Astroturf vs “AstroTurf”


Paul Krugman’s column on the right-wing’s tea party’s does yeoman’s work in bringing this to the attention of a wider public, but doesn’t contain much news you won’t already know if you’re a consumer of progressive blogs. It does, however, provide fascinating insight into New York Times style:

Last but not least: it turns out that the tea parties don’t represent a spontaneous outpouring of public sentiment. They’re AstroTurf (fake grass roots) events, manufactured by the usual suspects. In particular, a key role is being played by FreedomWorks, an organization run by Richard Armey, the former House majority leader, and supported by the usual group of right-wing billionaires. And the parties are, of course, being promoted heavily by Fox News.

But that’s nothing new, and AstroTurf has worked well for Republicans in the past. The most notable example was the “spontaneous” riot back in 2000 — actually orchestrated by G.O.P. strategists — that shut down the presidential vote recount in Florida’s Miami-Dade County.

They’ve got that capital “T” in “AstroTurf” because it’s an actual brand name, like Xerox or Kleenex, and not just a generic term for fake grass. But Krugman is using a metaphorical extension of the term that’s common political discourse. An astroturf operation is a fake grassroots operation. It’s not not a brand name, it’s just a word, albeit a word based on the brand. I think the Times has made the wrong call here.

On the other hand, the company that owns the AstroTurf trademark presumably feels compelled to dispute the use of its mark as a generic term for fake stuff. A blog can fly under the radar easily enough, but the NYT might be exposing itself to legal harassment if they let Krugman write “that’s nothing new, and astroturf has worked well for Republicans in the past.”