EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

Merrimack Valley

April 13, 2009

Elderly used as front in letter-writing campaign

'Grass-roots' effort looks more like Astroturf

Across Massachusetts, senior citizens are writing letters to newspapers demanding that their representatives in Congress protect a form of health insurance called Medicare Advantage.

At least that's what newspaper editors are supposed to think.

Some of those seniors are unaware that they have sent any such letters to newspapers. Some of them hadn't even heard of Medicare Advantage.

"I did not write a letter to the editor. It's not from me," said Gloria Gosselin, 75, of Lawrence.

Gosselin's name was on one of three strikingly similar letters touting the Medicare Advantage program that were sent to The Eagle-Tribune.

Writers of letters to the editor are routinely contacted by newspapers to make sure letters are legitimate. In this case, they weren't.

All three of the purported authors of the letters said they had no idea their names were being used to advocate for the health insurance program.

The letters were, in fact, composed and sent by the Boston office of a national political consulting firm attempting to create the appearance of a "grass-roots" movement for Medicare Advantage.

Such campaigns are referred to in the news industry as "Astroturf" — that is, phony grass roots.

Usually, such letters come from people who simply click a "Take Action" button on a political Web site, which results in a form letter being sent to their local newspaper. Few newspapers will knowingly publish such letters.

"There are several things wrong with it," said David Holwerk, president of the National Conference of Editorial Writers, a newspaper industry group. "Most newspapers get more letters than they can print. You want to print the ones that people have gone through the effort to write themselves."

But those people are at least aware that a letter will be sent in their names. The Medicare Advantage campaign is unusual in that the "letter writers" said they weren't aware they were participating in political advocacy at all.

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