Jim Treacher has coined a new term, Oprahturfing, to describe wealthy celebrities funding attendance at political rallies. While clever, the concept of "Astroturfing" is being misused by both sides.

Jim Treacher has coined a new term, Oprahturfing, to describe wealthy celebrities funding attendance at political rallies.   In this case, it’s Oprah Winfrey’s sending the 250-odd people who attended the taping of Thursday’s “Daily Show” to the host’s Rally to Restore Sanity, but he also notes Arianna Huffington’s earlier offer to provide “as many buses as there are people to fill them.”

I’m a regular watcher, via TiVo delay, of Stewart’s program, saw both shows, and really thought nothing of it.   Indeed, my reaction last night to the Oprah thing was 1) Holy Crap this is a lame segment and 2) how hard is it to get from New York City to Washington, anyway?  It’s a 4 hour drive!

But Jim rightly notes that Nancy Pelosi and others have lampooned the Tea Party on the grounds “It’s not really a grassroots movement. It’s astroturfed by some of the wealthiest people in America.”  So, if the same people are cheering these efforts, there’s indeed some hypocrisy.   Doubly so if Huffington or Winfrey have made such charges.  (If they have, I’m unaware of it.)

As for myself, I don’t think any of these things qualify as Astroturf.

Campaigns & Elections magazine defines astroturf as a “grassroots program that involves the instant manufacturing of public support for a point of view in which either uninformed activists are recruited or means of deception are used to recruit them.” Journalist William Greider has coined his own term to describe corporate grassroots organizing. He calls it “democracy for hire.”

Senator Lloyd Bentsen, himself a long-time Washington and Wall Street insider, is credited with coining the term “astroturf lobbying” to describe the synthetic grassroots movements that now can be manufactured for a fee by companies like Beckel Cowan, Bivings Group, Bonner & Associates, Burson-Marsteller, Davies Communications, DCI Group, Direct Impact, Hill & Knowlton, Issue Dynamics Inc., National Grassroots & Communications, or Optima Direct.

Unlike genuine grassroots activism which tends to be money-poor but people-rich, astroturf campaigns are typically people-poor but cash-rich. Funded heavily by corporate largesse, they use sophisticated computer databases, telephone banks and hired organizers to rope less-informed activists into sending letters to their elected officials or engaging in other actions that create the appearance of grassroots support for their client’s cause.

Both the Tea Party and the Stewart rally seem to genuinely be tapping into existing sentiment, mobilizing people who genuinely support the movements in question.   That wealthy people are helping to organize and facilitate things doesn’t invalidate it.

FILED UNDER: Democracy, Uncategorized, , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. mantis says:

    Did someone claim Stewart’s rally was a grassroots operation?

  2. Did someone claim Stewart’s (and Colbert’s) rally is something other than a well-played satire of political rallies?

  3. john personna says:

    Leftists I know are still sore that corporations now have rights to free speech (as money).

    Given that, how big a deal is it that entertainers have rights to free speech (as money)?

  4. JKB says:

    Well, so far all I see for Stewart’s rally is people who just want to be part of a television promotion. And they are apparently worried that there won’t be many of those without free transportation. Interesting that for all the liberal love, they are providing buses, they are providing plane tickets but no one’s taking the train. You know the high speed crown jewel of Amtrak.

    Stewart and Colbert’s rallies have always struck me to have more in common with the MTV stage they put up at spring break than a real movement.

  5. john personna says:

    I think Stewart is having some trouble creating “there” there.

  6. john personna says:

    BTW, Rome is burning, by all means talk about Oprah.

    It’s the entertainment-politics age, right?

  7. steve says:

    Meh. Oprah is doing this openly. Real astroturfing is done through front groups. I would assume that Armey’s group is astroturfed. Dont know about the others.


  8. ratufa says:

    I don’t get the hypocrisy charge. Isn’t the complaint (I’m not saying it’s true) about the Tea Party movement that it represents itself as a grassroots movement while being actually (and somewhat secretly) funded by the wealthy and GOP-associated groups? Is there the same sort of misrepresentation and secrecy being done in “Oprahturfing”? The Huffington offer was made on the Daily Show, after all, which seems like an ineffective way to misrepresent the source of funding in this case.

  9. matt says:

    James while I agree the segment was pretty lame I’d like to point out that quite a few people in his audience probably aren’t from New York. I know that if I ever get the chance to visit New York I’m definitely going to try to get in on a taping but since I live in Texas hitting the rally is a bit too far..

    JKB : I’m sure quite a few would love to take a “high speed train” but there’s a slight problem in that there’s only ONE high speed rail in this entire country which obviously doesn’t provide convenient service for everyone..

  10. matt says:

    Oh and that one “high speed rail” line is for the most part nowhere near as fast as a true high speed rail line either…

  11. Trumwill says:

    BTW, Rome is burning, by all means talk about Oprah.

    Hey, I can play this game, too!

    CHILDREN ARE STARVING IN AFRICA but by all means let’s talk about dubious behavior in the area of mortgage paperwork in one of the wealthiest countries in the world.

    (Actually, it’s an interesting article and I do appreciate the link. It’s just that comments with this approach annoy the crap out of me.)

  12. Jim Treacher says:

    “That wealthy people are helping to organize and facilitate things doesn’t invalidate it.”

    Depends on which “things” we’re talking about, apparently.

  13. matt says:

    The difference obviously is that one group of wealthy people are being upfront about their support while the other group is trying to do everything they can to hide their support including lying..

  14. Jim Treacher says:

    The lack of evidence merely proves the theory!