MotherJones SO93: Grassroots or Astroturf?

Let our journalists help you make sense of the noise: Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter and get a recap of 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.


Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

payment methods

We Recommend