Berman's Battle

Last spring, when the anti-fast-food documentary Super Size Me began opening in American theaters, an opinion writer named Richard Berman swung into action. He cranked out a scathing op-ed for the Chicago Sun-Times that blasted the film for "serving up a flawed premise: that we're powerless to stop Big Food from turning us into a nation of fatties."

When legendary TV chef Julia Child died a few months later, Berman saw another opportunity. He wrote a piece for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that used her death as an occasion to debunk the idea that soft drinks are linked to diabetes.

And last month, when a Cleveland hospital garnered national attention for trying to evict its in-house McDonald's, Berman was invited on CNN to critique the move. "I don't see anything wrong with giving people choices," he observed mildly.

Why did these mainstream media outlets air Berman's opinions on such pressing health issues? Is he a doctor? A nutritionist? A health-policy wonk? None of the above. He's a Washington lobbyist.

Berman runs an outfit called the Center for Consumer Freedom, which says it's devoted to defending "the right of adults and parents to choose what they eat, drink, and how they enjoy themselves." From his offices a block from the White House, Berman wages a never-ending public-relations assault on doctors, health advocates, scientists, food researchers, and just about anyone else who highlights the health downsides of eating junk food or being obese.

He also targets groups that want animal-treatment standards for the meat industry, such as PETA, and trial lawyers who want to sue the food industry -- "obesity lawyers licking their chops in search of their next super-sized payday." Such people, Berman notes on the center's Web site, are "food cops, health care enforcers, militant activists, meddling bureaucrats and violent radicals who think they know what's best for you."

However, while Berman presents himself as a defender of consumers against overbearing bureaucrats and health zealots, he's really defending the interests of another group: restaurant chains, food and beverage companies, meat producers, and others who stand to see profits hampered by government regulations, or even by increased health awareness on the part of customers.

Indeed, Berman has carved out a unique -- and very profitable -- niche in Washington's ever more sophisticated PR universe. At a time when the politics of food is going mainstream -- similar to the tobacco wars a generation ago -- he is the food and restaurant industry's No. 1 weapon against those seeking to regulate or shed light on its activities.

Relying on seed money from Philip Morris, Berman launched his group in 1995, with the explicit goal of uniting the tobacco and hospitality industries against the myriad forces of overregulation, particularly those pushing smoking bans in restaurants. But over time, food issues became the organization's focus, and the center's been bankrolled by hefty contributions from the food and restaurant industries. Berman, interestingly, hasn't taken great pains to disguise his funding sources in general. (Why bother? After all, it hasn't disqualified him from appearing on CNN.) He openly describes the group as a "nonprofit coalition supported by restaurants, food companies, and consumers."

To be sure, the center won't share the names of individual or corporate donors. Yet some information has come to light. The organization PR Watch, relying on an internal whistle-blower, has posted a list of the center's backers on its Web site. Among them: meat giants (Tyson Foods and Perdue Farms), soft-drink manufacturers (Coca-Cola), and fast food chains (White Castle, Outback Steakhouse). A center spokesman would only say that the list is "loaded with inaccuracies," but wouldn't say how.

Berman's strategy turns on a simple rhetorical gimmick: By employing the language of consumer freedom, he protects his client industries by demonizing (and, hopefully, discrediting) their critics -- all apparently in service of the hapless consumer. Berman has been explicit about his approach. "Our offensive strategy is to shoot the messenger," he once told Chain Leader Magazine, a trade publication for restaurant chains (whose readership presumably doesn't include too many ordinary consumers). "We've got to attack [activists'] credibility as spokespersons."

Berman's efforts might not seem all that remarkable in a city where industry-funded "astroturf" groups are so emboldened that many no longer bother concealing funding sources. Yet he stands out, if only for the sheer, unparalleled audacity with which he's straddled his dual roles as consumer "advocate" and industry lobbyist.

