Demonstrating Genuine Readership
I'll suppress most of the details -- hours scrubbing public search engines to find the same material, over and over! Neither can I replicate the path of discovery, but here's a peripatetic outline...
As I prepared to publish this, I realized why it doesn't flow like a 'story': I'm trying to represent the web here, and that can't be done without... the web. Some of these suspect "Letters to the Editor" existed in different newspapers at the same time. Some existed at different times in the same newspaper. Those pairs intersect, and branch to others. OK. It doesn't flow. I'll stop apologizing :-)
On 2003-01-17, Jeff Boes sent me an e-mail. (Apparently he had not learned his lesson last year, having sent me the e-mail that spawned Googlewhack.) Although Jeff is [ahem] supposed to be writing deep PERL and SQL for Nexcerpt, he happened upon something equally newsy: local newspaper "Letters to the Editor." Many of them. Everywhere. All exactly the same.
Two hours later, Jamie McCarthy sent along a similar note. Now I gotta get busy UnBlinking.
At first touch, Altavista returned two results: an online blog named 'onepotmeal,' (whose locale and name may offer political context), and a northern Michigan Mining Gazette (whose locale and name may offer political context).
What plausible explanation for so many "writers" with identical thoughts? OnePotMeal suggests: "The radio in my head tells me that I think W., Inc. is demonstrating genuine leadership." Henceforth, we refer to 'Demonstrating Genuine Leadership" as Alien Transmission 2003-01.
Clearly, some readers of the Houghton, Michigan, Mining Gazette aren't on the frequency. One reader (a Canadian with considerable freedom of speech) "can see Bush as he is - a liar, a corporate thief and an illegitimate president. The Gazette editors juxtapose this letter just to pose the question:
A little Googling finds that Nick is a regular receptor. From the Mining Gazette September 2002 Letters to the Editor, comes Alien Transmission 2002-09:
Searching for Nick's phrase, "obligation to disclose their agenda" seemed like a dead end. However, it brought me back to a site OnePotMeal had mentioned, Atrios sez Dittoheads Write letters, which describes "Astroturfing." (If it's artificial "grassroots", it must be "astroturf.")
Atrios knows that Alien Transmissions have come before, as detailed at
Failure Is Impossible. There, Maia Cowan lists 34 different newspapers that carried the "obligation to disclose their agenda" letter (Alien Transmission 2002-09) over different signatures. This example, from the September, 2002, Honolulu Star Bulletin:
Now, backtrack with me. Remember Alien Transmission 2003-01? Here's a clip from the January, 2003, Honolulu Star Bulletin. Guess who... The Dirk-man! Dirk-o-rama! Dirk-meister! Makin' copies!
This same Alien Transmission also appeared in the Boston Globe. Thanks to skimble, for pointing out their mistyping of the phrase "President Bush has demonstrating genuine leadership." It's one of only a few mutations extant! Sez skimble:
When it comes to astroturfing, copycat propagandists can't even get it right. Bushisms are now creeping into the language of his minions and toadies.
Led me to another Cape Code letter with suspiciously smooth language after the elections:
That letter, Alien Transmission 2002-11, appeared in at least twenty newspapers. Identically.
A scan of Google Groups hints this all may be Republican PR spin machine in action, citing a 2003-01-07 letter from Jack Oliver, Deputy Chairman of the Republican National Committee:
The President's proposal will benefit every American who pays taxes - especially middle-income workers, seniors on fixed incomes, small business owners that are the backbone of our economy, and unemployed workers. Under the Presidents proposal 92 million taxpayers would receive an average tax cut of $1,083 in 2003 alone...
We need you to add your voice to the millions of Americans that support the President's plan by writing a letter to your local news editors today and making sure your community knows that President Bush's plan is the right plan for America's taxpayers.
Is it the Republican National Committee, rather than Space Aliens? The numbers say "no." The RNC agrees on "$1,083," matching Alien Transmission 2003-01. AT2003-01 goes on to say "46 million married couples will get back an average of $1,714." Perhaps a search for 46 million married couples is another trail? Oddly, the White House and Treasury Department Press Releases say $1,716. not $1,714 as specified in the Alien Transmission. Off by two bucks. Oh, well.
Update, 2003-01-21 13:00 EST: The Inquirer, UK today describes how the GOP is involved. Technically, it's true that Team GOP Spam, Bam, Thank You Ma'am is owned by the Republican National Committee. However, it still seems likely that space aliens are in charge!
