MotherJones SO93: Grassroots or Astroturf?

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.


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