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March 27, 2014 9:50 PM Journalism and Astroturfing

By Henry Farrell

Back when Nick Confessore broke the Tech Central Station scandal, another journalist wrote a very good piece about the problems that you got when journalism merged into astroturfing.

For years—literally years—I’ve been writing about Astroturf organizing and that trendsetting operation in the trade, DCI —home of that Johny Appleseed of the plastic and the green, Tom Synhorst. Simply put, Astroturf organizers are in the business of creating phony grassroots support, or rather the appearance of grassroots support, for this or that cause. You got the money and the cause? They’ll bring the front groups, the push-polls, the oped payola, you name it. …The secret of ‘turf is a simple one. Advertisements and paid spokesman may influence us to some degree. We hear their opinions, see them on TV and such. But because they’re paid, because they’re essentially advertisements, we also tend to tune them out, or at least bracket them off in our minds. … For years, the trendsetter in Astroturf has been DCI. And a couple days ago, if you were watching really closely, a tiny sentence changed on an out-of-the-way page on the TechCentralStation website. The sentence that read … “Tech Central Station is published by Tech Central Station, L.L.C.” now reads … “Tech Central Station is published by DCI Group, L.L.C.” It wasn’t an accident. It was because this article—‘Meet the Press’ by Nick Confessore—was about to be published by The Washington Monthly.

That journalist was Joshua Micah Marshall of Talking Points Memo. Today, as part of its “very cool new section … which is being sponsored by the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America,” Talking Points Memo published this piece about “the data sharing effort to cure cancer.”

Imagine a world where the cures for diseases are discovered with the speed of software development. … Recognizing that mortality rates for cancer have not improved in 40 years and that the research to find cures is too slow, the CEO Roundtable on Cancer’s Life Sciences Consortium, a group of leaders from life science organizations, have created a data-sharing platform resembling open source tech sites. Known as The Project Data Sphere initiative, the platform is designed to provide one place where the research community can broadly share, integrate, and analyze historical, patient-level cancer phase III comparator arm data from commercial and academic organizations. … However, not all data is created equal. Data shared between developers is rarely a threat to individual rights, but sharing clinical trial data runs the serious risk of violating the privacy of a person’s health. Last summer, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of American (PhRMA) and the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations (EFPIA) adopted joint Principles for Responsible Clinical Trial Data Sharing.

Sounds kind of awesome, right? After all, cancer doesn’t exactly have many fans. The problem is that the piece is, under the very kindest interpretation, a little unforthcoming about the actual politics behind behind the Project Data Sphere Initiative and the Joint Principles for Responsible Clinical Trial Data Sharing. Under a less kind interpretation, the article might be read as a deliberate effort to provide covering fire for just the kind of astroturfing exercise that Josh Marshall used to go after. This Guardian article provides a good backgrounder on the politics behind the Initiative and Joint Principles.

The pharmaceutical industry has “mobilised” an army of patient groups to lobby against plans to force companies to publish secret documents on drugs trials. … Under proposals being thrashed out in Europe, drugs companies would be compelled to release all of their data, including results that show drugs do not work or cause dangerous side-effects. … The strategy was drawn up by two large trade groups, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) and the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations (EFPIA), and outlined in a memo to senior industry figures this month, according to an email seen by the Guardian. … The email describes a four-pronged campaign that starts with “mobilising patient groups to express concern about the risk to public health by non-scientific re-use of data”. Translated, that means patient groups go into bat for the industry by raising fears that if full results from drug trials are published, the information might be misinterpreted and cause a health scare. The lobbying is targeted at Europe where the European Medicines Agency (EMA) wants to publish all of the clinical study reports that companies have filed, and where negotiations around the clinical trials directive could force drug companies to publish all clinical trial results in a public database. … A recent review of medical research estimated that only half of all clinical trials were published in full, and that positive results were twice as likely to be published than negative ones. A source in the European parliament, who is close to the negotiations over the clinical trials directive, said he had experienced intense lobbying from patient groups.

The EFPIA told the Guardian it had been working with PhRMA on a “commitment to enhance sharing of clinical data” to researchers and the public, and intended to make an announcement this week. “Knowing that some people want all data to be made available to everyone, EFPIA is engaging with stakeholders to share concerns with harmful ‘re-use’ of data. We will engage not only with patient groups, but also with the scientific community,” it said.

This legislation is up for a vote in the European Parliament next week. It’s hard – no, actually, it’s impossible – not to see this piece as part of that broader lobbying effort. It is specifically touting the two key elements of Big Pharma’s proposed alternative to actual binding legislation, which form part of a much larger campaign involving flacking and astroturfing on a massive scale. And Talking Points Memo – former foe of astroturfing in all its forms – is part of it.

I don’t think that Josh Marshall is a bad actor – from my limited online interactions with him, I’ve found him to be decent and honest. I would guess – while knowing absolutely nothing about TPM’s internal decisions – that this move is the product of need, not choice. Again, TPM is revealing PhRMA’s sponsorship (and the post in question has author credit given to ‘PhRMA.’ None of this changes the fact that this sponsored section goes against all the principles that made Talking Points Memo attractive and admirable in its heyday. It’s particularly egregious that this is part of a lobbying effort to prevent pharmaceutical companies from having to disclose publicly valuable information that would reveal their wrongdoing. You simply can’t run an investigative journalism outfit with your right hand, and take money from lobbyists who want to shut down information disclosure with your left one. And I hope that Josh Marshall figures this out, sooner rather than later. [HF – post lightly edited to remove ambiguities]

[Cross-posted at Crooked Timber]

Henry Farrell is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.

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