The Media's True Colors - Part 1E
This is part of my continuing series exploring the real nature and behavior of the U.S. mainstream news media - in terms of news coverage. Part 1 of this series addresses issues of basic journalism, and previous posts covered bias in journalistic malpractice on political coverage (Part 1A), accountability for malpractice against the Left (Part 1B), punishment for transgressions (Part 1C) and censorship (Part 1D). This part addresses astroturf propagation.
One aspect where the American mainstream media's possibly unintentional bias reveals itself is in how the media propagates the kind of propaganda also known as astroturf. Sharon Beder has stated the conventional definition of astroturf (bold text is my emphasis):
Artificially created grassroots coalitions are referred to in the industry as 'astroturf' (after a synthetic grass product). Astroturf is a "grassroots program that involves the instant manufacturing of public support for a point of view in which either uninformed activists are recruited or means of deception are used to recruit them."(FN11) According to Consumer Reports magazine, those engaging in this sort of work can earn up to $500 "for every citizen they mobilize for a corporate client's cause."(FN12)
Astroturf is also generated in other ways. At ICM I have provided numerous examples that scratch the surface of what is a huge operation -- an operation that is dominated far more by wealthy, business-friendly/business-funded conservative groups than by the usually (but not always) more cash-strapped progressive or liberal groups (that usually try to keep businesses accountable and protect consumers). As I have shown at ICM and as others have others have shown, conservative (and often corporate-funded) groups more commonly indulge in misleading and deceptive advertising or claims. Additionally, astroturf letter writing campaigns tend to be dominated more by conservatives than progressives/liberals - and even when the media expose such astroturf (usually late in the game) they often resort to false "balance" by merely claiming both sides do it or by implying somehow that both sides do it to the same degree - without producing evidence. When the media makes such inaccurate claims or does not step in to independently assess the accuracy of the claims by the (astroturf) groups that it is reporting on, that are allowed to advertise on it, or whose letters and op-eds are featured in its pages, it skews more conservative than liberal with its tolerance for astroturf (either in news articles, op-eds, letters, or ads).
For those would like to read more on this, links are provided below (from ICM) to more detailed coverage (and examples) of the most common types of astroturf seen today:
For completeness, I am going to give an example from each of the above categories below.
1. News coverage/ads
This FTCR study is a good place to start.
Here's how it works: when consumer advocates sponsor HMO reform, or utility rate reduction proposals, for example, insurance lobbyists or utility executives stay behind the scenes. Instead, they give money to individuals or organizations who then appear in their television ads, press conferences and other events, pretending to be impartial experts, consumer advocates, environmentalists, etc.
The strategy's been called "astroturf" or "corporate camouflage." We call these phony individuals and organizations the "goon squad."
It's a national phenomenon, which we expose in this detailed report that names all the names. Click below to read more about:
"Consumer Reporter" Gets $136,000 from Utility Companies, Credit Card and Long Distance Companies
How Political Consultants Are Selling A Non-Profit's Reputation for over $5,000,000 from Insurance Companies and Silicon Valley Business Interests
Planning and Conservation League
"Environmental Group" Supports Utility Companies' Bailout of Nuclear Power for $70,000
San Francisco "Minority" Organization Sides With Utilities In Exchange for $330,000 from Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison between 1996 and 1997; Receives Major Funding From Insurance Companies and Other Corporations, As Well.
University of Virginia professor supports insurance industry, and it supports him.
University of Wisconsin's "Auto Accident Compensation Project"
Academic aura for insurance propaganda organ.
The Truth About Philip Howard's "Common Good"
Everyone has quirks. Among mine is an obsession with matters nuclear: weapons, power, waste. I've been writing about little else for several years. So I was intrigued not long ago to run across an opinion piece in my hometown daily, the Austin American-Statesman headlined "Funds for nuclear waste storage should be used for just that."
The March 4 op-ed by Sheldon Landsberger, a University of Texas professor of nuclear engineering, argued trenchantly that the government is fleecing electric-power ratepayers, who for more than two decades have been contributing mandatory fees for the development of a proposed national nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Landsberger charged that a portion of the fees earmarked for the Nuclear Waste Fund is diverted to the U.S. Treasury. "Denying the Yucca Mountain project an adequate level of funding," he wrote, "is stealing money from taxpayers who were required to support the waste management project."
Strong words. Familiar ones, too. So familiar that I was sure they were entombed in the towering file of articles on nuclear waste that I, ahem, maintain. I knew I could excavate the words eventually. Or I could Google them. I typed in "Yucca Mountain" and "stealing money"; 0.11 seconds later, I had my cite: A Dec. 9, 2003, op-ed column in the State, the Columbia, S.C., daily. It appeared under the byline of Abdel E. Bayoumi, chairman of the department of mechanical engineering at the University of South Carolina. Wrote Prof. Bayoumi: "Denying the repository project an adequate amount of funding is essentially stealing money from the taxpayers who were required to support the waste management project."
