Astroturf “Fix the Debt” Caught Ghostwriting for College Students

Say it ain't so Jon.

Pete Peterson at National Press Club July 17, 2012 (Source: Lingjing Bao, Talk Radio News)Our friend Jon Romano, press secretary for the inside-the-beltway PR campaign "Fix the Debt" and its pet youth group, The Can Kicks Back, have been caught writing op-eds for college students and placing the identical op-eds in papers across the country.

This is the latest slip-up in Fix the Debt's efforts to portray itself as representing America's youth. Previously, they were caught paying dancers to participate in a pro-austerity flash mob and paying to gather online petition signers for them.

The newspapers involved in the scam were not amused.

Gainesville Sun to Fix the Debt: "Lay Off the Astroturf and Outright Plagiarism"

The identical op-eds were discovered by a citizen with the Twitter handle "DeficitHacks" and flagged by Florida's Gainesville Sun. The paper's scathing editorial on the topic makes for an entertaining read.

If you liked University of Florida student Brandon Scott's column last Sunday about the national debt, you also should enjoy columns by Dartmouth College student Thomas Wang and University of Wisconsin student Jennifer Pavelec on the issue.

After all, they're the same columns.

The identical columns ran last weekend in newspapers in New Hampshire and Wisconsin. They each included the same first-person passage describing the student's work with the Campaign to Fix the Debt and its "millennial arm," The Can Kicks Back.

After I was told last week about the column appearing under the byline of different writers in other publications, it was removed from The Sun's website. Staff with the Campaign to Fix the Debt, who sent out the columns, said they were templates that were supposed to be personalized or otherwise reworded.

The campaign's vice president of communications, John Romano, said Scott -- an intern with the group -- was not at fault.

"This was an inadvertent mistake and the campaign takes full responsibility for it," he said.


"The Sun's policy is not to publish astroturf pieces written by advocacy groups and only signed by supporters," writes the editorial page editor. "Advocacy groups and others should lay off the astroturf and outright plagiarism unless they want to discredit themselves and their causes."

The paper promptly pulled the op-ed, as has Wisconsin's Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and the New Hampshire Foster's Daily Democrat.

Fix the Debt "Chapters" Are State-Based PR Firms on Retainer

The papers who pulled the phony opinion pieces are to be applauded for standing up to this type of crass manipulation.

With polling consistently showing that 90 percent of Americans want to preserve and strengthen Social Security, Fix the Debt has its work cut out for it pretending to represent the grassroots.

The truth is Fix the Debt is the latest effort by Wall Street billionaire Pete Peterson (who pledged a cool billion of his Blackstone Group fortune to the cause), to convince America that our deficit (which has been on a steep decline since peaking in 2009) is so out of control that it justified extreme budget cuts, including to Social Security and Medicare. Peterson gave $5 million to get Fix the Debt off the ground. Fix the Debt's members are a raft of Wall Street firms, like JP Morgan Chase who pitched in $500,000 and GE who contributed $1 million, and its "grassroots" are a series of politically-tied state-based PR firms on retainer who are required to line up a list of politicians and lobbyists, call them a "chapter," and work to make sure they get regular interviews in the local press. Here in Wisconsin, Fix the Debt's flack is Mark Graul, a Republican apparatchik best known for his false, racially-charged TV ad campaign against Judge Louis Butler in his 2008 race for Wisconsin Supreme Court. manFix the Debt fails to tell students that its leaders, Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, have a new budget plan that not only throws Grannie under the bus with cuts to Social Security and Medicare (which mean their kids and their grandkids will be working harder to support them in their old age), but also attacks college students by calling for higher interest rates on student loans and changing the law to allow those interest rates to kick in even before the student graduates from college (PDF, p. 30). Fix the Debt cries crocodile tears over the "generational inequities" of the federal budget, but fails to note that states spend billions on education.

While the nation hurtles to new budget deal deadlines in December and January that put Social Security and Medicare in danger, Fix the Debt is looking for a new press secretary to aid its effort to achieve a "Grand Bargain," along the lines of Simpson-Bowles -- budget cuts so steep they would cost America some four million jobs says the Economic Policy Institute. We can anticipate that the group will use some of its $40 million budget to ramp up its spin campaign on TV, in print ads, and radio.

Fortunately, more people are starting to catch on. The editorial board of the Georgetown Voice, the student newspaper of Georgetown University, urged student groups to do their homework before inviting groups to campus:

Given the lack of transparency in the structure and goals of Fix the Debt and, by proxy, The Can Kicks Back, it is of special importance that Georgetown student leadership take a closer and more critical look at the external groups they promote in the future. Had [student groups] done some research and looked past the glossy, misappropriated rhetoric and symbolism of the group they invited to the Hilltop, they would have found that Fix the Debt's agenda is undoubtedly anti-student and anti-poor, despite its claims to "promote generational equity."

Next time you see an op-ed from Fix the Debt or The Can Kicks Back (and there are many penned by Romano and his crew), give the editorial page editor a jingle and tell them that they have been hoodwinked by a reclusive billionaire named Pete Peterson and his Wall Street friends.

Learn more about Pete Peterson's chorus of calamity and decades long effort to gut Social Security and Medicare. Visit Pete Peterson on SourceWatch and our Nation package exposing Fix the Debt as an "astroturf supergroup." To hear Romano's side of the story, read "Conversations with Fix the Debt, Help Count the Pinocchios." This opinion piece was penned by Mary Bottari, no press secretary or Wall Street firm advised in its construction.

Mary Bottari

Mary Bottari is a reporter for the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD). She helped launch CMD's award-winning ALEC Exposed investigation and is a two-time recipient of the Sidney Prize for public interest journalism from the Sidney Hillman Foundation.


The duplicate op-eds were first discovered on Twitter, not by the Gainsville Sun. The Sun should be applauded for taking down the op-eds, though.