Corporate Accountability and WorkPlace

Corporate Propagandist Richard Berman Secretly Taped Bragging About How He Smears Progressives

“I get up every morning and I try to figure out how to screw with labor unions."

One of corporate America’s most notorious political hitmen, Richard Berman, whose ugly campaigns rely on smears and fake front groups that hide sponsors’ identities, has been secretly tape-recorded bragging about his dirty tactics.

“Think of this as an endless war,” told a group of oil and gas industry executives at a June meeting of the Western Energy Alliance in Colorado Springs, as he sought to raise $3 million for a campaign called “Big Green Radicals” aimed at environmentalists and fracking opponents. “You can either win ugly or lose pretty.”

Berman’s remarks were secretly recorded by an attendee who gave them to the Center for Media and Democracy. His speech was filled with the inflammatory rhetoric and bruising tactics he has used for decades in corporate propaganda campaigns to smear, discredit and destroy public-interest causes and groups. As a lengthy profile in AlterNet detailed, Berman—labeled Dr. Evil by CBS’s "60 Minutes"—is known for pioneering a toxic mix of front groups, distortion-filled attacks, ridicule and bullying to stoke prejudice and hatred as a means of turning public attention and regulators away from clients’ business practices.

Berman has gone after a who’s who of progressive causes: animal welfare groups fighting for humane treatment of animals on factory farms, fast-food workers seeking raises, advocates pushing for higher minimum wages, union organizing efforts, lawyers defending the right to trial by jury, environmentalists worried about mercury in fish, nutritionists worried about trans fat in diets, and physicians worried about high-fructose corn syrup inducing obesity. He came to Colorado this past June to build on a new anti-fracking campaign that already has run aggressive ads in Pennsylvania, Colorado and Washington, D.C., CMD reported.

Berman’s speech was peppered with examples of how he fights to win.

“I get up every morning and I try to figure out how to screw with labor unions—that’s my offense,” he said. “I’m just trying to figure out how I am going to reduce their brand.” He gave an example, showing school children holding a mock election to imply that union elections are no different. “If you want a video to go viral, have kids or animals,” he said. “Use humor to minimize or marginalize the people on the other side.”

Berman explained that he is not aiming to sway visceral first impressions—what he called public judgments.

"Public judgment is when the public decides that they want to vote for somebody or not vote for somebody even across party lines based on some facts," he said. "Public judgment goes deeper than public opinion. When you achieve public judgment about something, especially something that you are not in favor of: you're willing to tax it, you're willing to ban it, you're willing to put warnings on something. That's when you get public judgment, and the political process won't go that far until there is public judgment about something."

Berman said that selectively using a fact to provoke a cynical response works best, which he said can be combined with mocking a target. Berman’s colleague, Jack Hubbard, said the two especially like to tear down celebrities who endorse causes.

“There is nothing the public likes more than tearing down celebrities and playing up the hypocrisy angle,” Hubbard said, pointing to a billboard they made mocking actor and filmmaker Robert Redford for his environmentalism. It said, “Demands green living… flies on private planes.”

Berman said he was in the business of reframing public judgments, and if they could not win an argument for their clients they were happy to plant doubts to leave questions lingering. "I'll take a tie any day if I'm trying to preserve the status quo," he said. 

Berman told the room full of energy executives that he could easily hide their money if they bankrolled his campaigns, because of easily used legal loopholes. He “repeatedly boasted about how he could take checks from oil and gas industry executives—he said he had already collected six-figure contributions from some of the executives in the room—and then hide their role in funding his campaigns,” the Times reported.

“People always ask me one question all the time: ‘How do I know that I won’t be found out as a supporter of what you’re doing?’ Berman said. “We run all this stuff through nonprofit organizations that are insulated from having to disclose donors. There is total anonymity. People don’t know who supports us.”

Berman also bragged that he didn’t mind his reputation as a rogue political operator.

“They [opponents and critics] characterize us in a campaign as being the guys with the black helicopters,” he said. “And to some degree, that’s true. We’re doing stuff to diminish the other side’s ability to operate.”

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Steven Rosenfeld is a senior writing fellow of the Independent Media Institute, where he covers national political issues. He is the author of several books on elections, most recently Democracy Betrayed: How Superdelegates, Redistricting, Party Insiders, and the Electoral College Rigged the 2016 Election (March 2018, Hot Books).