Grass Roots Plus Fertilizer Equals Political Astroturf

AUSTIN - Astroturf is a political term for phony grass-roots organizations supported with corporate money. In one of the more berserk developments in the history of modern politics, astroturf has become such a profitable (estimated $1 billion a year) and sophisticated business that public-relations firms are now warring with one another about who provides astroturf and who provides "real" grass-roots organizing. "Real" in the context of the PR industry does not mean "real"; it means PR campaigns that are harder to spot as astroturf. In other words, "real" means a better grade of phony.

Another reason not to write fiction.

For example, John Davies of Davies Communications, quoted in the commendable publication PR Watch, explains how to "make a strategically planned program look like a spontaneous explosion of community support." Using mailing lists and computer databases to identify potential supporters, he described how telemarketers turn "passive supporters" into what appear to be advocates.

"We want to assist them with letter writing. We get them on the phone, and while we're on the phone, we say, `Will you write a letter?' `Sure.' `Do you have time to write it?' `Not really.' `Could WE write the letter for you? I could put you on the phone right now with someone who could help you write a letter. Just hold - we have a writer standing by.' "

The call is then passed on to another Davies employee who creates what appears to be a personal letter sent to the appropriate public official. Davies said, "If they're close by, we hand-deliver it. We hand-write it out on `little kitty stationery' if it's a little old lady. If it's a business, we take it over to be photocopied on someone's letterhead."

Hand-written letters on "little-kitty stationery" are, you see, so much more real than the hundreds of form postcards sent in by the old-style astroturf specialists.

As a great believer in calling a spade a bloody shovel, let me point out that astroturf, both old- and new-style, is about deceit. Falseness, furtiveness, underhandedness, duplicity, chicanery, shiftiness and treacherousness. The rationalizations used by those who are handsomely paid to practice this dirty craft are the usual pile of high-falutin' drivel, but from Ralph Reed of the Christian Coalition to the tobacco industry, all the rationalizations boil down to the same tired excuse: It works.

The most famous single victim of astroturf to date was President Clinton's health-care reform bill, a win that the astroturf specialists are still crowing about and using in their own ads. PR consultant Blair Childs was executive director of the Health Insurance Association of America's "Coalition for Health Insurance Choices" (CHIC). (Deceptive naming of astroturf organizations is a science in itself. The PR firms have research showing that people respond well to certain words: fairness, balance, choice, coalition and alliance are favorites.) Childs, according to PR Watch, explained how CHIC used paid ads on Rush Limbaugh's show to generate thousands of phone calls urging legislators to kill health-care reform.

"First, Rush would whip up his `dittohead' fans with a calculated rant against the Clinton health plan. Then during a commercial break, listeners would hear an anti-health care ad and an 800 number to call for more information. Calling the 800 number would connect them to a telemarketer who would talk to them briefly and then `patch them through' directly to their congressperson's office. The congressional staffers fielding the calls typically had no idea that the constituents had been primed, loaded, aimed and fired at them by radio ads on the Limbaugh show, paid by the insurance industry, with the goal of orchestrating the appearance of overwhelming grass-roots opposition to health-care reform."

The tobacco industry is famous for organizing and supporting smokers' rights groups, taxpayers' groups and restaurant associations to oppose tobacco taxes. The "wise use" anti-environmental movement is another heavy new contender in astroturf gardening. The number and array of corporately supported anti-environmental groups is a tribute, in its way, to all the years of hard work and grass-roots organizing done by environmentalists.

Hundreds of these phony "citizen" groups now exist. Some are so narrow-gauge that they are paid for by individual companies. According to Consumer Reports, Americans for Medical Progress Educational Foundations produces a syndicated column called "Medical Milestones" about the benefits of scientific research that runs in more than 1,200 periodicals. According to its own ads, the foundation is a charitable organization formed to "spearhead the critical effort to educate opinion leaders and citizens about the necessity for animal research." The foundation was formed in 1990 by executives of the United States Surgical Corp., a company that uses animal experiments to develop new products.

What to do? For starters, the government should stop giving tax-exempt status to these groups. The Atlanta Constitution reports many "are little more than a letterhead and a fax machine, and they disappear as quickly as they arrive, frequently after having generated disinformation."

Maybe we should limit the sale of little-kitty stationery to actual old ladies. And don't trust anyone who's not Ralph Nader.

(Copyright, 1995, Creators Syndicate, Inc.)

Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Her column appears Monday on editorial pages of The Times.