Friday, August 27, 2004

Astroturf

This Geitner Simmons post caused me to wonder: What is it that journalists have against astroturf? That is, the common practice whereby a website (say) that supports Bush (or Kerry) will provide ready-made paragraphs to paste into a letter to the editor.

The common objection is that astroturf is somehow unfair or dishonest, in that someone is merely "pretending" to be the author of a letter that was mostly (or wholly) written by someone else.

OK, fair enough. But what about authors of op-eds? Newspapers run op-eds all the time that are really written by someone other than the named author -- a research assistant, intern, etc. Whenever you see an op-ed by a Senator or Cabinet member, for example, chances are that the "author" functioned more as an editor for one of his or her staff members. Why should newspapers suddenly pretend to have such pristine standards when the subject is a mere letter to the editor?

And what's wrong about it anyway? Throughout life, people sign their names to words or speeches written by others. Presidents do it. Congress does it. Heads of business do it. Within my own profession, I don't think it's any secret that people often sign briefs or motions where someone else (even someone from another law firm) did most of the writing. None of this is deemed objectionable or even suspect. As long as you agree with the final product, you can sign your name to it even if you were too busy to write it yourself. After all, what most readers really care about is not whether the main author really wrote every word, but whether the main author agrees with and takes responsibility for the words that were written.

So again, why such purist standards only for the little guy?

UPDATE: Let's think methodically about what distinctions might be made here.

1. Perhaps it's OK for Senators to hire writers because it's an employment relationship, while astroturf doesn't involve the "author" employing the real writer. But that's a bogus distinction -- how could an exchange of money change the morality of signing off on someone else's words?

2. Perhaps the difference is that it is common and well-known that important people employ writers/staff, whereas it is not well-known that a letter to the editor might use someone else's words. But this problem is easy to solve: Put a sentence on the editorial page noting the possibility of astroturf.

3. Perhaps the difference is in the ranking of expertise. If a Senator has one of her staff members write an op-ed, perhaps she still retains the greater expertise that enables her to say, "I like that point, but not that one," etc. Whereas the letter "writer" who uses astroturf probably has less expertise, and is just mouthing someone else's words because he is too ignorant to think of his own ideas. But I think this distinction is mostly false. Senators (etc.) probably don't have more expertise on any given issue than their staff. The opposite is probably true, given that a single Senator cannot possibly master every issue under the sun, while her staff members have the freedom to specialize. The staffer who advises the Senator on Social Security or health care or whatever probably knows that issue much more thoroughly. So the relationship is roughly the same: The person who has less expertise is taking words from someone with more expertise.

4. Perhaps the distinction lies in the fact that astroturf pretends to be something it's not, in that it is meant to give the impression that there is a large grassroots movement of people who are knowledgable fans of some politician or another. Since the grassroots movement is artificially stimulated, astroturf gives a false impression. But again, I'm not sure that this is much of a distinction. As noted above, a Senator might sign an op-ed or deliver a speech written by a staffer with much greater expertise on the particular issue. True, the Senator isn't creating the impression of a grassroots movement, but he is doing something equally as misleading: He is speaking or writing with the air of authority, as if he had written those words from a deep wellspring of knowledge and expertise. Given that the Senator might, with this false pretense of authority, affect the beliefs of far more people than a mere letter-writer, isn't this a worse problem than astroturf? (If it's a real problem at all, that is.)

4 Comments:

Blogger QD said...

It seems to me that the real distinction is that the Op-Ed written by the Senator is meant to persuade through the use of reasons (e.g. "We shouldn't invade Iraq because the astrological signs are out of alignment") while the "astroturf" letter is meant to persuade not just through reasons but also through sheer numbers. That is, the letter is meant to offer reasons but also to help persuade people through creating the impression that lots of people hold the letter's view *and* are sufficiently motivated to write a letter to the editor about it. The motivation part is the key difference, I think, and why it's reasonable to be rather skeptical about them.

9:19 AM  
Blogger Stuart Buck said...

I see the point about "sheer numbers," but what does that have to do with who actually writes the words used? If 100 people write a couple of sentences on a given issue, or if the same 100 people state publicly that they agree with a couple of sentences originally written by someone else -- in both situations, you have "sheer numbers" signing on to a particular view.

Astroturf creates the "impression that lots of people hold the letter's view *and* are sufficiently motivated to" track down a pre-written letter on the internet and then sign their names to it and then send it out. I don't see that this makes astroturf some sort of unique journalistic offense.

8:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is this even a case of "astroturf"? I thought astroturf was the practice of spending lots of money to create the ILLUSION of a grass roots movement.

I know, we'll call it a "Scott's Turf Builder" movement.

12:23 PM  
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7:48 PM  

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