Just as AstroTurf, the brand-name precursor to the modern synthetic rubber covering used today on many football and soccer fields, is fake grass, so “AstroTurf” commentaries are fake grass roots. They are letters written by professional organizations that everyday citizens are encouraged to adopt as their own, sign and send to a local newspaper or lawmaker.
For passionate advocates of an issue who are uncomfortable with writing, a piece of AstroTurf may provide a basic model or some talking points to help them collect their own thoughts, and to that extent, it may have some value. But beyond that, its merits are extremely limited almost to the point of uselessness.
I can’t speak for lawmakers, who may respond in their own individual ways to finding scores or even hundreds of emails in their Inbox all saying exactly the same thing. But for us, such letters are immediate targets for the “Delete” key.
As it is, we keep an eye out for letter-writing campaigns, when agencies or special interests encourage their members to inundate the public with letters about their cause, and when we find highly suspect cases — uncommon phrases, for instance, like “I call on my senator …” or “I stand with …” are natural tipoffs — we either verify that they are legitimate or discard them. When the evidence is incontrovertible — as with two separate issues in the past two weeks in which we received literally scores of the exact same letter, with the exact same subject line and only the name of the signer to distinguish them — we eliminate them immediately.
The point of the letters column, its value and its charm, is the personal touch of its contributors. It is the opportunity for everyday citizens to express themselves in their words, with their passions about their interests. When “writers” simply attach their names to the words of others, that is, in its harshest sense, plagiarism and, in its kindest, abject laziness.
We value the true expressions of suburban readers. In addition to the letters we carry every day, we devote two-thirds of our editorial page space to them every Saturday and nearly the entire space to them every Monday. We want you to share your opinions — responsibly and passionately — with your neighbors. We believe that such sharing is an important part of how we all help to shape each other’s points of view and ultimately define the personality of our communities, our state and our nation.
The letters space is the purest reflection of grass roots intercourse in the newspaper. But it has to be real grass roots. Whatever place and season there may be for fake grass like AstroTurf, it is not on the editorial page.
Jim Slusher, email@example.com, is an assistant managing editor at the Daily Herald. Follow him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/jim.slusher1 and on Twitter at @JimSlusher.