Editor’s Pick
SEPTEMBER 25, 2008 3:32PM

Investigate: Did fake McCain letters run in your newspaper?

Rate: 8 Flag

Salon has a story today by Margriet Oostveen, a Dutch journalist for NRC Handelsblad, detailing her job as a volunteer for the McCain campaign: Ghost-writing fake letters of support for the candidate, following prescribed talking points. This follows a long history in public relations of "astroturfing" -- the creation of fake grassroots support for a candidate or corporation.

Think any of these letters made their way into your local newspaper? Take a look at the letters here, created by the McCain campaign and by Oostveen, and help us search for examples of where they showed up in your local newspaper. Feel free to blog on it yourself -- just alert us in the Comments thread below if you've found something!

Author tags:

salon.com, open, beta

Your tags:

Recipient's email address:
Personal message (optional):

Your email address:


Type your comment below:
I put this in my post earlier today:


Really scary stuff if true. It's a whole new level of deception managed by his campaign.
You're surely right, Stellaa. But rarely do we have proof, which counts for a lot.
Like Stellaa, I am not shocked. Obama has his internet and media squad as well. Some comment sections online are so full of Obama plants spouting the same talking points that it is rare to find "real" people.

This is politics as usual these days.
Ghostwriting letters to the editor is a pretty common practice. I worked for a while in the press office of a midwestern governor right after college. Coming straight from journalism school, I was appalled and refused to do it; instead I offered to write talking points to send to the local party HQs and constituents could write in based on those if they so desired. The Press Secretary okayed my alternative, but I was moved to another office not too long afterwards. Whether there is a connection is still unclear.
I think this is completely different. It's one thing for some publications to be completely open about their biases. It's another for a campaign to actively encourage volunteers to mislead newspapers -- and their readers.
It's very common -- and hundreds of years old, in fact. But it's taboo among PR professionals (it's prohibited by PR organizations) -- it's the basest form of propaganda.
I've done this myself for groups such as Citizen Action and Move On. The point (or justification I suppose) is not to deceive so much (although false names and locations are the norm) but rather to place a particular thought in the forum. Much like Open Salon.

Many years ago, I was the editor of a newspaper. A local woman regularly wrote letters to the editors on the topic of Soviet Jewry. They were poorly written. I also knew her personally because of her activism. I did not think that she was bright.

One day, she walked into my office and presented me with a letter on her favorite topic. It was the most wonderfully-written letter I have ever read. In fact, it was one of the most wonderfully-written anything I have ever read.

I was shocked. I looked her in the face and asked if she had written it. She said "Yes." I didn't believe her, but I promised to publish it -- and did. I figured that a staffer from the local Soviet Jewry organization had ghost-written it. That was good enough reason to print it although I wished the woman had told me the truth.

Later, I ran into the two staffers for the local Soviet Jewry organization, one of whom was a writer. Both insisted that they didn't write it. Now, I was just perplexed.

About one week later, I was reading Jewish newspapers from around the nation. The Detroit Jewish newspaper had the SAME letter word for word, but with a different author. Then, I read the San Francisco Jewish paper. And the Cleveland paper. And on and on and on.

Yes, the SAME LETTER WAS IN ALL THE NEWSPAPERS word for word with different authors. I made a quick phone call to the national headquarters of the Soviet Jewry organization and a staffer admitted to me in about one second that a colleague of his had written the letter. He had no shame about it. He said it was standard practice.

I was infuriated, but I found that I was the ONLY person who was. No one on the newspaper's Board of Directors could give a damn.

My point is that this uproar over the "fake" McCain letters is NOT going to resonate with more than a few people. I would BET you that the Obama campaign is doing the same thing.

Hi Z,

I'm not arguing that this has never been done before. I spent months in the mid-90s digging up similar stuff on the tobacco industry's astroturf "smoker's rights initiative." I'm also not arguing that it will resonate -- I'm not a political activist, that's not my interest. I'm just fascinated by the story because it's a good one. It's the candid glimpse inside a very private campaign's day to day operations. And I'm genuinely curious whether these campaigns even work anymore.
Webcelt wrote, "I'll tell you the difference. Being active in the local and state Democratic parties, I have been encouraged to write letters to the editor, but I have never even been handed talking points, let alone been asked to sign a letter and pretend it's mine. Even being handed a letter with accurate talking points would be OK I suppose, but making things up is OK? Pretending a personal story is mine would be OK? What is wrong with Republicans?"

