Managing Editor's Note: The following was originally published at Greyhawk's Mudville Gazette blog on January 25, 2010.
Wow - growing evidence that multiple identical letters appearing in multiple different newspapers under multiple names implies some sort of astroturf campaign. I'm shocked, shocked I tell you, at this development.
Just wait 'til the even bigger news sites discover this story. I don't have to wonder what will happen - I know - and whoever launched these various letter-writing campaigns should be well aware of what's coming, too. After all, it's happened before, and not long ago... (screen wavers, fades out... and...)
A man who identified himself as Winston Steward, 51, of Frazier Park, Calif., says he made up the name "Ellie Light" to protect himself from criticism and possible physical attacks, and used fake addresses across the country to get local newspapers to publish his letters.
"I am Winston Steward and have been sending the letters from Ellie Light," he told The Plain Dealer in an e-mail late Tuesday, following a phone interview in which he said the same. "I hope this ends any confusion and sets the record straight."
The Sheboygan Press, which published Ellie Light's infamous letter on January 17, admitted Tuesday that its opinion editor failed to follow company protocol of confirming Light's identity.
Joe Gulig, the paper's resident watchdog, claimed to have started the process by asking for information, but never followed through to see if the phone number was real. The paper admitted that the fiasco "affects credibility" and apologized to their readers for being sloppy.
The possible culprit according to Tuesday's editorial, "The letter was well-written and made sense" (emphasis added):
Three days ago, NewsBusters contributor Candance Moore wrote about pro-Obama letter-to-the-editor spammer "Ellie Light" who had duped some 40+ papers (the number stands at 68 now), into publishing nearly identical letters that praised the president. In each case, the writer claimed to hail from cities or towns served by the local newspaper's print circulation.
Today, Fox News Channel's "America's Newsroom" had Media Research Center President and NewsBusters Publisher Brent Bozell on for comment.
Write-the-editor campaigns are a classic tactic of political campaigning, Bozell noted, saying he couldn't blame pro-Obama organizers for attempting it. The real problem is with sloppy newspapers that failed to verify the authenticity of the letter writer's identity and residence (audio available here). Said Bozell:
If Ellie Light is indeed a Democratic operative, she is only the proverbial tip of the party's astroturfing iceberg. Patterico's investigative work, which was also at the forefront of the blogosphere's efforts to expose Light, have revealed an even greater effort at manufacturing the appearance of public support for Democratic policies.
Organizing for America and the Democratic Party each have forms on their websites for supporters to write letters to the editors of their local papers. Both have suggested "talking points" next to the submission form. Both advise supporters to use their own words, but talking points from both of the sites have appeared in letters to the editor in a multitude of newspapers nationwide.
In January, an anonymous person supposedly named "Ellie Light" launched a massive PR campaign on behalf of President Barack Obama.
The goal appears to have been to infiltrate as many newspapers as possible to spread pro-Obama propaganda -- as if the press needed the help.
Light's plan was simple enough: write a compelling letter to the editor, pretend to be a concerned reader in the region, and persuade the paper to print her liberal blather.
For three weeks, editors of mainstream newspapers big and small allowed Light to spread Democrat talking points under the guise of small-town grassroots without anyone bothering to double check her story.