MotherJones SO93: Grassroots or Astroturf?

Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.


These days, when everything from new body parts to old Red army trucks are for sale, why not put grassroots democracy on the block as well? Manufactured populism is exactly what a few drug companies bought earlier this year, and the man doing the selling was none other than Jody Powell (inset), Jimmy Carter’s press secretary, liberal Democrat, and one-time idealist. Powell is a partner in Powell Tate, a Washington-based PR outfit currently specializing in the hot political issue of health-care reform. Last year, when the Atlanta Journal- Constitution was probing physician “self-referral” (see MoJo’s “Double-Dipping Doctors,” May/June 1993), Powell was retained by the firm under investigation, T2, to lobby the newspaper’s editorial board. This winter, after President Clinton denounced the drug industry as greedy and immoral, seven pharmaceutical giants hired Powell Tate to orchestrate an image makeover. The assignment, according to an internal memo, was “to sow doubt” about Clinton’s assault. To counter public support for price controls on drugs, the firm drummed up “white hats”–citizens and respectable-sounding groups with no known ties to the industry–to “deliver the industry’s message.” Then, to create the appearance of broad-based support for the companies’ agenda, Powell Tate undertook a “targeted grassroots effort to influence decisions of key lawmakers.” A massive letter- writing campaign recruited probusiness citizens and eventually generated over 50,000 form letters and messages, sent to dozens of congresspersons. Not everyone was impressed. “Is it grassroots or Astroturf?” mused one lobbyist. An aide to one of the targeted lawmakers, a Democrat, was blunt: “The letters are a joke; it’s obvious who’s behind them.” But a Powell Tate source begged to differ: “We’re taking the message to key opinion leaders–the director of a local hospital, the head of a research teaching unit. It’s not just grassroots–it’s grasstops.” Powell himself had no comment. But the drug firms were satisfied: his $2 million contract was renewed.

We've never been very good at being conservative.

And usually, that serves us well in doing the ambitious, hard-hitting journalism that you turn to Mother Jones for. But it also means we can't afford to come up short when it comes to scratching together the funds it takes to keep our team firing on all cylinders, and the truth is, we finished our budgeting cycle on June 30 about $100,000 short of our online goal.

This is no time to come up short. It's time to fight like hell, as our namesake would tell us to do, for a democracy where minority rule cannot impose an extreme agenda, where facts matter, and where accountability has a chance at the polls and in the press. If you value our reporting and you can right now, please help us dig out of the $100,000 hole we're starting our new budgeting cycle in with an always-needed and always-appreciated donation today.

payment methods

We've never been very good at being conservative.

And usually, that serves us well in doing the ambitious, hard-hitting journalism that you turn to Mother Jones for. But it also means we can't afford to come up short when it comes to scratching together the funds it takes to keep our team firing on all cylinders, and the truth is, we finished our budgeting cycle on June 30 about $100,000 short of our online goal.

This is no time to come up short. It's time to fight like hell, as our namesake would tell us to do, for a democracy where minority rule cannot impose an extreme agenda, where facts matter, and where accountability has a chance at the polls and in the press. If you value our reporting and you can right now, please help us dig out of the $100,000 hole we're starting our new budgeting cycle in with an always-needed and always-appreciated donation today.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate