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An editorial page editor's view: Copy-and-paste commentaries lack clout of unique letters

A letter writer in Convoy, Ohio, wanted my newspaper to know that he opposed Republican efforts to eliminate the Johnson Amendment, the U.S. tax code provision prohibiting nonprofit groups from endorsing or supporting candidates. So did a letter writer in Lima, Ohio; in Connersville, Ind.; in Muncie, Ind., and in more than a dozen other cities.

The problem: each letter writer sent exactly the same letter: "If House Republicans succeed in their efforts to gut the Johnson Amendment, it would open the door for Big Money donors and political interest groups to pressure and manipulate our nation's churches and charities."

Each addressed his or her letter to "Dear The Journal Gazette."

That was the first clue the letter was part of a turf campaign, a fake grassroots effort. Identical language in each letter confirmed it. I shared the letter with opinion page editors at other newspapers around the country and learned that the same letter had arrived — in bulk — at Tucson's Arizona Daily Star; at the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash.,; at the Morning Telegraph in Tyler, Texas; and at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Chuck Frederick of the Duluth News Tribune wrote that he received about 20 of the identical letters, "interestingly none of them from anyone who lives anywhere near Duluth."

Frederick traced them to "bounce.bluestatedigital.com." They appeared to come from a technology company specializing in fundraising and advocacy, with a clientele mostly on the left end of the political spectrum. It has plenty of company on the right flank, however.

The letter writers who responded to Blue State Digital's online campaign undoubtedly supported the worthy aims of the Johnson Amendment, but their political activism needed some work.

When you can't take time to do more than fill in your name and address and check off the newspapers you want to receive your message, your commitment to a cause or position comes up short. Elected officials — or at least the staffers who handle constituent communications — also take note of the effort applied. They tell us a phone call or personal letter carries more clout than a form letter or a name added to an online petition.

Nearly all newspapers welcome letters to the editor. They are an important part of a community dialogue, and opinion pages are better for the diverse views. But editors and newspaper readers want to hear the views of real people, not those of special-interest groups from away.

Yes, President Donald Trump's February pledge to "get rid of and totally destroy" the Johnson Amendment is worth challenging. Claims that religious leaders and others are restricted from sharing their views are simply untrue. The greatest danger would be to allow churches and other not-for-profit groups to engage in political activity — opening the door for them to funnel money directly into campaigns and increasing the flow of cash in politics. It would be harmful to democracy; it would be harmful to churches and charities.

For readers who agree, we would love to hear your own thoughts on the president's promise. Likewise, we want critics of the Johnson Amendment to share their views. And for all of our readers, our pledge is to do our best to separate the canned opinion from heartfelt views.

Karen Francisco is editorial page editor of the Journal Gazette of Fort Wayne, Ind.

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