Common Cause Takes On ‘Turf’

Watchdog association Common Cause issued a report Tuesday blasting so-called Astroturf organizations, which it charged are corporate-funded front groups -- not supported by the public -- lobbying on telecommunications issues.

In a report entitled “Wolves in Sheeps’ Clothing: Telecom Industry Front Groups and Advocacy,” Common Cause cited nine purported think tanks and nonprofits that “claim to represent huge numbers of citizens, but in reality, their public support is minimal or nonexistent.”

In fact, these groups “accept subsidies or grants from corporate interests to lobby or produce research … but too often fail to disclose the connection between their policy positions and their bank accounts,” according to the report. The “corporate interests” are phone and cable companies.

Common Cause held a teleconference call Tuesday with the press about its report -- a document that said it wanted to “shine a light on some of the telecom industry’s devious Astroturf campaigns.”

The watchdog group charged, “These sorts of campaigns are dangerous for our democracy. They deliberately mislead citizens and they deliberately mislead our lawmakers, who are already charged with the difficult task of making sense of complex telecommunications policies.”

The groups cited in the report were Consumers for Cable Choice, FreedomWorks, Keep It Local NJ, Progress and Freedom Foundation, American Legislative Exchange Council, New Millennium Research Council, Frontiers of Freedom, Internet Innovation Alliance and

Consumers for Cable Choice -- which has received funding from Verizon Communications Inc. and SBC Communications Inc., now AT&T Inc. -- is lobbying on behalf of national franchising for video service, legislation the telcos support, according to the Common Cause report.

FreedomWorks, which has championed the end of local TV franchising agreements, has accepted contributions from Verizon and SBC, Common Cause charged.

Keep It Local NJ, which has lobbied against legislation that would institute statewide franchising in the “Garden State,” described itself as “a growing coalition of concerned Garden State citizens.”

The group actually represents the New Jersey Cable Telecommunications Association and its member companies, which include Comcast Corp., Cablevision Systems Corp., Time Warner Cable, Service Electric of Sussex and US Cable of Paramus-Hillsdale, according to the “Sheeps’ Clothing” report.

In response, the NJCTA defended its Keep It Local NJ site (, which clearly states its relationship to the cable trade group, according to spokesman Mark Nevins.

“Common Cause hit the nail on the head with their analysis of groups like Consumers for Cable Choice, but they really missed the mark when it comes to our Web site,” Nevins said.

He argued that in fact, the site is part of “a growing coalition” in that since its launch last November, 5,600 people have gone to the site to e-mail letters to their lawmakers voicing opposition to statewide cable franchising.

In contrast, groups like Consumers for Cable Choice are trying to pass themselves as independent groups when in fact, they are taking thousands of dollars from companies like Verizon, Nevins charged.

“They’re the real Astroturf violators,” he said.

Consumers for Cable Choice put out a statement on its Web site ( that blasted the Common Cause report, which it said it hadn’t seen. The group said no one from Common Cause had ever contacted it “to verify the legitimacy of any allegations questioning our integrity.”

Consumers for Cable Choice said it has openly acknowledged who it receives money from.

“We disclose our funding, Common Cause does not,” Bob Johnson, president of Consumers for Cable Choice, said. “So it’s rather ironic that we would be attacked on that basis. But at the end of the day, just because Common Cause doesn’t agree with the way we seek grant funding, that doesn’t make advocacy illegitimate. Nor does it make theirs legitimate, their attack legitimate.”

Common Cause spokesman Mary Boyle said a vast majority of the group’s support comes in small donations, “in the $50 range,” adding, “We disclose everything we are required to.”

Verizon and AT&T both offered some comments about their financial support of the groups cited in the Common Cause report.

"Video choice is important to consumers, this company and the future of broadband,” Verizon spokesman David Fish said. “For these reasons, we openly encourage the efforts of consumer and related organizations that support video choice reforms."

And AT&T spokesman Claudia Jones said the phone company often aligns itself with groups with policy positions that are the same as the telco’s. And AT&T supports the pro-consumer position of people having more choices for video service, she added.

During the conference call, Common Cause president Chellie Pingree and Jeff Chester, executive director for the Center for Digital Democracy, both argued for disclosure from these so-called Astroturf groups of who exactly is financing them.

Chester has just written a book, Digital Dynasty, that profiles Astroturf groups.

Pingree pointed out that telecommunications reform is a “hot topic,” and that the issue could “potentially mean billions of dollars to the telecom industry,” with companies spending millions of dollars to lobby.