Four times since mid-October the Globe has unwittingly published letters that were written not by the local folks who signed them, but by the Republican National Committee. The same letters, all praising President Bush, also appeared verbatim (or nearly so) in papers across the country, each signed by a person in that paper's area.
It's the latest example of what some call ''astroturf'' (as in, fake grass roots), and it has generated a buzz online and in journalism circles.
The most recent Republican National Committee-authored letter ran in the Globe on Jan. 12 and was signed by Stephanie Johnson of Milton. It praised Bush for ''demonstrating genuine leadership'' on the economy, and detailed his tax relief plan. (Roughly 45 identical, or nearly identical, letters have arrived in the Globe's electronic mailbox - a potential tip-off that it was not an original work.)
Multiple copies were also sent to papers nationwide, and by the time the duplication came to light, dozens of papers had published it. Because the Globe was among the largest, it's been prominently mentioned as one of the papers caught off guard.
But it turns out the Jan. 12 letter was not an isolated incident. Research shows the Globe also ran GOP-authored letters on Jan. 6, Dec. 1, and Oct. 18.
Certainly the letter-writers I contacted felt they had done nothing wrong. Although Johnson could not be reached, I tracked down five other people who sent the same e-mail. All were surprised to hear that the Globe frowned on form letters.
''It is a convenient way for people who are very busy to participate in the democratic process,'' said one. Another said the form letter she sent expressed ''exactly how I feel, and I appreciate the fact that someone with a better education wrote it for me.'' From a third: ''if I take the time to forward a form letter to anyone, and put my name on it, it should be considered as mine and as good as my signature.''
Fine, except for the nagging matter of readers' trust.
If I am correct in thinking that most readers would answer ''yes'' to the question at the top of this column, doesn't the paper owe them a letters page that is original thought?
Yes, says Editorial Page Editor Renee Loth.
''Readers have a right to assume that what they read on the letters page is not canned public relations material,'' she says. Thus, she has instituted a new policy to confirm original authorship on any letter that could be part of an organized campaign.
Without using the trademark-infringing verb, the Globe goes on to say that they will make a practice of Googling letters that stink of GOP authorship.
And that, as our dear friend Martha Stewart would say, is a good thing.