The Media's Untold Story of Astroturf: Corporate Sponsored Environmentalism

It's the American way, right? It is patriotic to exercise the 1st Amendment by petitioning the government for a redress of grievances - unless of course your effort has a tie to some corporation or lobbying interest. Then regardless of its size, it's phony baloney Astroturf activism.

While groups like the George Soros-funded MoveOn.org have managed to elude the "Astroturf" moniker, from its inception, the Tea Party movement has taken shots from its critics. One of the most popular left-wing charges was to call it "Astroturf," meaning it was presented as a grassroots efforts, but wasn't really grassroots. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi labeled the Tea Party movement "Astroturf" back during the original Tax Day Tea Party protest on April 15, 2009.

"This initiative is funded by the high end - we call it Astroturf," Pelosi said. "It's not really a grassroots movement. It's Astroturf by some of the wealthiest people in America to keep the focus on tax cuts for the rich instead of for the great middle class."

That attitude has been widely echoed in media coverage of the Tea Party, as if it were a corporate effort to subvert the U.S. government's ability to collect revenue and redistribute wealth through public works and social program. Meanwhile, environmental causes, like Earth Day or global warming with their own corporate sponsorship - are rarely labeled Astroturf.

Green Movement Openly Corporate Sponsored, But Never Labeled 'Astroturf'

For many companies, environmental causes and saving the planet have become a clever way to market or advertise a product. It's a common phenomenon for retail outlets to use the environmental mantra to promote what they're selling. In fact, it's not only promoted by corporate interests, but it's something the federal government encourages businesses do to sell their product, according to the U.S. Small Business Association's Web site Business.gov.

"If you are already competitive in terms of price, quality and performance, adding ‘green' claims and eco-labels to your marketing strategy may enhance your brand image and secure your market share among the growing number of environmentally concerned consumers," the SBA Web site says. "Start your green marketing campaign by ensuring your green claims are credible. Do this by having your product certified that it was produced in an environmentally sound manner. Once certified, use the eco-labels from the certifying organizations to help consumers make educated choices."

And one has to look no further than Earth Day 2010 to see the corporate fingerprint on so-called green activist efforts. Major U.S. corporations like Proctor & Gamble, Siemens, Wells Fargo, AT&T, UPS, Philips and Ford all had a major presence at the so-called Earth Day "Climate Rally" on the National Mall back on April 25. That's in addition to a sponsorship from NASA, a federal government entity and media outlets, including the Washington Post and Gannett's USA Today.

So you have all the components - corporate interests and government bureaucracies collaborating to push a political agenda. Isn't that the textbook definition of "Astroturf?" Yet that label has failed to become a part of any green efforts.

But was that label ever applied by any media outlet to describe this particular Earth Day event?  A Nexis search of the last 90 days reveals no media outlet has used the "Astroturf" marker for Earth Day.

And it goes much further than just a clever marketing gimmick or effort by big corporation to appease an activist movement. On Glenn Beck's May 4 program, he explained how the leaders of the green movement are actually set to profit off of environmental policy. Global warming is lucrative, and regulations that would make carbon usage a commodity will profit some, perhaps even much-maligned Wall Street boogeyman Goldman Sachs (NYSE:GS)

"The global warming hoax continues to be one of their best tools," Beck said. "We've shown you the CCX, the Chicago Climate Exchange, a carbon-buying and selling business that has been estimated to become potential $10 trillion gold mine - that's if cap-and-trade is passed. Barack Obama invested via the Joyce Foundation. He was on the board. He helped the Joyce Foundation invest in CCX. And then, it just turned into a money mechanism for cap-and-trade. CCX potential attracted the attention of the London-based generation investment management. By the way, have you seen his new house? Al Gore. Yes, Al Gore decided to invest along with Goldman Sachs. Didn't we just see the protests? Aren't these guys all angry at Goldman Sachs because they're so evil? Why would they be here?"

Framing the Tea Party as 'Astroturf'

Speaker Pelosi and her ilk on Capitol Hill have had help from the media pushing the "Tea Party-as-Astroturf" idea. For example, MSNBC's Rachel Maddow has regularly labeled it Astroturf, disputing the movement's natural origins.

"See, we will form our own people's tax collecting bureaucracy or something," Maddow said on her April 15 MSNBC broadcast. "The annual April 15th ‘I hate paying taxes' tantrum this year took the form of an online tax revolt that was sponsored by all sorts of conservative organizations like our friends at the Astroturf group FreedomWorks and the National Taxpayers Union - taxpayers union and the Republican tea party group, the Tea Party Express. In addition to those folks on the street, they were meeting online."

That is a claim that was parroted by David Weigel, who now covers the Republican Party and the conservative movement for The Washington Post. In late 2009, when Weigel was a reporter for the progressive Washington Independent, he used the terminology to describe the movement and its alleged ties to organizations like FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity. On Rachel Maddow's Oct. 5, 2009 program, Maddow and Weigel had this exchange:

WEIGEL: You were asking questions of Tim Phillips and pointing out where the funding came from, sort of like you just did right now. There's a - there's a bit of a discrepancy here. Americans for Prosperity does not hide where the money comes from. But when these activists are told that the money's coming from oil companies, when the implication that their "Astroturf" gets out there, they get very angry. And they don't - they don't like you very much. I'm sorry to have to break it to you.
MADDOW: Well, I don't - I'm not trying to make either important enemies or unimportant enemies, but I do recognize that they've taken great pain sort of to try to convince people they're not Astroturf. They bring that up all the time. They've really tried to seem like they're not just a corporate-funded P.R. exercise.

So, that's why it strikes me as so strange that David Koch of Koch Industries took this victory lap, took credit for everything they've done. Did that seem weird in the room?

But that "Astroturf" claim is one that has even made its way onto the less blatantly liberal CNN. On the network's Feb. 18 "American Morning," co-host John Roberts questioned the movement's grassroots authenticity in an interview with Karin Hoffman, a Florida Tea Party activist.

"Let me ask you about this idea of the grassroots movement, because the Tea Party calls itself the grassroots movement," Roberts said. "But there are other folks who are little more skeptical about that, saying it's not grassroots, it's Astroturf. It's actually being funded, being led, at least behind the scenes, by some current or former members of the Republican Party. Can you talk about that? How much of this is grassroots and how much of it is organized by people on the Republican side of the fence?"

Hoffman defended the movement as a sincere one and pinpointed the source of these so-called Astroturf allegations.

"So, also, the interesting perspective too is that it - there's been communication on the side of the Democrat Party as far as who we are as a grassroots movement, as Astroturf, you know, just derogatory terms that really doesn't help endear us to have that conversation," Hoffman said.

The recent Utah Republican primary defeat of incumbent GOP Sen. Bob Bennett should put to rest the speculation that the GOP establishment is behind the Tea Party. Bennett has been a mostly reliable conservative and an important lieutenant of minority leader Mitch McConnell. He was bested by a tea party candidate.

Challenging 'Eco-Astroturf'

Despite the one-sided treatment of global warming and climate change in the media and a reluctance to call it "Astroturf," there is another perspective. Hundreds of scientists and policy professionals will be in Chicago May 16-18 for the 2010 International Conference on Climate Change calling attention to dissent in the scientific community over assumptions that modern warming is man-made or that it is a crisis.

The conference is being hosted by The Heartland Institute and the Business & Media Institute is one of several co-sponsors. The Heartland Institute conference will address the "one-sided" debate that is "dominated by government scientists and government organizations agenda-driven to find data that suggest a human impact on climate and to call for immediate government action, if only to fund their own continued research." 

More information about the conference is available at The Heartland Institute's Web site.