Mel King is a Boston-area community organizer locally famous for a housing sit-in, an almost-successful mayoral campaign, and the South End Technology Center, which provides low-cost computer training.
King, born in 1928, has long been a critic of telecommunications companies and an advocate of strict Net neutrality laws. He participated in an activists' "technology convening" in 2006 that fretted "companies who own the 'pipes' will control who gets on and what they can say." He joined a pro-Net neutrality coalition that opposed federal legislation backed by broadband providers.
Yet King placed his name on an opinion article in the Harvard Crimson in March that took the opposite position. It stated, "Most experts agree that broadband providers should be allowed to reasonably manage their networks," and it poked fun at the "idea that broadband networks should blindly treat each bit of information on the Internet equally."
King's article appeared eight days after the Federal Communications Commission held a hearing at Harvard University's law school in February where commissioners slammed Comcast's throttling of BitTorrent and promised penalties that were formally approved this month. In the op-ed, King dubbed the event a "dog and pony show" and an "obsequious effort to reassure Silicon Valley special interests--like Google."
There's one problem with this chronology. King may not have been the actual author. Instead, a secretive lobbying organization in Washington, D.C. called the LawMedia Group--hired by Comcast--did some or all of the writing. Comcast acknowledges that it "has a relationship" with LMG.
In a telephone conversation with CNET News, King confirmed the LawMedia Group's involvement. "I understand what they're doing," King said. "I don't think there's any mystique about any of this. It's getting the stuff into a place where we can have a kind of dialogue on it." When pressed for details such as whether he was paid for the use of his name, King hung up the phone.
Op-eds of dubious provenance are nothing new in political circles, and fake grassroots "astroturf" campaigns enjoy a long, although hardly distinguished, history. One of the most influential practitioners of this art is the LawMedia Group, which has emerged as a behind-the-scenes Washington advocate for Comcast in its Net neutrality tussle with the FCC. In May, the LMG began representing Microsoft in its attempt to use the political process to sabotage a Google-Yahoo advertising deal.
"LMG is one of several firms we work with in D.C.," Microsoft spokesman Jack Evans said. "It's no secret that we oppose the Google-Yahoo deal and that there's been a great deal of opposition to it by advertisers, publishers, consumers, and legal experts." Evans points out that Google has hired a constellation of D.C. lobbyists and public relations groups to tell its side of the story.
Microsoft hired LMG in early May for what a source with knowledge of the situation described as a six-figure monthly retainer.
Timeline: Anti-Net neutrality, anti-Google lobbying efforts
February 2008: Email apparently sent to Mel King providing him with text of his pro-Comcast op-ed.
March 2008: Latino IT group sides with Comcast on Net neutrality
June 2008: Latino IT group says it has "serious concerns" about a Google-Yahoo advertising deal
June 2008 (PDF): Corn growers ask Congress to investigate Google
Immediately afterward, anti-Google coalitions of dubious provenance--an LMG specialty--sprouted. The American Corn Growers Association, the League of Rural Voters, and a group called the Latinos in Information Sciences and Technology Association (LISTA) sent a letter to the Justice Department asking it to investigate Google's "search monopoly." Prior to that time, those groups had no history of aggressive anti-Google advocacy.
The effort was a media success. Articles with titles like "Google, Yahoo Potential Deal Worries Heartland," and "Civic groups seek antitrust probe of Google, Yahoo talks," and "Alarm at Google Yahoo partnering" appeared, without any mention of LMG or questions about what supposedly raised sudden antitrust alarms on the part of rural voters or corn growers.
A CNET News article published in June reported that the name of an LMG employee, Alexandra Esser, appeared in the metadata of the letter ostensibly written by the corn growers and other grassroots groups. LMG Vice President Gil Meneses told us at the time that Esser "merely PDF'd a copy before distributing it" to reporters.
LMG declined repeated requests during the past few weeks to be interviewed for this article. Meneses said on July 31 that "I am out of pocket and focused on a different matter right now" and has not replied to follow-up queries. An LMG spokesman--who insisted that a condition of the conversation was that he not be identified in this article--refused to answer questions on Wednesday.
A firm that prefers the shadows
Even by Washington standards, the LawMedia Group is highly secretive. Until recently, nearly all pages on its Web site were password-protected. No clients are listed. Perhaps the oddest aspect is that not one employee's name--not even the identity of its founder or principals--is publicly disclosed.
LMG was founded by Julian Epstein, a former high-ranking House Democratic aide and party donor whom The Washington Post once called a "dashing bachelor, a hip-hop aficionado who drives a soft-top Jeep Sahara and lives in an Adams-Morgan loft he designed himself." In an advertisement on the Democratic Party's Web site, LMG describes itself as providing "grassroots lobbying" and "issue/initiative" management. It also has filed disclosure reports with the U.S. Senate for outsourced lobbying. (LMG has told us that it prefers to be called a "public affairs firm.")
For a group that prefers to remain in the shadows, LMG recently has found itself in the uncomfortable glare of the media's klieg lights. In addition to our report from June, the Post published an article on July 29 reporting that LMG may have written an anti-Wal-Mart Stores op-ed supposedly authored by Charles Steele Jr., the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The op-ed appeared in publications including the Tuscaloosa News and accused Congress of "subsidizing Wal-Mart, a company that recorded $3 billion in profits in the first quarter of this year."