Other sentences were identical, as was the entire last paragraph, but this was no case of garden-variety plagiarism; Landsberger had not appropriated the words of Bayoumi. Instead, as I was about to learn, Landsberger and other engineering professors at universities great and small had been sent op-eds over the past decade or more and asked to sign, seal and deliver them as their own to their local newspapers. The opinion pieces were written not by the academic experts, but originally by a PR agency in Washington, D.C., working on behalf of the nuclear energy industry.
"I've written five to 10 [such] articles over the last five years," he said. "They come maybe two or three times a year, particularly when there's a hot-button issue." They came to him? Again, he wouldn't say from whom.
I returned to Bayoumi's column and typed its final sentence, "The government should get on with it," into the LexisNexis newspaper search engine. Up popped the same plaintive wail in a Buffalo (N.Y.) News op-ed published July 26, 1993 -- fully 10 years earlier. (Bayoumi's column featured other lockstep language as well.) Back to the phone. I asked if he had written the piece. He said yes. "All the writing is my own," Bayoumi said. "I have no knowledge of that [Buffalo News] column. I have no idea who did what 10 years ago."
I believed him, just as I'd believed Landsberger when he said he was unaware of Bayoumi's column. Nevertheless, I wondered what was really going on.
Eventually it would become clear. Landsberger divulged that he had received the op-eds from a fellow at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the Energy Department's nuclear research and development facility in Tennessee. He wouldn't name his correspondent, but he did allow that the man worked with Potomac Communications Group Inc., a Washington-based public relations firm.
A quick visit to Potomac's Web page delivered the news that among its clients is the Nuclear Energy Institute, the mighty industry-funded lobby. On the NEI's Web site is a list of experts whom reporters are encouraged to call for comment or technical assistance with a story. One of those experts is Sheldon Landsberger; another is Theodore M. Besmann, a nuclear engineer at Oak Ridge National Lab.
You're nobody without a Web page, and Ted Besmann is no nobody. His page on the Oak Ridge Web site helpfully mentions that since 1985 he has moonlighted as a consultant to Potomac. Besmann, although not overjoyed to hear from me, acknowledged that Potomac pays him to ghostwrite letters to newspaper editors and to broker op-ed pieces to engineering colleagues around the country. (He also is a prolific correspondent under his own name; The Washington Post, for instance, has published four of his letters, most recently in 2001. His letters identify him as a "researcher" or "head of a research group" at Oak Ridge National Lab, but not as a consultant to the industry.)
I started searching LexisNexis and other databases for op-eds written by academics the NEI touts as experts. I printed out a healthy sampling, grouping them chronologically and by subject area. Searching on key phrases led me to other academics' op-eds. Once sorted, it didn't take a forensic crime lab to determine that one person's literary DNA is all over those articles.
Take the argument that the increased use of nuclear power leads to fewer greenhouse-gas emissions. Op-eds on that subject, for instance, ran between 1997 and 1999 with different bylines in three newspapers. Each writer dismissed the claims of "environmentalists" or "skeptics" that greenhouse-gas emissions "can be reduced" without nuclear power. "They are dreaming," said one op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on Dec. 2, 1997. Yes, concurred another in the Record of Northern New Jersey on Jan. 5, 1998: "They are dreaming." And Dallas Morning News readers awoke on April 5, 1999, to learn from Landsberger that those lazy enviros were still in the sack: "They are dreaming," he wrote.
Or take the campaign to locate low-level nuclear waste facilities in various states. Between 1990 and 1996, three academics and a physician writing op-eds in newspapers in four states -- Nebraska, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Texas -- all assured readers that nearby sites would "be among the safest and best-engineered" waste facilities in the country.
Fascinated by all of this, I phoned the news editor at the weekly Austin Chronicle, who told me to lace up my roller skates and get going on a story -- which it published April 16.
The op-eds are ginned up by a prodigious copywriter at Potomac Communications Group named Peter Bernstein, who works out of an office in Alexandria.
Maia Cowan has compiled some examples of pro-Bush astroturfing in 2004 and prior to that at Failure Is Impossible:
Newspapers around the country are being deluged with Letters to the Editor expressing support for the Bush agenda. These letters are obviously an orchestrated campaign: they are identical, word for word, except where they are "edited for length".
In keeping with the frankly partisan theme of Failure Is Impossible, I list here only pro-Republican Astroturf. I deplore the fact that Democratic and liberal organizations are also not merely encouraging their supporters to write letters about specific issues, but actually providing boilerplate text. If you're going to send a letter, write it yourself. Sending Astroturf is cheating!
- Astroturf Is Strong and Getting Stronger
- Is Astroturf Fireproof?
- "Fixing" Medicare -- Like Fixing a Tomcat, Maybe?
- Blame the Democrats
- Getcher Gen-u-ine Leadership Here!
- Moving In the Right Direction, Are We?
- As We Begin a New Astroturf Campaign
- An Outlaw Regime
- A Partisan Outrage
- Miguel Estrada and the Murkan Dream
As I have discussed further here, GOP astroturf letters tend to be much higher than any pro-Democrat astroturf, but it doesn't stop the media from creating false equivalence in their reporting on this.