Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

From paid protestors to Dr. Evil, John Oliver spotlights corporate-funded "astroturfing"

John Oliver
John Oliver
Screenshot: Last Week Tonight With John Oliver

The Emmy-winning Last Week Tonight has made its comedy bones by exposing bottom-feeding charlatans, bigots, and the unjust. And that’s even before Donald Trump became president—and host John Oliver’s bottomless, soulless well of apoplectically delivered exposé comedy. So, in Sunday’s examination of the practice of “astroturfing”—where monied corporate interests funnel untraceable cash through insulated nonprofit organizations masquerading as genuine grassroots citizen uprisings—Oliver and company deftly seized the opportunity to combine Trump and Trump-adjacent awfulness in one main story.

On the Trump front, Oliver noted how the current occupant of the White House’s incessant cries of “paid protestors” seek to undermine the overwhelming, placard-carrying evidence that there are lots of actual Americans who think he’s a cretinous, sexually predatory, Putin-compromised reality show cretin. Even though, as Oliver noted, anytime Donald Trump accuses someone else of something, there’s about an 80 percent certainty Trump is guilty of the same thing himself. You know, like the fact that it’s credibly reported that people were slipped 50 bucks a pop to cheer at the then-laughable announcement that the boorish Celebrity Apprentice birther bigot was running for president.


But, as Oliver laid out in the bulk of his main story, “astroturfing” is very real. Although—since it relies on bushels of cash to prove effective—it’s rarely the work of social justice do-gooders, and more often that of PR firms working at the duplicitous behest of enormous corporations and industries. So if your most gullible Facebook friends are sending you highly produced broadsides from groups named things like Americans Against Food Taxes, Save Our Tips, The National Wetlands Coalition, or The American Council On Science And Health that feature regular Joes and Joannes railing emotionally against the things that make it hard for their nuclear family and adorable pets to make ends meet, then, as Oliver suggests, it’s best to follow the money before clicking that “like” button. Or that “wow” shocked face button.

Oliver, with signature name-naming diligence, revealed how firms like Crowds On Demand (and its CEO and “lukewarm bottle of Smirnoff Ice,” Adam Swart) actually do provide Donald Trump’s mythical paid protestors—on behalf of corporate interests looking to swamp public hearings to make it appear that the general public is deeply committed to stuff like new power plants, cancer-linked chemical additives, and factory farming. Apart from the Orwellian misnaming tactics described above, Oliver showed how these groups also employ dodgy “experts” to pull heartstrings during policy debates, such as one Dr. David Heimbach, whose suspiciously horrific tales of burned babies and candle-loving careless mothers were revealed to be bald-faced bullshit paid for by chemical manufacturers trying to stave off a ban on their products.

And then there’s Rick Berman, whose fake-grassroots, actually special-interest-sponsored attack ads have earned him the nickname “Dr. Evil,” and who Oliver trounces with Berman’s own, secretly recorded words. After publically promising “total transparency” about who, exactly, is paying for that ad featuring a Ray Liotta-esque talking dog attacking the Humane Society of all places, Oliver rolled tape of Berman assuring a potential corporate client that, of course, nobody will ever connect his firm to their interests, promising that dark money rules post-Citizens United provide “total anonymity.” Oliver, courting another Mr. Nutterbutter legal scrap, dances right up to the edge of accusing Berman’s “Hey, fuck the Humane Society” ad of being a smokescreen for his clients in the pig-punishing pork industry. “I can’t say,” said Oliver gleefully,I legally can’t say. I want to, I badly want to, but I’ve been explicitly told I can’t.”

As Oliver concluded, “While skepticism is healthy, cynicism—real cynicism—is toxic.” Because, as he explained, when all intellectually dishonest, truth-spinning corporate shills, demagogues, and conspiracy ghouls (like those claiming shooting victims are “crisis actors”) have to do is scream “paid protestors” to sway the gullible and willing-to-be, then that’s a “serious threat to our public discourse.”

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Danny Peary's Cult Movies books are mostly to blame.