The Corporate Bully Whose Front Groups, Willful Distortions and Hate-Mongering Has Poisoned U.S. Politics : Meet Richard Berman
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“Why don’t we know who one of the most powerful people in America is? What he has done? Why '60 Minutes' called him Dr. Evil?” asks Saru Jayaraman, a leader in a growing national movement of restaurant workers demanding better pay and working conditions.
Dr. Evil is Richard Berman, a Washington-based lawyer-turned-hitman for Big Food who pioneered and still deploys many of the most intentionally deceptive, inflammatory and anti-democratic tactics used in corporate propaganda campaigns today. For nearly four decades, Berman’s attacks have tried to smear, discredit and destroy public-interest causes and groups by a toxic brew of industry front groups, distortion-filled attacks, ridicule and bullying to stoke prejudice and hatred as a means of turning the public’s attention and regulators away from his paymasters’ business practices.
Take his effort to cripple the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and defame the character of its CEO, Wayne Pacelle. He ran a television ad during the 2013 Academy Awards telling people not to give to HSUS. He created a YouTube video viewed 1.7 million times calling Pacelle “the Bernie Madoff of the charity world.” He set up a non-profit front group called Humane Watch to undermine donations intended for the HSUS and a website attacking its funding. He even threatened the Better Business Bureau to drop HSUS' accreditation under the business group's Wise Giving Alliance, and then attacked BBB when it refused to do so.
Astute observers have concluded that Berman is guilty of the sins he regularly accuses others of. Legitimate watchdog groups, such as CharityNavigator.org, have characterized his web of non-profit front groups, which take in millions in tax-deductible corporate donations, as the fake charities. Tax law experts contacted by Bloomberg.com said his operation was comparable to Madoff’s, a shell game of financial transfers enriching Berman that likely violated tax laws. Investigative reporters have even traced e-mails from front groups who deny they’re working with him back to his office.
Can one man really be held responsible for large slices of any era’s excesses, especially in a city as dominated by opportunists as Washington, D.C.? The answer is yes, there are people who are emblematic of political eras. Ronald Reagan was the “Teflon president,” evading criticism that stuck. Lee Atwater was the dark political operator who revived the GOP’s racist attack machinery for George H.W. Bush’s 1988 presidential campaign. In Berman’s case, there is a decades-long record of gleefully taking fights into the gutter.
Why would Berman and his backers go after a group like the Humane Society of the U.S., the nation's most effective animal protection group? Or enviromentalists concerned about mercury in tuna? Or nutritionists concerned about trans fat? Or physicians worried about the effect of high-fructose corn syrup on obesity? Or restaurant workers seeking a higher minimum wage and paid sick days? Or liberal foundations funding public-interest advocates? Because in every one of these examples, their warnings and advocacy threaten how Big Food—the corporate-dominated food and beverage industry paying Berman—makes its fortune.
Berman and his agribusiness allies didn’t just target the Humane Society of the U.S. They’ve gone after People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, creating websites and videos saying that PETA kills pets when they can’t find homes. They mock almost all public health efforts as a totalitarian nanny state nightmare. Their bottom line is always the same: protect profits by stifling debate and government regulation. And Berman's methods usually involve playing dirty to intimidate and win on emotion.
In May, the Boston Globe’s deputy Washington bureau chief Michael Kranish wrote a magazine-length report on Washington’s “industry of distortion,” citing Berman’s attack on the Humane Society of the U.S. as Exhibit A. It ended by quoting a 2010 article by the Nebraska Farm Bureau News where Berman boasted about winning on emotion—not truth.