Thursday, November 9, 2006

Off the field "Astroturf"

The rampant use of canned letters to the editor is an affront to the political process, and a perversion of the "Fourth Estate" through which these sordid sandwich boards are disseminated. Called "astroturf," these letters are produced by campaigners for public office and distributed to members of the community, who send them under their names. Posing as very motivated, if not sycophantic supporters of a particular candidate, the people who send in the letters contribute nothing — save for a stamp, envelope, and the saliva oozing out of their slackened jaws — to what is basically free advertising on a newspaper's editorial page.

While most people expect the election-year smut commonly heard or seen on TV and on the radio (of "Nussle Hustle" variety), the editorial page is not advertising space and should, ideally at least, be different. It is a travesty of the editorial page's traditionally vaunted status as a bastion of American democracy and a forum for exercising freedom of speech, and the onus for this cynical exploitation rests solely with politicians and their associates. Newspapers, which have no way of knowing for sure which are which, and are thus under a certain obligation to give all letters the benefit of the doubt, cannot really be held responsible. Astroturf is just one relatively mild example of the poverty of politics in a decadent, "rationally ignorant" America, also evident in ever more facile and ethically-challenged campaign ads, officials' conduct, and now, vote hacking. These fears may be perennial ones, and American democracy may not be what it was cracked up to be; yet we
should strive for the ideal, or adjust the myths accordingly.

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