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Cut-and-Paste Propaganda Infiltrates Opinion Pages

By Paul Farhi
Sunday, August 22, 2004; Page A06

Reader, beware! Some of America's newspapers have become unwitting conduits for campaign propaganda.

Thanks to some nifty Internet technology, the campaigns of President Bush and John F. Kerry are making it easy for their supporters to pass off the campaigns' talking points as just another concerned citizen's opinion. Pro-Bush or pro-Kerry letters bearing identical language are flooding letters-to-the-editor columns.

Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Tex.) denies any connection to the appearance of the signs and blames Frost. (Donna Mcwilliam -- AP)

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The Democrat and Chronicle in Rochester, N.Y., for example, ran a letter last month from a local reader that stated, "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 exact same phrasing also appeared in letters printed in about 20 other daily newspapers, including the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Idaho Statesman and the Augusta (Ga.) Chronicle.

It wasn't a remarkable coincidence. The letters -- known as "AstroTurf" for their ersatz quality -- were generated by a special cut-and-paste form on Bush's campaign Web site. In addition to providing helpful, ready-to-plagiarize phrases about the president's economic policies, the site also offers faux-letter fodder about such topics as homeland security, the environment, health care and "compassion" ("The President's compassion agenda is touching lives across the globe. . . .").

Kerry's campaign has a similar feature that entreats his supporters to "write" letters as part of his campaign's "MediaCorps." Both campaigns offer tips, such as the Bush campaign's advice to "keep your letters brief and to the point."

Newspaper editors tend to red-pencil outright campaign dogma in news stories. But a letter, ostensibly from a reader, can fly beneath the radar.

Problem is, editors -- like English teachers -- prefer that letter writers think for themselves. "Our policy is that everything published on our letters page has to be an original piece by the author who signs the piece," said Thomas Tobin, deputy editorial page editor of the Rochester paper. Tobin wasn't aware that his paper had printed the Bush-generated letter. In fact, the Democrat and Chronicle printed virtually the same letter twice, under different names, a week apart.

Fred Hiatt, editorial page editor of The Washington Post, said, "We want letters that are actually written by the people who sign their names to them. I can't be sure we screen out every precooked missive, but we do our best."

One Kerry backer may have found a way to scam the scam. In a recent letter printed in the Salinas Californian, Ed Smiley of Santa Cruz stole one of Bush's "compassion" talking points and then made a quick U-turn: "In his inaugural address, President Bush called on Americans to be citizens, not spectators -- to work together to improve their communities and touch the lives of their neighbors," he cribbed, and then added: "But what has he actually done? . . . His unprecedented commitment to violating international law and human rights is without precedent."

A Kerry Bounce?

Remember all the spin and counter-spin about how much bounce in the polls, if any, Kerry would get from the Democratic National Convention?

Well, national polls haven't shown anything dramatic, but statewide polls are another story.

The Kerry-Edwards campaign has surged in a few of the states that will probably determine the electoral college winner, according to Realpolitics.com, which polls the polls. In Florida, the biggest swing-state prize, a seesaw race seems to have swung, for the moment at least, Kerry's way. Two polls, including the Quinnipiac University survey, show the Democratic ticket with beyond-the-margin-of-error leads of between 6 and 7 percentage points in Florida, post-convention, compared with a statistical dead heat a month earlier.

Kerry also has improved his standing in Michigan (he led by 7 percentage points in one early August survey); Minnesota (8 points up during the convention); Pennsylvania (5 to 6 points in mid-August); and New Hampshire (7 points). Kerry also grabbed a slight advantage over the president in West Virginia during the convention.

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