I follow this with all caps not because I am yelling but so you can differentiate between my words and his. WEBCELT, THE REASONS THEY ARE HANDED TALKING PINTS AND EXAMPLES IS EASILY EXPLAINABLE. THE AVERAGE IQ SITED AS THAT OF MCCAIN VOTERS IS 93-96, OF OBAMA VOTERS, AVERAGE IQ IS 119-122.'NOUGH SAID?
I think one can often spot a faux letter a mile away. Very good article by both you and by Margriet Oostveen, a Dutch journalist for NRC Handelsblad.

Dunno about TPM and HuffPost, but KOS isn't quite that. A 527 worth it's salt would not have come close to emulating the reaction on KOS to Obama's vote on FISA II. Still bubbles up from time to time. More like, in the case of KOS, Obama is the horse Markos and crew have chosen to ride this cycle.

IQ should only be used to judge mental deficiencies.

Oh, I see what you did there.
I looked at these phony letters to the editor, and they have about as much authenticity as letters to Penthouse. Any editor worthy of the title ought to be able to spot them as a plant before the end of the first sentence ... but only if they wanted to spot them.
In the Maryland Gazette, the Letters to the Editor column of 9/20 includes one from Benedict J.Frederick Jr. which was nearly word for word the same as a Charles Krauthammer column supporting Sarah Palin published in the Washington Post 9/13/08.
Kerry, I think I have only commented on two of your posts and it bothers me a bit that my comments are probably stridently critical. You are an editor and it's bad for writers to argue with editors who control the front page...thanks for the times I have made it :-)...please forgive what I am about to say

BUT.....this post seems shockingly naive. You are the editor of a website where anybody can sign up under any name they want and make up any bio they want and say anything they want. You're surprised that letters to the editors are not honest to god average citizens??

Given how distorted media coverage of things are, it's only fair that the letters should be just as fake as the news. I don't make this as just a smart aleck comment. Every time I have actually been at an event that gets covered in the media, the media coverage is distorted from what actually happened at the event. Every time.
Stellaa and LT Bohica: You GO girls.

Just keep struttin' your stuff.
On the same note, I received an email from a friend about another similar strategy - as follows:

Subject: FW: Palin Poll on PBS being hijacked by Republicans

Hi everyone,

PBS has an online poll posted asking if Sarah Palin is qualified. Apparently the Republicans knew about this in advance and are flooding the voting with YES votes.

I know -- it's only a poll. But it will be reported on PBS, picked up by mainstream media and can influence undecided voters in swing states.

Please do two things -- takes 20 seconds.

1) Click on link and vote yourself.

Here's the link: http://www.pbs.org/now/polls/poll-435.html

2) Then send this to every single Obama-Biden voter you know, and urge them to vote and pass it on.

The last thing we need is PBS having to say our viewers think Sarah Palin is qualified.

Please take a moment to provide your feedback. This is a single question survey. Thanks
I DO have a moral problem with astroturfing--that practice of pretending to write as another person altogether. As Lily Tomlin says, "No matter how cynical you get, it's impossible to keep up."

Both in 2004 and this year, I have written letters on behalf of the candidates I support. I make no apology for supporting them with my words any more than I apologize for donating what money I could afford to both Kerry's and Obama's campaigns. The key for me is that I was writing AS myself, signed my own name to the letters, and expressed my actual opinions about the issues I felt strongly about. I was not pretending to be anyone else, or to purposely inflame their emotions so that they'd vote against their own interests.

I did use the supplied talking points as a guideline. This was mainly to keep my letters shorter and more to the point, giving them a greater chance of getting printed. Left to my own resources, I can ramble badly.

Writing fake letters, especially as the phony "parent" of a non-existent Iraq War veteran to manipulate the emotions of people who really DO have family members in Iraq, or who have losts sons, daughters, sisters brothers, wives and husbands there, just disgusts me. Probably because I feel that war has been such a disastrous mistake from the lies of 2002 to the present, and NO one should have had to die there. Certainly not the Iraqis who have had their country invaded bombed, and turned into chaotic war zone. I don't care how "common" it is, I find the practice revolting.
McGarrett: Where do I say I'm shocked? I'm not remotely shocked this goes on. I think it's interesting that they got a hold of the prototype letters, and I wanted to see if we could find other examples, to show how successful the campaign was. That's it!
Shiral -- I don't think you're alone in your sentiments.

Every blogger can delete any comment they want. Your comments have been largely off point to this Open Call, so they're gone. You have a blog: If you want to make a point, why don't you go over there and make one?
There was a letter about Biblical Flying Saucers I could have sworn was written by McCain.
Comments are now closed.