Automated letters to the editor
A word of advice to the folks who choose the "Letters to the Editor" at newspapers everywhere: Do a Google search on key phrases before printing them. If these folks didn't know that before, they do now. Dozens of papers were burned recently, printing word-for-word letters signed by different people, but spawned by a simple Web tool offered by the Republican Party at GOPTeamLeader.com. The ruse is far from new and not limited to the right wing, but the success of this "Astroturf" (for fake grassroots) campaign is a wake-up call to techno-unsavvy newspaper types.
Red faces probably abounded at places like the Boston Globe, the Sacramento Bee, the Arizona Daily Star and 70-plus outlets that ran the same letter starting with "When it comes to the economy, President Bush is demonstrating genuine leadership." The only outlets that can escape blame are the ones who printed the letter first -- as opposed to the 74th outlet to print it, the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier (just this past Sunday).
Not only did the mainstream media blow it by printing so many copycat letters, but their coverage of the fiasco was (understandably) late and didn't give much credit to the Webloggers who broke the story. Once again, the British press beat the Americans in their own backyard, with the The Inquirer and Register jumping on the "scandal" of knockoff letters with allegations of spam and alien groupthink. The Register credited blogger Atrios for unmasking the deed, who credited Tom Arthur for finding the letters. Only later were the dots connected to the GOP Web site.
The story then grew legs, and made it into PC World, Newsweek's Web site and even The New York Times -- none of which credited bloggers. One blogger, M.E. Cowan, even started a helpful site called "Fight Back Against Killer Astroturf," that tracks GOP form letters that make it into print. Weblogger Paul Boutin did try to set the story straight in Slate, and said the newspapers "seem unconcerned" by the look-alike letters. But the Boston Globe's letters editor Glenda Buell sounded steamed in Newsweek's article, saying "it's dishonest." Newsweek's Seth Mnookin said the Globe was burned twice, printing one form letter on Dec. 1 and a different one on Jan. 12.
Oddly enough, Jim Frisinger of the Dallas Morning News told Mnookin that he didn't like astroturf, but "in an open society, with freedom of speech, sometimes we need to let these things in." Huh? Well now that so many papers have "let this thing in," you can expect a helluva lot of letters editors (and maybe fact checkers?) to get acquainted with popular form-letter sites on political issues -- and Google News. And they might even admit to reading Weblogs from time to time.
The worm, the hack, and laying blame
If newspapers were feeling especially bad over the astroturf fiasco, some got hit with more punishment by the "SQ Hell" worm over the past weekend that hit computer networks at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the AP and Philadelphia Inquirer. According to the Washington Post, the AJ-C had to delay publishing its first Sunday edition because of the sinister worm that exploits a known security flaw in Microsoft SQL Server.
News.com's Robert Lemos noted that the worm started spreading last Friday, one day after Microsoft's Bill Gates sent a memo to customers saying the company "accomplished a lot" in computer security. But Lemos said experts were deflecting blame from Microsoft because it had found the flaw six months ago and offered a patch to users then. The problem was more likely lazy systems adminstrators -- or lack of administrators, with all the corporate cutbacks of late.
Another obvious target was hit over the weekend in an apparently unrelated denial-of-service attack that brought down the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) Web site, according to News.com. The attack came after the RIAA won a big legal victory in getting personal information from Verizon on its Internet users who are allegedly pirating music.
So while the Internet has given so many individuals a way to be heard through Web sites, forwarded email and Weblogs, the dark side is the power that malcontents still wield with worms, viruses and cyberattacks.
"The television next to my desk is still tuned to CNN, just as it is in most newsrooms around the country. And we still look in every day on Drudge, Google and the New York Times. But what really makes us happy is when we see that we have a hot story for the next day's paper that the others haven't caught on to yet."
-- The Washington Times' foreign editor, David W. Jones, writing a frank editorial about the way newspaper folks are using the Web to keep up on the competition -- and the way that practice also homogenizes the news.
Mark Glaser currently writes technology features for The New York Times, travel stories for the San Jose Mercury News, and a bi-weekly e-mail newsletter for the Online Publishers Association, whose membership includes most major media companies online. That won't stop him from taking cheap potshots at these outlets, when necessary. You can contact him with any juicy tidbits about online journalism at firstname.lastname@example.org.