Sharyl Attkisson astroturfer accusations – appreciating it

A few days ago, prior to the challenges of updating and moving this website, I was told of an article published on a “journalist’s” website that accused a lot of people of being astroturfers, the Skeptical Raptor included. Now I admit to not being up-to-date on every cultural term that flows through the internet every day (who could?), but I had to find out more.

First, what is an astroturfer? Supposedly, it’s a pejorative term that describes a fake grassroots effort. Astroturf is fake grass, so that’s its roots (pun intended).

It’s used usually to point out individuals or groups that are well-funded by corporations or political groups to look like some sort of movement. The anti-Obamacare groups, like Americans for Prosperity who claimed that grandma was going to be put before a death panel, is a perfect example.

According to Sharyl Attkisson, author of the astroturfer accusations,

[infobox icon=”quote-left”]The many ways that corporations, special interests and political interests of all stripes exploit media and the Internet to perpetuate astroturf is ever-expanding. Surreptitious astroturf methods are now more important to these interests than traditional lobbying of Congress. There’s an entire PR industry built around it in Washington.[/infobox]

Fine. I agree. Like my example of the right wing group, Americans for Prosperity, it’s clearly true and is certainly a problem. Wealthy right wingers give money in an attempt to create a political and social movement, but it’s not real.

Oh, but wait. I guess her version of astroturfers is far beyond the body politic. She thinks those of us who advocate for evidence-based scientific discourse are astroturfers. This is her top 10 list, except for the fact that it includes more than 10:

[infobox icon=”quote-left”]TOP 10 ASTROTURFERS

  1. Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America and Everytown
  2. Media Matters for America
  3. University of California Hastings Professor Dorit Rubenstein Reiss and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Dr. Paul Offit
  4. “Science” Blogs such as:,, (Respectful Insolence), and (can’t even spell it right).
  5. Mother Jones
  6. and
  7. White House press briefings and press secretary Josh Earnest
  8. Daily Kos and The Huffington Post
  9. CNN, NBC, New York Times, Politico and Talking Points Memo (TPM)
  10. MSNBC,, Los Angeles Times and Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times, MSNBC and Jon Stewart[/infobox]

Before anything else, let me thank Ms. Attkisson. Her inclusion of (not plural, please, one of me is enough) with Dorit Rubinstein Reiss, Dr. Paul Offit,,, Respectful Insolence (Orac’s personal snark blog), Mother Jones, Salon, Vox, the Daily Kos (where I cross post many of my articles), the New York Times, Talking Point Memo, the Los Angeles Times, MSNBC…thank you Sharyl.

I’m humbled. It’s like winning the Academy Award (if it were awarded by a right wing journalist) and standing next to George Clooney, Harrison Ford, and Meryl Streep. I’d be honored.

Oh wait. You also included me with Jon Stewart? Seriously, I might cry. I’m overwhelmed.  Ms. Attkisson, where can I send you the check for mentioning me.

To be honest, I didn’t even know I was on Ms. Attkisson’s radar. But as a good liberal/progressive, I guess it’s a badge-of-honor to be attacked, even by a misspelled proxy, by her.

So how should I respond? Well, first of all, if I’m some well-funded PR/special interest/political group, then I must have some different definition of well-funded than most people. But if Big Pharma and Monsanto want to pony up some cash for a new Ferrari, I’m still going to call you on t he carpet whenever you do something stupid. Which is pretty often.

Mostly I write about vaccines and GMOs, but I wander off into some other fields of science denialism that interest me. I love to bash pseudoscience of any sort. It’s a good sport, though sometimes a bit too easy.

I advocate for vaccines because the science and the scientific consensus, based on the vast mountain of published evidence, support the fact of the safety and efficacy of vaccines. And it is not an attempt (fake or otherwise) at a grass roots movement. And I’m certainly not being funded anyone to write these articles. My sad 2-year old Nissan sitting in the driveway supports that claim.

Vaccine safety and efficacy is a scientific fact, so including myself or Dr. Offit or Professor Reiss or Orac in an “astroturfing” crowd is kind of odd.

Now the Daily Kos is certainly a grass roots effort of progressives to have a voice in the political and culture wars. But as one of the many bloggers there (unpaid, by the way), it’s not a fake grassroots effort. It’s real, it’s from the heart, as opposed to the nuts at Americans for Prosperity (accurate only in the sense that they want prosperity for a small percentage of Americans).

