If you’re wondering why it’s so easy for the Republicans to convince so many average Americans that personal freedom equates with lower taxes for the rich and fewer environmental and safety regulations for corporations, you might consider how easy it has become to fool editors and reporters at the nation’s premier newspaper on some public policy issues.
On July 2 the New York Times ran an article about the sugar beverage industry’s planned pushback against New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposed banning of the sale of sugary drinks larger than 16 ounces in regulated food establishments, including in movie theaters and sports arenas. The article detailed how the soft drink industry and its lobbying group, the American Beverage Association, are gearing up for a battle to make New Yorkers believe that the right to buy 64-ounce sodas is a cause akin to free speech or own guns.
And there it was, in a caption underneath a photo of two women of color chatting on a New York street corner: “Jessica Dos Santos, right, from New Jersey, collected petition signatures in Brooklyn for New Yorkers for Beverage Choice, a grassroots-style coalition created by the beverage industry.”
A “grassroots-style coalition created by the beverage industry”? Those of us who’ve bothered to pay attention to such matters know that the correct term for this sort of effort is astroturfing. This is a form of advocacy, usually undertaken by corporate or political front groups, organized specifically to make what are actually multi-million-dollar public relations campaigns seem as if they are spontaneous grassroots efforts undertaken by average citizens.
They often take innocuous sounding names to hide their true intent. Thus, New Yorkers for Beverage Choice makes it sound as if the organization is about protecting personal liberties instead of padding the bottom lines of Coca-Cola and Pepsi. Similar astroturfing efforts have been used by Walmart (Working Families For Walmart), the timber industry (Save Our Species Alliance) and a slew of right-wing political groups using anodyne names to hide their true intent.
What was shocking about that New York Times photo caption is that the person writing it couldn’t figure out that something “created by the beverage industry” is by definition not “a grassroots-style coalition.”
Equally disturbing as that photo caption was a section in the article itself about how people of color—whose obesity rates are soaring in comparison to even overweight Caucasians—are being targeted by the campaign.
“On June 20, representatives of soda companies, local restaurants and movie theaters —all of whom oppose the mayor’s plan—met for an hour with four members of the City Council’s Black, Latino and Asian Caucus,” the article stated.
“’There was a discussion about joining forces with the industry, and we are considering that,’ said Councilwoman Letitia James, who invited the industry to meet with her colleagues. She said members of her caucus mostly opposed Mr. Bloomberg’s plan, saying the 16-ounce restriction could put a disproportionate financial burden on lower-income families and small businesses.”
You need only go back to April 29 and an article in the same newspaper to see what Councilwoman James is really protecting—aside from soft drink company profits. Headlined “Obesity-Linked Diabetes in Children Resists Treatment,” that article noted that “obesity and the form of diabetes linked to it are taking an even worse toll on America’s youths than medical experts had realized. As obesity rates in children have climbed, so has the incidence of Type 2 diabetes, and a new study adds another worry: the disease progresses more rapidly in children than in adults and is harder to treat.”
To anyone who reads this and other alarming statistics on obesity in America—and who therefore understands what this will eventually cost all of us in terms of publicly funded health care costs, higher insurance premiums, etc.—not allowing the beverage and snack industry to hook children and others on what are literally buckets of gargantuan sugar drinks seems a small price to pay for helping to head off a looming public health catastrophe.
Our community groups are woefully underfunded and getting more so with each passing year. People with AIDS are going without medications. LGBT youth, already at high risk for homelessness and at-risk behaviors, are already facing a future where shelter beds and social services are being drastically cut. Our community health centers are seeing increasing numbers of patients who cannot afford to pay for quality health care.
Now imagine a future where a tsunami of the morbidly obese, with their attendant serious health problems, are competing for health care dollars. Telling consumers they can only purchase 16 ounces of sugar soda—which should be plenty for anyone at one sitting —seems a small price to pay.
It requires some effort to recognize and resist corporate sales campaigns disguised as efforts to protect personal liberties. If we can’t count on the New York Times to know the difference, the rest of us have to be extra vigilant.