Consider that in addition to running the Center for Consumer Freedom, a nonprofit 501(c)(3), Berman also has another day job: He's the founder and president of an influential Washington lobbying firm, Berman & Co. According to press accounts, the firm has performed for-profit lobbying for -- you guessed it -- many of the same industries served by the center: restaurant chains like Outback, Hooters, and Red Lobster (a spokesman declined comment). Berman has also lobbied for the American Beverage Institute, which represents restaurateurs and beverage manufacturers. (On behalf of such clients, he opposed the Americans with Disabilities Act, argued against hikes in the federal minimum wage and helped defeat federal legislation that would have imposed a uniform lower blood-alcohol threshold to mark drunken driving -- all regulatory reforms that threatened the profits of his clients.) It's challenging indeed to sort out where the for-profit lobbying against regulation ends and the nonprofit consumer freedom fighting against regulation begins.

And it gets murkier. Berman's nonprofit center, it turns out, has also been paying handsome sums for research, communications, and other services to none other than ... Berman & Co. In 2002, for example, according to its Internal Revenue Service filing, the Center for Consumer Freedom paid Berman & Co. more than $1 million.

So, to recap: Berman the Defender of Consumers runs a nonprofit that collects donations from industries served by Berman the Corporate Lobbyist -- and also pays lucrative fees to Berman the Corporate Lobbyist for his services. If you managed to follow that, you'll probably agree that Berman has pulled off a pretty impressive piece of lobbying jujitsu -- one that says an awful lot about how things really function at the nexus of government policy, big corporations, and the media.

Berman's roles have grown so blurry that one good-government group has called on the IRS to revoke the center's tax-exempt status. In November, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) asked the IRS to investigate the center, pointing to its massive payments to a for-profit company controlled by its own director, along with other transgressions. CREW argues that Berman's group is about protecting industry, not aiding consumers, and therefore is not engaging in the sort of charitable activities that entitle it to tax-exempt status. Berman has dismissed the allegations as littered with "non-factual items" and "misstatements of the law" -- again without saying specifically how.

Yet by any measure, CREW has a compelling case. It's partly based on hard evidence: a host of internal Philip Morris documents that discussed the 1995 formation of Berman's group (then called the Guest Choice Network) in remarkably unguarded terms.

The documents -- correspondence between Berman and Philip Morris, plus an internal Philip Morris memo, all released during discovery on the Big Tobacco lawsuits -- provide an extraordinary glimpse into the creation of a corporate front group, one apparently designed to use the language of consumer choice to advance the interests of major corporations. In a 1995 letter to a Philip Morris executive asking for startup funds for Guest Choice, Berman wrote: "The concept is to unite the restaurant and hospitality industries in a campaign to defend their consumers and marketing programs from anti-smoking, anti-drinking, anti-meat activists ... I would like to solicit Philip Morris for an initial contribution of $600,000."

In another 1995 memo to Philip Morris, Berman explicitly described his strategy as follows: A broad coalition of industries in defense of the consumer -- and generally devoted to fighting regulations -- would provide effective PR cover for the tobacco giant's specific goals. "If externally perceived as driven by restaurant interests, there will be more flexibility and creativity allowed than if it is 'owned' by Philip Morris," Berman wrote.

Equally revealing is a 1995 internal memo written by a Philip Morris exec who approved of Berman's strategy. "[Berman's] proposed solution would broaden the focus of the 'smoking issue,' and expand into the bigger picture of over-regulation," the memo reads. "We believe his proposal is worthy of testing." (For more documents, go to www.citizensforethics.org.) This is remarkable stuff. How often do we get such an intimate peek at a major corporation's decision to bankroll an astroturf group?

The only remaining question is whether the IRS will allow Berman's outfit to continue operating as a tax-exempt nonprofit. The group has changed names and focus over the years, and it no longer takes tobacco money. Yet it's difficult to avoid the conclusion that Berman's MO hasn't changed. His activities continue to be less about educating consumers than about safeguarding industry profits.

As Berman himself put it in the Chain Leader interview: "The fact is that other groups drive consumer behavior on meat, alcohol, fat, sugar, tobacco, and caffeine with outrageous quotes, exaggeration, junk science, and even violent acts ... . Few companies spend any serious time ... developing long-term strategies to meet these challenges. Thus our clients have encouraged us to fill this void."

Which is exactly what Berman has done.

Greg Sargent is a contributing editor at New York magazine.

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