It happens that Wal-Mart is a donor to Steele's group. And Wal-Mart wasn't happy with the op-ed. Steele's attorney told the Post's Jeff Birnbaum that, "I believe LMG played a role in this scenario; I can't say how big a role. LMG is in that chain somewhere." LMG, which is representing banks and credit card companies that are opposing Wal-Mart, would say only that it was tangentially involved.
Who actually writes these op-eds?
Few seasoned political observers would be surprised that op-eds are ghost-written on behalf of corporations by lobby groups or public relations firms. There are plenty of shops that advertise rates, with one charging $749 per op-ed, and they tend to be staffed by former journalists hoping to better their previous salaries.
LMG is one of those shops. A Web profile of a former LMG staffer boasts that he "drafted op-eds for clients." Art Brodsky, a former journalist who opposes the cable industry's Net neutrality arguments as spokesman for Public Knowledge, says in his bio that he "helped to draft op-eds and releases and participated in issue strategy" at LMG on behalf of the cable providers represented by the National Cable and Telecommunications Association.
But even in Washington's cynical political circles, it's still considered bad form to be found out.
In the case of King, the Boston-area activist who defended Comcast on Net neutrality grounds in the Crimson, LMG seems to have been deeply involved in the publication of his op-ed. LMG's Esser appears to have sent him e-mail on February 20 saying: "Thank you again for helping with the op-ed. Pasted below, please find the final version. We will keep you posted on the issue."
The op-ed appeared in the Crimson soon after. (Esser was the LMG employee whose electronic fingerprints appeared on the letter that the corn growers claim they wrote.)
King's op-ed describes him as someone who "has taught as an Adjunct Professor at MIT." He is listed on MIT's Web site as "Adjunct Professor in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning" and has a campus phone number and mit.edu e-mail address. MIT's directory calls him a "senior lecturer emeritus."
An MIT spokeswoman says King is "not on the MIT payroll--he hasn't been for some time" and declined to comment on whether ghost-written articles violate MIT's strict rules on academic integrity. (MIT's handbook (PDF) prohibits any student--let alone faculty--from presenting "as his or her own the work of another." Crimson policies say op-eds must be "signed by their authors" and ones representing viewpoints of a corporation must be disclosed as such.)
Malcom Glenn, the president of the Crimson, told us that the op-ed was not solicited by the paper and that it was placed by someone claiming to work for King. "The initial contact was from Amy Kennedy, who said she was the secretary for Mr. King," Glenn said.
A LinkedIn.com profile for an Amy Kennedy says she was a communications assistant and press secretary for LMG from June 2006 through June 2008.
In a telephone conversation, King initially seemed unclear about the content of his op-ed, which defended Comcast in no uncertain terms and warned that the "FCC is dangerously far off track." He asked us if we knew that Comcast had tried to pack the Harvard room with people it hired, saying "this is what is troubling."
When asked about the details of the op-ed, King replied: "You can talk to Kevin Parker, he's at the LawMedia Institute." Parker is listed on the Naymz networking site as a "senior advisor" to LMG.
King added, before hanging up abruptly: "Nobody pays me."
Jesse Jackson disavows his own statement
Another peculiarity of King's op-ed is that portions are identical to a Rainbow Push coalition statement attributed to the Rev. Jesse Jackson and dated three months before. The statement supposedly written by Jackson was a response to an FCC vote related to media ownership.
Both items include this word-for-word identical passage: "People of color make up 33 percent of our population but own just 3 percent of all broadcast TV stations--and research shows that the number of owners is plummeting at alarming levels." Three other passages are extremely similar. (See our PDF for a side-by-side comparison.)
A source with knowledge of the situation said that LMG has a relationship with Jackson that includes ghost-written articles on behalf of corporate clients. The source pointed to a February op-ed in the Washington Times talking about a $40 billion Air Force contract for aerial refueling tankers--supposedly written by Jackson, who's not known for his military expertise or concern with Boeing's profitability.
One explanation is that whoever wrote King's op-ed copied the text of Jackson's press release, without attribution, that appeared three months earlier. Another one is that the same author, perhaps to save time, used the identical anti-FCC language to write both pieces.
Another dispute over the legitimacy of a Jackson statement arose in February, at the same time as the FCC's field hearing at Harvard. A flier distributed by an unnamed public relations firm said there would be an anti-FCC protest organized by the NAACP's Boston and Cambridge branches, according to the Associated Press. (A person with knowledge of the event says that LMG was involved in organizing the protest.)
The flier quoted Jackson as saying FCC Chairman Kevin Martin supported a "massive new and unjustified welfare for the rich program."
Jackson told the AP he never made that statement, which is an odd claim as the phrase appeared in a letter Jackson supposedly wrote to the FCC in October 2007. It took Comcast's side in the dispute over a la carte cable channel regulations, calling them Martin's own personal "obsession."
This raises the obvious questions: if Jackson didn't write that letter and send it to the FCC last year, who did? Could the NAACP's common cause with Comcast have anything to do with a $5 million "voter education" partnership? And what, exactly, was LMG's involvement?
Neither Jackson nor the Rainbow Push coalition responded to repeated inquiries.
Disclosure: Declan McCullagh is married to a Google employee