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Unmasking Astroturf

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If you haven't been paying attention to the rise of Astroturf in Washington, in the media and at your local town hall meeting, now's the time to tune in.

Astroturf front groups have been everywhere this summer -- spreading misinformation about health care reform, carbon emission caps and financial regulation.

Astroturf shills, notably FreedomWorks' Dick Armey and Americans for Prosperity's Tim Phillips, surface wherever and whenever reform policies threaten the corporate or political status quo.

ArmeyArmey Spins for Supper
Next on their hit list is Net Neutrality, the principle that prevents big phone and cable companies from deciding what you can and cannot do online.

They're already painting new Net Neutrality legislation as an attempt to "socialize the Internet."

They dismiss as "extremists" the more than 1.5 million who support a free-flowing Web. The national coalition that supports Net Neutrality includes such "far-left elements" as the Christian Coalition, The Gun Owners of America and the American Library Association.

Astroturf red-baiting has only just begun.

The Boy Who Cried Socialism

ClelandCleland Sees Red
All Net Neutrality really does is protect market competition, consumer choice and online innovation. But don't tell that to the astroturfer-in-chief, Scott Cleland of NetCompetition.org. His group is funded by phone and cable companies to attack legitimate consumer organizations and to confuse the public about Net Neutrality.

In testimonies before Congress, Cleland supported Net Neutrality before being paid by AT&T to oppose it. And oppose it he has: "Just like the Soviet socialists, the Net Neutrality movement blatantly misrepresents the facts," Cleland once said.

Take that, librarians!

Behind their Cold War rhetoric is a dirty little secret: Astroturf groups are paid by corporations to erect Potemkin Villages of public support for any given issue, to sway politicians with PR and junk science, and to fool members of the media into putting them on the air.

PhillipsPhillips Earns His Keep
Typically, these groups won't reveal their sources of funding, and with very few exceptions, the media forget to ask about it.

That's why Armey and Phillips squirmed under the lights when Rachel Maddow broke with the mainstream this month and pressed them about the money propping up their operations.

And it's why Free Press just released "Astroturf: Exposing the Fake Grassroots," an interactive online tool that makes it easy to view the seedy underbelly of the Astroturf groups bankrolled by big phone and cable.

The tool tracks the huge amounts of money moving from companies like AT&T and Comcast to lobbyists and political campaigns, and links it to the deceptive activities of coin-operated groups like FreedomWorks, Americans for Prosperity, NetCompetition.org and the Heartland Institute.

$incerity vs. Sincerity

BastBast: Hiding Behind Transparency?
The Heartland Institute, in particular, is a poster child for deception. This coin-operated "think tank" specializes in aping industry talking points to downplay global warming, oppose health care reform and attack Net Neutrality. Its Fortune 500 clients include Philip Morris USA, the ExxonMobil Corporation and major telecommunications companies.

When asked to report the sources of its funding, Heartland President Joseph L Bast demures: Heartland "now keeps confidential the identities of all our donors" because revealing it would give fodder to those who want to "abuse a sincere effort at transparency."

Like the others, the Heartland Institute seems to think a lack of transparency gives more credence to their arguments, when in fact, it simply demonstrates what more people are coming to realize: Astroturf has no place in politics.

A healthy 21st-century democracy doesn't need phony front groups. We need openness, accountability and real debate. And we need to know whom we're talking to -- and who's talking to us.

The crucial policy decisions being made right now must be based on independent research, reliable data and honest brokers.

Powerful special interests must stop distorting the issues and hiding behind Astroturf.

-- Timothy Karr is the campaign director of Free Press, the national, not-for-profit media reform group. Free Press accepts no money from industry, industry groups, political parties or government.