It has been a summer of staged outrage–a.k.a., astroturf.
As President Obama promoted his health care agenda this summer, mobs of angry Americans greeted him at town hall meetings. They had been orchestrated by lobbyists and political interest groups.
Astroturf groups are grass-roots citizen movements run by powerful corporate and political interests.
“It is optics–making things look as if there is more controversy than there is,” said Lisa Graves, executive director of PR Watch, a non-profit that monitors front groups.
But a look at their funding sources and origins reveal shady associations to corporations and lobbying groups. This is a look at some of the most successful astroturfers influencing discourse in America.
Responsible for tea party demonstrations and the Hot Air Tour against global warming 'alarmism.' A giant balloon floating over the mid-West is supposed to convince Americans that the climate bill is an energy tax.
The fight: the group was created in late 2003 and since been on the wrong side of the tobacco, healthcare, global warming, taxation and other debates. It (and not Glen Beck) was the mastermind behind the sucessful efforts to remove green czar Van Jones from the White House.
Funding: by the Koch Family Foundations, the largest privately owned energy company in the US. In 2007, the group filed an IRS tax return for a revenue of more than $5 million, according to SourceWatch.
Responsible for organising some of the most threatening town hall mobs of August '09. The group worked closely with the insurance industry and with top Republicans--House Minority leader Eric Cantor, Minority leader John Boehner and chairman of the GOP's Senate steering committee, Jim DeMint--to orchestrate an end to the health care issue, according to Rolling Stone.
The fight: to ensure that 'government-run healthcare' doesn't become a reality.
Funding: the group launched a multi-million dollar campaign to promote free-market health care reform in March. Their funding, estimated at $20 million for just the health care campaign, comes from insurance companies and other interests.
They also masterminded the 'Swift boat' attacks against presidential candidate John Kerry in 2004.
The group was created in 2006 to oppose grassroots groups that promote net neutrality. It is funded by AT&T, Cingular, Bell South and other telephone companies. It's high profile spokesman is former Clinton press secretary Mike McCurry.
The fight: to open up the internet. 'Net neutrality'--the idea that everyone on the internet should have equal access to content, no matter who they are or how much they pay--is hugely unpopular among telecom companies.
Money involved: funding is not readily revealed, but it must run into hundreds of thousands of dollars. In 2006, it spent $693,658 on television advertising in a single month.
The group argues that 'Obamacare' will cut medicare payments, an idea that may have resonance with Americans aged 60 and over. Seniors make up 17% of the population and have a strong interest in the health care debate, especially with rumours of death panels going around.
In July, the American Association of Retired Persons, the largest and more liberal seniors group, revelead that their membership had dropped by 60,000 since early summer. It seems like the seniors are defecting directly to 60 Plus Association.
The Fight: in addition to opposing healthcare reform, the group asked the FDA to reject tobacco regulation responsibilities since it was already understaffed and underfunded.
Funding: the group gets money from the pharmaceutical industry. It received $11 million from PhRMA in 2002, according to Public Citizen, a public interest group. Other sponsers are Merck, Pfizer, and Wyeth-Ayerst.
The Federation for American Coal, Energy and Security is the latest pro-coal group to join the climate change debate. They claim to represent the workers, a 'broad cross-section of people and communities throughout the Appalachian region.'
The fight: to protect the rights of the coal workers, and provide economic and energy prosperity to America.
Funding: closer examination reveals their association with the Adfero Group, one of K-street's most prominant PR firms for the oil lobby. Oil and coal groups have stepped up their efforts lately with 'Energy Citizen' rallies. Their target: the Waxman-Markey bill, which was passed recently by the House. It seeks a 17 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emission by 2020.
The group argues that the soda tax is counterproductive since it will tax poorer people, who generally drink more 'liquid candy.' It also says things like, 'So soda does help people pack on the pounds. But so does absolutely everything everyone eats.'
The fight: senate leaders are thinking on placing a federal tax on soda to help pay for healthcare. They estimate that at three cent tax per 12-ounce serving will produce $24 billion over the next four years. That's a lot of money. The AAFA says the tax is too small to dissuade consumtption.
Funding: the group is organised by the American Beverage Association, whose membership includes Coke, Dr. Pepper, Pepsi, and others.
Yet another fossil fuel front group, the American Petroleum Institute is a well-funded veteran of energy and climate change wars. The group has organised 'Energy Citizens' rallies in places like Houstan, and smaller Rust Belt towns like Lima, Ohio and Elkhart, Indianapolis this year.
The fight: against the Waxman-Markey climate bill which passed the House in June. The group says the bill would cost Americans 2 million jobs and raise gas prices to $4 a barrell. Other studies by the EPA have placed a much lower peg of a 20 cent increase in gas prices.
Funding: all the oil giants have membership in the API, including ExxonMobil, Shell, BP and Chevron. It has more than 400 members, but its exact bank account details are well hidden.
The group's newest cause is global warming, but its past association has been with the tobacco lobby. They were the ones trying to convice the public of ideas such as, second-hand tobacco smoke is not all that bad. Since that issue died down, the think tank has adopted a number of issues such as climate change.
The fight: in 2008, the think tank sent material to over 11,000 Canadian schools asking them to teach students that humans are not necessarily responsible for climate change.
Funding: its 2007 annual revenue was $5.2 million, and in the past, Phillip Morris and the tobacco lobby have been contributors. It has also received money from ExxonMobil, according to ExxonSecrets.
As the Today Show broadcast live from New York in April, a group of citizens handed Matt Lauer a T-shirt promoting 'Econ4U.org.' The group--from the centre for Economic and Enterpreneurial Literacy--was promoting economic literacy, fancy-speak for payday lending. The brains behind the operation: PR hatchet man, Richard 'Dr. Evil' Berman.
The fight: the group conducts surveys to show that Americans don't know thier finances and deserve their share of blame for the economic crisis. Its research often gets quoted in mainstream media. The group also promotes payday loans, where lenders give out short-term loans with huge interest rates. And it has stepped up its efforts against financial regulation via op-eds in mainstream newspapers.
Funding: there is no evidence that the financial or payday loan industries are financing CEEL. But Berman's other organisations get money from food and agribusiness companies such as Tyson Foods, Wendy's, Monsadto, Coca-Cola and others.
A minor skirmish erupted around jet plane engines in July as 'America's No. 1 taxpayer watchdog' questioned why the government is paying billions to General Electric when it had already asked Pratt & Whitney to do the same. It was a waste of money, the group said. The only catch: they'd been paid off by Pratt & Whitney.
The fight: it is supposed to monitor government spending. In the past, it has campaigned for the tobacco industry and Microsof, and against open source software.
Funding: it had a revenue of $5 million in 2006, and has received funding from the Gordon and Mary Cain Foundation, Merrill Lynch, Exxon, Philip Morris, Sears and others, according to PR Watch.
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