an organization, and we shouldn't just let this proliferate in silence.

If we don't fight the turf, we might as well paint the driveway green and call it a lawn.

Carolyn Nielsen is editorial page editor of The Bellingham Herald in Washington state. She writes from a perspective of editor and organic gardener. E-mail: cnielsen@bellingh.gannet.com
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Title Annotation:Turf wars: the editor strikes back
Author:Nielsen, Carolyn
Publication:The Masthead
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2004
Words:1027
Previous Article:A look at the perpetrators: the list of interest groups encouraging "astroturf" is as long as the list of interest groups.
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