Richard Denison, Ph.D., is a Senior Scientist.
I’ll bet that got your attention. Surely I jest, you’re thinking. Well, on December 2, Montana Public Radio’s Evening Edition included a segment in which a spokesperson for the new chemical industry front group, the Coalition for Chemical Safety about which I blogged a few weeks ago, publicly calls for an all-out ban on the controversial endocrine-disrupting chemical bisphenol A (BPA). Here’s the clip (5 MB mp3 file).
Listen, and you’ll hear a spokesperson for the new Helena, MT, chapter of the Coalition for Chemical Safety being interviewed while handing out Coalition literature in the state capitol rotunda during an event organized by the chapter. She describes her concern as a mom over the use of BPA in kids’ products, and even criticizes the Food and Drug Administration's past reliance only on industry studies to conclude BPA is safe. You’ll also hear the reporter note that the Coalition wants to “ban BPA and other chemicals that could be harmful.”
What’s going on here? Have we entered some kind of parallel universe? After all, a prominent Coalition member that is its suspected – though still masked – main backer, the American Chemistry Council (ACC), is a steadfast champion of BPA (see its “Facts About BPA” website). ACC has spent millions fighting any restrictions on BPA proposed anywhere in the country. Just google BPA and the name “Steven Hentges,” ACC’s main lobbyist for BPA – I just did, and got nearly 20,000 hits.
Together with ACC’s sister organization, the Society of the Plastics Industry, the chemical industry has just launched a $10 million campaign to defend plastics, focusing on those containing or made using BPA.
So how to explain a Coalition spokesperson promoting a BPA ban in its name? Was this a fluke, a spokesperson “going rogue” (to use a currently popular term)? Or part of an orchestrated attempt to confuse the public?
In my earlier post, I noted the emergence of the Coalition as the latest example of an “astroturf” (aka fake grassroots) organization, this one started by the chemical industry. Well, it now looks like this group is willing to go to considerable extremes to “prove” its grassroots-ness.
If I was worried about exposing my kids to a chemical like BPA, I’d certainly be attracted to a group called the Coalition for Chemical Safety. I have every reason to believe that the Coalition spokesperson featured in the Montana Public Radio story is sincere in voicing her concerns about BPA. Which means one simply has to wonder how much she knows or has been told about the real agenda of the Coalition she’s joined.
Now look at the list of members of the Coalition posted on its website. Click on Montana and you’ll see, alongside the usual suspects like the Montana Agribusiness Association and the Montana Chamber of Commerce, some surprising entries: Bella Birthing Natural Birth Education and Doula Care, Top Sign & Graphics and the Pipsqueak Second Chance Boutique. Some other states’ listings have equally incongruous lists of businesses.
The afore-mentioned Coalition spokesperson is from one of the small businesses listed in Montana.
A front group, indeed
What does this episode say about the Coalition and its tactics? In a new legislative brief (pdf) it has issued on the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), the Coalition describes itself as “an advocacy organization” that “counts industry, environmentalists, consumers and workers among its targeted members.” I have added the emphasis to flag a telling caveat in that statement, one that reflects the fact that no environmentalists, consumers or workers have signed up as members!
After the reporter for Montana Public Radio was informed that the Coalition is a front group for the chemical industry, the station broadcast an update to its story (2.5 MB mp3 file). In it, the Coalition’s mystery Executive Director, Joe Householder, surfaces once again to object to the use of the term front group as too “perjorative” a characterization.
As I reported in my earlier post, the Coalition’s website is managed by DDC Advocacy, a well-known astroturfing company that works closely with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. On its website, DDC Advocacy boasts about one of its astroturf successes. Here’s how the website describes the conditions before DDC Advocacy came to the rescue:
- A major manufacturing sector faced rapidly mounting political challenges.
- Public perceptions had increasingly turned against the industry.
- The leading trade association recognized the need to build grassroots support, but was hampered by the hostile environment.
And here’s how it describes DDC Advocacy’s solution:
DDC Advocacy’s Response: Turn Negative Coverage into an Asset.
- The industry needed to engage Americans who support its vital role in the economy and their communities.
- The trick was finding them.
- DDC Advocacy recommended an innovative approach—rather than trying to avoid public hostility, use the negative media coverage as an opportunity.
As I’ve said before, there’s certainly nothing untoward about the chemical industry organizing itself to advocate for its views. To the extent other businesses or individuals are fully informed about and agree with its positions, they can and should, of course, feel free to join in.
But something’s wrong when such a coalition insists on pretending to be something it’s not. Or when it doesn’t inform those it seeks to enlist of who’s behind it or its real agenda. That’s the essence of astroturfing.