Once a person engages in a really lame ad hominem attack (I laughed more than I got upset, by a landslide), then they’re open to a critical review of their background. So, Sharyl Attkisson, this is your life:

  • Ms. Attkisson is simply an apologist for and sycophant of one Andy Wakefield. For those of you who don’t know, MrAndy Wakefield fraudulently alleged a connection between the MMR vaccine and autism which has had the effect of suppressing vaccination rates in many countries. His claims were based on a retracted paper published in the Lancet, a mostly respected medical journal who seemed to have forgotten how to do proper peer review back in the late 1990’s. If one’s “journalistic” reputation is based on critical thinking skills, her continued apologies for Wakefield definitely is a good argument for being discredited.
  • Sharyl Attkisson, a former news reporter for CBS, has been a shill for the antivaccine groups who think that vaccines cause autism (for which there isn’t one nanogram of evidence).
  • She has penned a report that linked vaccines to autism because of DNA transfer from the vaccines to human cells, exhibiting all of the disreputable “false balance” type of reporting that seems to be commonplace in scientific journalism (and she is not even close to being scientific).
  • There was a report by Attkisson on CBS This Morning, an American morning news show, about the brutal murder of Alex Spourdalakis, a 14 year old severely autistic child. She based her report on documentary by an antivaccination fringe group called  Autism Media Channel. Alex was murdered by his mother and a caretaker claiming that his autism made it impossible to handle him. Atkisson, instead of focusing on the murder, blamed everything on vaccines–supported by Mr. Wakefield.

If anyone is an astroturfer, it’s Sharyl Attkisson. She left CBS partially because of her troubles with the liberal bias of CBS News (which, from my own liberal point-of-view, isn’t all that progressive). I think someone should be true to their beliefs, and if Attkisson is a conservative, and she wanted to leave, that’s her right. However, sometimes being the politically opposite voice in a news organization can be useful, but it’s her choice.

However, I would never accuse her of being an astroturfer, because as far as I know, she does not meet the basic standards of such–she isn’t sponsored by a wealthy benefactor.

No, I don’t particularly like Ms. Attkisson, but not because of her political leanings. I don’t like her because she simply is a proponent of misinformation about vaccines. Her implicit and explicit support of Andy Wakefield is simply indefensible.

Her antivaccine articles are filled with ignorance and nonsense (vaccines do not cause autism…PERIOD), so it’s hard to take her seriously on the subject.

At least she doesn’t mention climate change. I think.

The Original Skeptical Raptor
Chief Executive Officer at SkepticalRaptor
Lifetime lover of science, especially biomedical research. Spent years in academics, business development, research, and traveling the world shilling for Big Pharma. I love sports, mostly college basketball and football, hockey, and baseball. I enjoy great food and intelligent conversation. And a delicious morning coffee!
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  • R T

    I am not sure if you are an astroturfer. If my comment is approved below, then I may have some doubts.

    There is something included with each vaccine called a vaccine insert. On one in particular, the Tripedia, here are some things I have copied and pasted: Adverse events reported during post-approval use of Tripedia vaccine include idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura, SIDS,
    anaphylactic reaction, cellulitis, autism, convulsion/grand mal convulsion, encephalopathy, hypotonia, neuropathy, somnolence and apnea. Events were included in this list because of the seriousness or frequency of reporting.

  • Kathy

    No wonder I keep getting called this lately in vax debates. Now I know. Well, if they are putting me in the same company as Dorit and you, SK, and Dr Offit, then that is a compliment.

  • Lumen

    This is the same person who release a video showing proof of her computer being hacked in real time. To anyone who isn’t a committed conspiracy theorist it also happens to exactly resemble what happens when the “delete” key gets stuck on a keyboard. But hey, as she points out she’s being persecuted by the Obama administration for her reporting on Benghazi, so let’s go with “being hacked by the FBI” as our default explanation.

  • Sandy Perlmutter

    These thugs and “believers” are shameless!

  • Matt Carey

    I first saw her use this term after she aired her advertorial for Andrew Wakefield’s “Who Killed Alex Spourdalakis” documentary on CBS. She got a LOT of criticism, especially from the autism community. But she waved it all away with a claim that it was “astroturf”

    I could only imagine her talking to her boss after s/he saw the huge pushback and finally realizing it was *that* Andrew Wakefield who had put together a “documentary” that excuses a brutal murder of a disabled youth. “It’s not real criticism, it’s astroturf!”

    She likely ended up on a beat much like the journalist in the old Doonsbury cartoons. Said journalist was in the Saigon bureau. His desk? Sports.

  • Media in alt-culture and responsibilities in Journalism. This article is worth a read.

    • MajorieVos

      Thank you for sharing that, missed it despite living in London! As a [youngish diagnosed incurable] cancer patient I’m receiving this kind of advice often (last week: read Ms Plant – a geoscientist – stop taking all diary immediately). It’s well-meant but exhausting as the advisors don’t (want to) understand the logic of science evidence and blogs like this and than give me the look / label that’s ultimately my own fault.

  • Lawrence McNamara

    Unfortunately, when you start drifting into “alternative” media like she is doing, conspiracies are part of the package…..two for one, even.

  • Linda Tock

    You’re giving her too much credit with the nanogram of evidence. Picogram would probably be closer – maybe even a femtogram.

    • I was thinking about going with femtogram, but I was concerned that it was getting into the realm of homeopathy. Bahahahahahahahaha.

      • Still would have been accurate with the femtogram.

  • Dorit Reiss

    It’s even sadder if she really believes in that kind of grand, all-encompassing conspiracy.

    • Well, I’m glad I’m in a conspiracy with you, Offit and Orac. We could have so much fun.

      • Ben Fairbanks

        I wish someone would put my name on a list with such esteemed company.