Demonstrating Gen-"You Whine" Readership
So, what are these Alien Receptors whining about? I also checked the phrase "When it comes to the economy." It did not lead to some mother lode of ready-to-bake letters. Rather, it reveals Ronald Brownstein's Like Father, Like Son: The Economic Indicators Head South
When it comes to the economy, the Bush family is on an intergenerational losing streak.
Nearly halfway through his term, President Bush's economic record is beginning to look a lot like that of his father, former President George Bush. That isn't good news for the younger Bush. Or for the economy.
Most key measures of economic well-being for average families declined under the first President Bush. Then, after an unsteady start, almost all of those same measures improved during Bill Clinton's eight years in the White House.
Now, under the second President Bush, the trend lines are pointing down again.
The same query returns red, white, and blue charts by Scott Davis, asking, Are you better off than you were 2 years ago?. Apparently not.
This track led to Change in Income Inequality for Families: 1947-1998, which will make you hope that the masses never rise up, and
David Chandler's graph of the astonishing income disparity in the United States, a graph on which "Ordinary millionaires don't even show up!"
...the truth of my central thesis is not dependent on the exact height of the graph or shadings of definitions. As one correspondent put it, there is a "money spike" and there is a "population spike." There are two classes in this country. One class derives concentrated power from its concentrated wealth. The other class has power only in numbers. That power is effective only to the extent that it can be mobilized through organization.
Until we come to terms with these issues, phrases such as, "We the people...," and, "of the people, by the people, and for the people," are hollow cliches.
So, are the Alien Receptors just "the people," "mobilized through organization"? Not necessarily, as "When it comes to the economy" also returns "The U.S. Needs A "Regime Change" at Buzzflash:
BuzzFlash provides headlines, news, and commentary for a geographically-diverse, politically-savvy, pro-democracy, anti-hypocrisy web audience, reaching a million visitors a month and growing.
Make Them Accountable cites Crain's Chicago Business, debunking the myth that "Republicans Are Better for the Economy than Democrats". The Make Them Accountable home page carries a quote from Joseph Goebbels: "Repetition is the lynchpin of propaganda." As in, Alien Transmissions?
Blogs are by "the people," and more have picked up the story now (2003-01-18 14:00). For example, Paul Murray noted a report by Paul Boutin, who says:
It's not the first time a form letter has been a hit, but you'd think by now it would be easier to catch them. Idly curious as to who authored and distributed it, I've left a couple of phone messages with people whose names have appeared in print under the letter...
I bounced through a 2003-01-18 report from Blake Carver at LIS Librarian News, to Metafilter (for once coming late to the game :-). The first comment captured the tone of the room: "I guess they all subscribe to the 'goosestep' news service."
Later, Johnathan Rouse describes the underlying disingenuousness of this use of form letters:
Maybe I'm misunderstanding this - I was under the impressions that form letters to congressmen were clearly identified as such; certainly the offices of congress recognize them as such. These op ed pieces are indistinguishable from the pieces next to them; pieces that contain 100% original thought/viewpoint. This is centralized power disguised as decentralized popular mandate, at least, that's the way I'm taking it, and it just seems very wrong. The target here isn't to convince a congresscritter to pass a law, it's to sway the will of the unaware public, who read these pieces and think "jeez, I had no idea the Bush econ. policy was so popular. Maybe I've been too hard on him".
Opus dark agrees:
A communications channel which is found to be contaminated with cut-and-paste agitprop is a corrupted (and corruptible) communications channel. It is less useful than it once was. Its charter is no longer a valid measure of its content.
From now on, it must be diligently filtered, or ignored.
Saladin's reply proves The Transmission Is Out There: "I even read this tripe in the St. Augustine (population 12,000) Record the other day." The 37 copies we know of may be only a drop in the bucket.
Briefly, I puzzled over mixed messages sent by John U. Miller, Indianapolis, who circulated Alien Transmission 2002-09. Had he signed another editorial opposing the Bush tax plan?
Ah, no! The other editorial referred to John U. Miller (Executive Director, Capital Area Council of Churches, Albany) who signed a missive from the Religious Community For Responsible Tax Policy:
We are gravely concerned with the current tax cut proposals initiated by President Bush and being debated and passed by Congress. As millions of people - parents and children, the elderly, people with disabilities, and the working poor - are driven to seek charity to meet their most basic needs, we are appalled that the focus of attention in this congressional session is not on meeting their needs; rather, it is on tax cuts that will mostly benefit the affluent.
Let us be clear, we oppose the tax cut proposal initiated by President Bush and currently moving through Congress. It is too inequitable, too large, and threatens the future well being of our nation.
This letter also appeared widely since it represents represents the views of over 600 clergy representing thousands of churches and millions of members from all 50 states. The big difference: all these writers had the dignity to sign their names!