Newspapers fielding flurry of similar voter letters

Wednesday, September 20th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

PHILADELPHIA – The strangely similar letters started popping up over the last month or so in newspapers across the country – in Kansas City, Mo., and Louisville, Ky., in Chattanooga, Tenn., in Anchorage, Alaska, and Allentown, Pa.

People supporting the candidacy of George W. Bush sent letters to the editor that were virtually identical.

Some papers got dozens. At least seven others published letters from readers who used nearly the same words – sometimes exactly the same words – to express their sentiments about the GOP presidential nominee. All these said Mr. Bush was working to "make sure the American dream touches every willing heart."

The letters have their genesis in a "sample letter to the editor" contained in the Bush campaign Web site, After the Internet site is accessed, a window pops up that leads to instructions for writing letters.

Al Gore's campaign is making a similar effort. But it has not caught on as well with letter writers.

The Bush Web site's sample begins: "I am an active voter writing in support of George W. Bush 's campaign." It says Mr. Bush "has displayed insight and leadership," and includes his line, which he has also used in speeches, about "every willing heart." It ends: "Make sure you vote for George W. Bush for president on Nov. 7. Sincerely, (Sender's Name)."

"It's people participating in the democratic process," said a Bush campaign spokesman, Ken Lisaius. "It's not wrong for people to express their opinions to newspapers across the country, and nothing wrong with providing them with information about [Mr. Bush's] priorities."

Not everyone agrees. Ron Dzwonkowski, editor of the Detroit Free Press editorial page, who got about 25 copies of the letter, said he would not publish it because the paper has a policy against printing form letters and those submitted to numerous publications.

He said the letter was a hot topic among the nation's editorial writers, many of whom recently attended a convention in Seattle, "because everybody was receiving these letters."

"We're looking for original letters that express people's original views," said Mr. Dzwonkowski, adding that use of the sample letter reflects "that people are taking orders, or taking suggestions, from the campaign."

A computerized search of several hundred newspapers found no cases in which Mr. Gore's sample was used verbatim. The letter is harder to spot on the Web site and it is about twice as long as the pro-Bush form letter.

Gore campaign spokesman Dan Pfeiffer said the sample was "very voluntary, for people who want to be involved in the campaign."

The Bush Web site urges people to read the sample letter, then write their own letters and mail them to their local newspapers. The Gore campaign invites supporters to "write your own letter or use the sample letter below."

One person who used the Bush letter, Donald Bingham of Georgetown, Ind., said it expressed the way he felt about Mr. Bush. His letter, a word-for-word match of the sample, was published in the Louisville, Ky., Courier-Journal on Sept. 1.

"I frequently write letters to the editor, but it was so succinct and well-put and on the mark that I just felt it said everything I wanted to say," said Mr. Bingham, 50, who is retired from Philip Morris. "I always used my own words in the past and I'm an independent thinker, but this one so wholly encompassed major points of what I liked that I used it the way it was."

Although the Internet has made it easier to use such tactics, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert on campaigns, said that help with letter writing was nothing new in politics.

She said many people want to express a point of view but have difficulty articulating it. She called it gutsy for them to state their views in letters to the editor – whether they write the exact words themselves or not.

"It's not an unhealthy thing to do," she said of using sample letters. "It's just not the spontaneous outpouring of citizen sentiment one might otherwise think it is."