Don't assume the next "letter to the editor" you read about Bush or Kerry was actually written by the local person whose name underscores the letter.
Cut-and-paste form letter from GeorgeWBush.com
The rhetoric may come directly from Bush or Kerry headquarters instead, thanks to Web technology that reduces letter-writing to cutting-and-pasting.
"Reader, beware!" began an Aug. 22 Washington Post article. "Some of America's newspapers have become unwitting conduits for campaign propaganda."
The story noted how the campaign Web sites for George W. Bush and John Kerry offer "talking points" that users can literally cut and paste—in the case of the Bush Web site—into forms for writing letters to editors.
The Post story quoted a letter to the editor appearing in the Rochester, N.Y., Democrat and Chronicle that included the following: "New-job figures and other recent economic data show that America's economy is strong and getting stronger, and that the president's jobs and growth plan is working."
The same quote appeared in letters to the editor in roughly 20 other daily papers ranging from Pennsylvania to Georgia to Idaho.
The Post article called the cut-and-paste sentences "ready-to-plagiarize phrases."
"Our policy is that everything published on our letters page has to be an original piece by the author who signs the piece," Thomas Tobin, deputy editorial page editor of the Rochester paper, told the Post. The cut-and-paste nature of the Bush letter escaped the paper's attention.
The phrase came directly from the Bush campaign's official Web site, www.GeorgeWBush.com, and its section on the economy, where it encourages supporters to "Write Your Newspaper Editors."
The section offers four short paragraphs about the economy that a Web user can easily add to (or remove from) the automated letter-writing form.
The Web site offers cut-and-paste "talking points" for each of the president's agenda items (economy, compassion, health care, education, homeland security, national security and environment).
The site also offers "Writing Tips" for such letters, like stating the point early and sticking to one topic.
The Kerry campaign's official Web site, www.JohnKerry.com, also urges supporters to contact their local media.
Its page on media relationships (login required) says, "Use Kerry-Edwards' online volunteer center to draft a letter and email your local publications."
The Kerry Web site does not offer a cut-and-paste form, but it does offer a weekly "assignment," which is a topic it wants supporters to emphasize. The current assignment asks supporters to "tell your community that the Swift Boat Veterans are a front group for George Bush."
The assignment page also includes a four-paragraph "Writing Points" essay, which begins: "George Bush is at it again—his allies tried to smear John McCain's military service 4 years ago and now they are funding a front group to try to do the same against John Kerry."
The Kerry Web site also offers a "Style Guide" for "Writing an Effective Letter to the Editor." The guide recommends simple language, staying focused, proofreading the letter, and being positive.
It suggests positive words to use in support of Kerry, which include "common sense," "humane," "peace" and "truth." It also advises against using "insult" language and asks supporters to avoid words like "corrupt," "greed," "liars" and "traitors."
Web-based letter-writing forms aren't unique to presidential campaigns. Consumer-rights organization Commercial Alert, for example, frequently seeks to mobilize its base by appeals to Congress.
It provides a Web-based form, complete with pre-written message, though the form also says, "Please personalize your message below as desired."
Such letters to congressional representatives and senators, however, are not composed with the intent to publish.
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.