Does Astroturf Ever Die?

How do we rid Washington of astroturf? It's a blight that's spread over the Capitol like kudzu, smothering genuine public debate under a tangle of misinformation.

Sporting names like "Tea Party Patriots," "Energy Citizens" and "Americans for Broadband," astroturf groups have pocketed millions from industry to prop up the status quo and denounce an overhaul of health care, curbs to carbon emissions and Net Neutrality protections.

These fake grassroots groups have scored some amazing successes. Working together with lobbyists and a pack of sputtering media pundits, they've bullied Washington's timid leadership -- on both the left and the right - into inaction, or worse, outright opposition to the changes that a majority of Americans, in poll after poll, say they want.

Salon journalists Gabriel Winant and Tim Bell chronicle the way ideas forged in the crucible of Fox News and astroturf become GOP gospel. Rolling Stone reporter Tim Dickinson traces the money that connects astroturf lies to corporate checking accounts.

But what happens when the corporate spigot gets turned off? Does astroturf still wield its power to frighten politicians and sway the media, or does it simply wither up and blow away?

The Rise and Fall of 'HandsOff'

The story of one noted astroturf group is instructive. In 2006, the world was first introduced to "Hands Off the Internet," a well-oiled group led by former Clinton Press Secretary Mike McCurry and funded by AT&T and other Internet service providers.

HandsOff pulled out all of the standard astroturf tricks to stifle popular enthusiasm for Net Neutrality - the principle that keeps Internet users, not ISPs, in control of the Net. HandsOff purchased millions of dollars' worth of ads in trade journals and the Washington Post to spin Net Neutrality as a government crackdown on the free-flowing Web.

McCurry worked his media connections to appear before cameras as an "independent expert" carrying on the legacy of the Clinton administration. He and his HandsOff Co-chair Christopher Wolf wrote Op-Eds for prominent publications like the New York Times without disclosing who was punching their meal tickets. They went before the cameras of mainstream cable stations. Soon, politicians were regurgitating HandsOff talking points (fed directly to the astroturf group by AT&T) without blinking.

HandsOff figured it was easy enough to extend these deceptive practices into cyberspace. The group built a Web site with a grassroots feel, blanketed all the leading blogs with ads, and dispatched McCurry to prominent online sites to trade on his reputation as a loyal Democrat.

What the Netroots Hates Most

The only problem with this strategy: HandsOff forgot about the netroots and their loathing of fakes - a loathing that would come into full force as readers at Huffington Post, MyDD, DailyKos and FireDogLake reacted to McCurry's phony overtures.

McCurry first submitted a commentary to Huffington Post (he's since removed it but his follow-up post is here), in which he called Net Neutrality "a solution in search of a problem."

Readers weren't fooled. A cursory peak behind the curtain of revealed a sponsor list of telecommunications companies and industry front groups. McCurry's post soon received hundreds of angry comments accusing him of "selling out" his progressive beliefs to corporate interests.

Matt Stoller, then writing for the popular progressive blog MyDD, led the charge. Stoller is a bloggers' blogger, who has worked tirelessly to organize the netroots and alert them to new issues, messages and ideas. Author Malcolm Gladwell of The Tipping Point might classify him as a connector - like Paul Revere on his midnight ride. Stoller sounded the alarm and people listened.

In a post on MyDD titled "Mike McCurry: Mouthpiece for Deception," Stoller accused McCurry of operating in bad faith: "McCurry is deceiving the public, and it's making my blood boil," Stoller wrote. "Working as a lobbyist for telecommunications companies is fine... What's NOT fine is that he's misrepresenting the fight."

Other prominent bloggers like Atrios, David Sirota and Arianna Huffington piled on. Soon, McCurry's byline stopped appearing on Huffington Post altogether, and he was so frequently called out in public appearances for shilling that he retreated into the safe enclave of phone- and cable-company sponsored events.

Make Phoniness a Liability

Within a year, the companies that funded HandsOff realized that it was more of a liability than an asset. Lobbying payments to McCurry and Wolf dried up - from more than a half million dollars in 2006 to nothing in 2008, according to the Lobbying Disclosure Act Database.

By then, both McCurry and Wolf were long gone. McCurry had scampered off to shill for another AT&T front group; Wolf continues to lobby for corporate interests as a highly paid D.C. lawyer. Both have scrubbed HandsOff from their online resumes.

And while some functionary still posts a rare update to the group's darkly illegible blog, the rest of the site has fallen into disrepair, serving more as a tombstone for astroturf gone awry than as a legitimate voice in the debate.

This epithet for HandsOff is itself a testament to the power of an open Internet. The group's efforts to mislead the public would have gone unnoticed were it not for an active netroots, ready to call out fraud in the mainstream media and speak up in support of Net Neutrality.

But is that enough? While this astroturf group is dead, the companies behind it have simply moved their chips to other front operations.

Like the plastic product itself, astroturf never really dies. As long as corporate special interests see value in bankrolling phony front groups, they will. And as long as mainstream media air astroturf spokespeople without revealing their sponsors, the business of fakery will remain a feature of Washington's political landscape.

The good news is that more people are becoming aware of the problem and taking to the Internet to kill astroturf before it strangles our democracy.

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