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Take a stronger stand against bogus letters.

Probably every NCEW member knows by now the latter-day meaning of the term "astroturf." Lowercased, it denotes an artificial playing field that has nothing to do with fake grass.

Instead, in our world, it has come to stand for letters to the editor and, increasingly, op-ed articles that are written by someone other than the people whose names are attached. These constitute a fake grassroots expression. Hence the term, "astroturf."

This phenomenon has been much discussed in NCEW circles, not least on the ever-helpful listserv. But what I think has gone poorly recognized is the degree to which "astroturf" is proliferating. In fact, the more skinful and devious its practitioners become, the greater the difficulty of assessing their success.

NCEW has been a champion in combating this practice. We've gotten savvier at spotting these phony-baloney letters. We learn to recognize telltale signs--one of which is so consistent a giveaway that I'm not going to expose it here; e-mail me if you haven't heard.

It gets worse. These phony letters had their origins as friends telling friends. To some degree they even predated the Internet, although the magic of modern electronic communications has lent them new scope and speed. Eventually they became the darling of political parties and other advocacy groups, with ready-made letters packaged at websites.

Beware journo-lobbying

Now "astroturf" has sprung up in new soil, potentially more fertile and dangerous. As detailed recently in Washington Monthly, lames K. Glassman, a journalist, launched a dot-com--Tech Central Station--that looks, walks, and quacks like a public policy group but in fact is chiefly an influence-peddling mouthpiece for its corporate sponsors. Among TCS'S hired-gun services is the crafting of "astroturf." The Washington Monthly writers coined a new term for it: journo-lobbying.

Phoniness, of course, is anathema to what we do. Every time we act as something less than fully informed, honest brokers of ideas, we fail in our mission. And it's only natural for readers to put more faith in the assertions of seemingly independent individuals than in those of a hired advocate.

A word of sympathy for the hapless Joe and Jane Six-pack who get drawn into being accessories to turf campaigns: For the most part, they honestly don't get it. I wish I had five dollars for every time I've confronted a letter writer over an "astroturf" letter only to be told, "Well, I didn't write it, but I agree with everything in it" Great. I agree with the Declaration of Independence. Does that entitle me to represent it as my own work?

We can do more

Is there more we could do to fight this intellectual dishonesty? At least two things come to mind.

First, if you aren't already on the listserv, join and participate vigorously. Yes, it's occasionally prone to clutter, but the benefits far outweigh the distractions.

Second, consider installing the free Hotbot Search Deskbar. It has been found virus-free by my newspaper's most paranoid techno-geeks. It combines the power of half a dozen search engines in one. It's like Google on steroids. It will find obscure phrases that no other software will turn up.

The authors of the Washington Monthly article predict two things about journo-lobbying: that it will proliferate, and then crash. They cite no basis for the latter prediction, but it is devoutly to be wished.

Meanwhile, for as long as we labor at our craft, it's our duty to fight back. The less that sticks, the better. We're all in this together. And I have never written anything more sincere than that.

Charles Reinken is vice president of NCEW and editorial page edito of the Omaha World Herald. E-mail Charles.Reinken@owh.com.
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Author:Reinken, Charles
Publication:The Masthead
Date:Mar 22, 2004
Words:609
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