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Grass-roots letters are sometimes 'Astroturf'

Why is it that when war breaks out, or when Elizabeth Smart is recovered, or when any other huge news story grips the community, you send us letters? It's as predictable as a delayed thunderclap after a distant streak of lightning. News happens, and a few hours later our fax machines begin to churn and our e-mail mailboxes begin to fill.

But even when the news is slow, the letters keep coming. One of life's great natural resources, it seems, is opinions. People keep cranking them out, and technology keeps making them easier to produce.

The reason, I suspect, is as simple, and complex, as human nature. And it is as important as the nation's form of government.

People have a right to speak. More important, they have a need to speak. Editorial sections, like this one, offer people the opportunity to talk back to the news, to expose what they consider to be falsehoods, to offer solutions to the problems of the day or to simply describe the world as they see it.

In the 17th century, poet and author John Milton wrote about the importance of letting truth and error grapple in an open field. "Who ever knew truth put to the worst, in a free and open encounter?" he said. And so it is with letters to the editor. The newspaper can't vouch for the truth of everything that is printed there, but the page provides a daily wrestling match between truth and error that ultimately is good for society.

A few days ago, we invited some of our best letter writers over to the newspaper for lunch. These were the few we had chosen as letter writers of the month in 2002, bright people who have sharp, articulate wits. They were a cross-section of Utah society, ranging from a junior at Taylorsville High who wrote a letter that posed a number of probing questions about public education — "For a people to govern itself, it must first be educated enough to know how. Does the older generation really know what our schools are like?" — to a Murray woman who wrote a whimsical account of how she and her husband tried to imitate the aggressive kissing they saw in an action movie: ". . . all we got from the experience were bruised gums, a chipped tooth and two small stitches. I guess we're just too old for extreme kissing," she wrote.

Letters don't have to be serious to qualify for our readers' forum. They just need to make a point, and they need to be sincere.

Which brings me to my point: The integrity of newspaper letter sections is under attack nationwide.

The Internet has made letter-writing much easier than ever before. People simply pound out an opinion, type in an e-mail address and hit the send button. But it also has opened editorial pages up to scores of deceptively crafted form letters sent by members of special interest groups worldwide. Groups as diverse as the National Wildlife Federation and the National Education Association post sample letters to the editor on their Web sites. Interested parties can simply copy these and sign their names before sending them to a paper. Other sites allow you to pick and choose among several paragraphs to craft a "unique" letter.

One animal rights group regularly sends us a form letter with a signature, a local address and a toll-free telephone number. The address, it turns out, is fabricated. Editorial editors nationwide often report receiving the exact same letter with fake addresses from their own communities.

In the business, we have begun calling these letters "Astroturf." They purport to come from real grass-roots activists, but the "grass" turns out to be more synthetic than real.

We try to guard against these, but we have been duped from time to time. A recent story on this trend in Editor & Publisher magazine identified the Deseret News as one of more than 70 newspapers that printed a GOP-sponsored form letter, and one of at least three that actually printed it twice. Oops.

We're working on ways to keep this from happening. When you get dozens of letters a day, this can be a challenge.

Some people may wonder what all the fuss is about. If the person who sends a letter really believes in what it says, isn't that sincere?

Maybe it does register somewhere along the sincerity meter, but it is not unique, and it is not original. And, quite frankly, it doesn't deserve a place alongside the many letters we receive that are.

That hit home as I sat at lunch with our honored letter writers — people who had carefully crafted, written and rewritten their letters before sending them in hopes of sharing a part of themselves with the community. It hits home every time a news event strikes and people feel compelled to add their voices to the drama of the day — voices that will survive in our archives for generations to come.

This newspaper wouldn't be nearly as good without them.


Jay Evensen is editor of the Deseret News editorial page. E-mail: even@desnews.com.