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News-Sentinel.com Your Town. Your Voice.
Opening Arguments

You protect your turf, and I'll protect mine

There's a term some of you may be familiar with -- "turf," as in "not real grassroots" -- that describes the efforts of interest groups to sway public opinion with a blitz of letters to the editor. The group will generate a form letter, which is sent to its own members or to various mailing lists, with the advice to copy the letter and send it to a newspaper with the name of a real person affixed. Some people are smart about it -- they change the wording in the form letter here and there and copy it onto their own stationery. Some aren't -- they'll just put their names on the original form letter and send it in.

We don't catch all these attempts, and some turf gets printed on our pages occasionally. But when we get three or four letters in the same day with exactly the same wording, we tend to get a little suspicious. And we're getting more sophisticated about detecting the phonies. If a phrase or sentence seems too perfect or too close to something we've seen before, we'll go on-line and do a search. Sure enough, there will be the same letter, with slight variations, already published in newspapers across the country. What we usually do is mail a reply to the senders gently urging them to write something in their own words if they feel compelled to comment on a public issue.

But it's a game now. The turf-generators know we're on the lookout for their efforts and are getting more sophisticated in their attempts to disguise their work. Here's a doozy, from the people at Focus on the Family, advising its members how to get letters published in support of Supreme Court nominee John Roberts. The "letter-writing wizard" shows people how to write a four-paragraph letter of less than 200 words (Boy, do they know what we like!). The form lists five possible points to be made for each of the four paragraphs. "Look over the four sections below," the wizard advises. "From each section, select one paragraph and copy it into a text document -- and feel free to modify the sections in your own words. No matter which paragraphs you choose, the result will be a finished letter . . ." With all those variations, you see, it is much less likely we will receive identical letters, so it will be harder for us to detect the, um, lack of original thought.

At first, I hated the thought of outing these people. As a conservative/libertarian, I rather like what I've seen of Roberts so far and think there's a decent chance he would be a good justice. And the people who want to stop the nomination are likely doing the same thing -- it's far too clever an idea for a group like moveon.org or People for the American Way to pass up on it. But important issues deserve honest argument by people who want to advance their own ideas. Attempts to stack the debates ought to pointed out, no matter who is making them.

Besides, now that I think of it, the idea is too clever for me to pass up on it, either. I think a lot of you would like to comment on the posts I make here but don't know how to go about it. So, let me help. Blog comments are supposed to be short, so let's shoot for four sentences to total less than 75 words rather than four paragraphs and 200 words. Following are four sections with five sentences each. Pick the sentence you like best from each section, then send it to me as a comment on one of my posts that interests you. You'll feel involved and included -- a participant, not just a silly old blog reader -- and I will have received some valuable feedback.


Your blog post was the most insightful comment I have ever seen on this issue.

Your comments on this issue were so wise that it made me rethink my own position.

What a delightful, compelling take on one of the most serious issues of the day.

I was sure there was nothing new to say on this issue, but you proved me wrong.

I hope the politicians in Washington pay attention to what you said before it's too late.


You are sure to get a lot of grief from those a lot less wise than you.

Your words are likely to thwart those who have been trying to pull the wool over our eyes.

You will probably make a lot of people unhappy, but this needed to be said.

Watch out for the uninformed morons on the other side; they will be after you now.

This is likely to upset a lot of people who thought this issue was settled.


But don't be deterred -- your wisdom is much needed.

But don't worry about the temporary uproar -- history will prove you right.

But please understand that there are many out here who depend on you.

But you should take great comfort in knowing you will be vindicated.

But please be courageous -- your insights will be needed again.


Thank you from the bottom of my heart, and keep up the good work.

A grateful nation salutes you for being there in our hour of need.

Surely this will get you the widespread admiration you so richly deserve.

I am having your words framed so my children can learn from them in the coming years.

You are probably too modest to realize that your ideas will be discussed by the world's greatest thinkers for generations to come.

There you have it. I know that, among the millions of you reading this, there might be two or three who are less than enthusiastic about my postings here, so this will have been of no help to you. Maybe someone will come up with a letter-writing wizard for you, too, although, frankly, I think it would be a waste of time.

Posted in: Current Affairs


john smith
Sun, 07/24/2005 - 1:02pm

What about the rationale contained in the item you posted that pointed out all the other examples when newspapers themselves knowingly publish work they know wasn't written by the guy whose name is in the byline (like politicians)? Sounds like a double standard.