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Bush-backing letters to editor eerily similar

Saturday, January 25, 2003

When it comes to the economy, President Bush is demonstrating genuine leadership. But don't take my word for it. Read what New Englander Randy Turner has to say:

"When it comes to the economy," Turner says in a letter to the editor of the Providence Journal-Bulletin, "President Bush is demonstrating genuine leadership."

Beverly Deforest of San Bernadino, Calif., agrees. "When it comes to the economy," she writes to the Riverside Press-Enterprise, "President Bush is demonstrating genuine leadership."

The consensus doesn't end there. Deforest and Turner agree, to the very word, that, "Contrary to the class warfare rhetoric attacking the plan, the proposal helps everyone who pays taxes, and especially the middle class."

Strong words, those. But no stronger than those of Donna J. Fox of Port St. Lucie, Fla. Or Nile Gomez of Secaucus, N.J. Or Misty Haynie of Villa Rica, Ga.

In letters to the editors of their hometown papers they all agreed. Identically. To date, I have found 20 cases of this letter in newspapers from Honolulu to Atlanta. In Salt Lake City, the Deseret News published it twice in the same week.

This pithy letter has fooled The Boston Globe, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the International Herald-Tribune, and a raft of smaller papers. Never have so many claimed credit for the same 134 words.

In Muncie, Ind., John Pinckney signed off on them in the pages of the Star Press. Sherry Collins of Tucson, Ariz., was pleased to apply her name beneath them for the readers of the Tucson Citizen. "Derick Mfoafo," whose name turns up nowhere in a search of Lynchburg, Va., says the same things as Collins and Pinckney for the readers of the Lynchburg Ledger.

The letter originates on a Web site called www.gopteamleader.com, reachable through a variety of Web sites, notably www.GeorgeWBush.com, all run by the Republican National Committee. Such letters are referred to in the business as "Astroturf," because their grass roots are wholly synthetic.

At gopteamleader.com, the system is extraordinarily smooth. After signing on, a new member can visit the "Action Center" from which a letter to the editor can be sent. Plug in a ZIP code and the site immediately lists the regional newspapers to which a letter can be e-mailed.

Click off on a given newspaper and the action center even tips off the aspiring correspondent just how much information the paper requires to get a letter past the editor. Then comes the page that says "select one of the following letters." On this day the choice was a pre-clicked box with the header "President Bush is delivering the right proposal at the right time," and another: Compose your own letter.

The default box bangs out the letter that hundreds have now zapped into the computers of newspapers around the nation.

As ever, the Republicans demonstrated why they are able to get their message out. The letter is short, to the point, and includes facts and figures.

"This year alone, 92 million taxpayers will receive an immediate tax cut averaging $1,083 -- and 46 million married couples will get back an average of $1,714," it reads. That's the kind of detail that captures an editor's attention.

Deborah Fillman, though, didn't act quickly enough. Fillman, an unemployed computer worker and registered independent, came across the letter while looking into the Bush economic plan and sent it along to The Boston Globe.

"I thought 'OK, I could write this but they seem to have done a pretty good job already,'" she said.

And they had. That's why Stephanie Johnson of Milton, Mass., had already gotten the letter into the pages of the Sunday Globe before Fillman's letter arrived, along with four others.

The one name that does not appear on the watch list is that of the actual author. I contacted the RNC where spokesman Kevin Sheridan expressed surprise at my curiosity.

"From our perspective," Sheridan said, "it's great news that people are responding to the president's economic message and are going to the trouble of writing a letter to the editor."

I know, but that's what he said.

I asked to interview the author.

"We're not inclined to do that," Sheridan said.

Possibly he'll e-mail. But it's a fitting irony for the age of computer-generated consensus that the one person who doesn't want his name on the most successful letter-to-the-editor of the year is its author.

Dennis Roddy can be reached at droddy@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1965.

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