Correction to This Article
This article incorrectly said that the National Association of Broadcasters bought pop-up advertisements related to the proposed XM-Sirius satellite radio deal on CarMax.com. CarMax.com does not carry pop-up ads.

Constituents' E-Mail on XM Deal Not Well Received

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By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum and Kim Hart
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, November 22, 2007

Juanita Daigle of Baton Rouge is listed as one of the thousands of people who sent e-mails to the Federal Communications Commission opposing the proposed merger between the satellite radio networks XM and Sirius.

But Daigle said she never sent an e-mail and is distressed that anyone would think she did. "How did they get my name?" she asked. "I don't want someone using my name for something I don't even know about."

A check by The Washington Post of 60 people whose names were attached to identical, anti-merger e-mails instigated by the National Association of Broadcasters, a major opponent of the merger, produced mostly unanswered phone calls and recordings saying the phones were disconnected. Of the 10 people reached, nine said they never sent anything to the FCC, and only one said she remembered filling out something about Sirius but did not recall taking a position on a merger.

The responses raise questions debated a lot in Congress and at federal agencies lately: Are the hundreds of millions of narrow-interest e-mails that deluge official Washington each year a useful measure of public sentiment? Are they even being sent by real people?

The torrent, made possible by Web lobbying techniques, is subverting the process it was meant to influence, some experts said.

"It's a problem," said Stuart W. Shulman, a political scientist at the University of Pittsburgh. "If someone sends a meaningful comment, which is what the agencies are seeking, it becomes difficult to find." The e-mail volume is so massive, he said, that agencies have begun to pay less attention to the comments.

Congress is also wary of the trend. A poll of 350 congressional staffers conducted by the Congressional Management Institute in 2005 indicated that half of them did not believe that form-letter messages were sent with the knowledge or approval of constituents.

Yet the volume of e-mail has skyrocketed. House and Senate offices last year received 318 million electronic messages, up from 200 million e-mails and postal letters in 2004.

A large number of those e-mails were produced through interest group Web sites, a standard lobbying practice. Lawmakers are so frustrated with the volume of missives thrown off by those sites that many are placing obstacles in the way of e-mails not written personally by constituents. Barriers include requiring e-mailers to fill out a special form on lawmakers' Web sites and to complete a simple math problem to get their e-mails through.

Federal agencies have also experienced a gigantic increase in computer-generated e-mail. This year, the Fish and Wildlife Service received more than 300,000 form-letter e-mails from members of the Natural Resources Defense Council urging that polar bears be placed on the endangered species list, according to the eRulemaking Research Group, which tracks e-mails dealing with regulations.

At the FCC, most of the e-mails about the proposed merger between XM Satellite Radio Holdings of the District and Sirius Satellite Radio of New York were prompted by the National Association of Broadcasters. The lobby group said it inspired the sending of 8,500 e-mails to the agency by buying pop-up ads on consumer-oriented Web sites such as CarMax.com, Staples.com and PriceGrabber.com in August and September. Spokesman Dennis Wharton said his group has the name, date, postal address and numerical Internet address of the e-mailers, including those contacted by The Post, to show that the electronic letters were sent by actual people.

"I have a high degree of confidence in this," Wharton said. "They [the e-mailers] had to physically type in their name and address. It was a fairly rigorous process."


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