Last month, The Tennessean ran a "Tennessee Voices" op-ed column stridently defending a grave public concern: the much-maligned plastic bag. The topic hadn't exactly topped Music City's agenda, but you can forgive author J. Justin Wilson for not knowing much about Nashville. This particular "Tennessee Voice" hails from Michigan — and he works for a PR firm in Washington, D.C., whose allies stand to lose if cities restrict the use of plastic bags.
Over the past year, the daily's opinion page has published at least five op-eds written by various employees of Richard Berman, a notorious PR executive who helps tip policy debates in favor of companies like Coca-Cola and Tyson Foods. Whether criticizing minimum-wage legislation or mocking the Humane Society, these op-eds usually adopt anti-regulatory positions that help Berman's business partners.
But those motives aren't readily transparent to the reader. That's because The Tennessean only prints a bare-bones disclaimer that identifies the author as part of a sober-sounding nonprofit or trade association. There's no mention that Berman himself orchestrates those nonprofits to attack his clients' critics — a slippery tactic that has been profiled in 60 Minutes and The New York Times.
"Sometimes agenda-driven organizations distort the truth by leaving out information or coming up with a misleading name," says Kelly McBride, a senior faculty member for ethics at the Poynter Institute. "Newspapers should be vigilant about not buying into that."
The Tennessean, however, is no match for the polarizing Berman. While Berman's corporate friends, including some of the country's most powerful CEOs, adore him, his critics can barely hide their contempt. That includes his own son, David Berman, a Nashville resident and founding member of acclaimed indie-rock band Silver Jews. Two years ago, Berman shared with fans his ill regard for his father.
"You might be surprised to know he is famous, for terrible reasons," he wrote in an online message board. "My father is a despicable man."
The elder Berman's primary tactic is a business strategy that gives his corporate cronies deep cover. Through his for-profit public relations firm, Berman operates and staffs a series of nonprofits. Using advertising and cable-news appearances — and newspaper op-eds — employees promote the radioactive public positions Berman's allies wouldn't dare voice. Stricter DUI measures? Bad! High-fructose corn syrup? Unfairly demonized (and tasty!).
Meanwhile, the businesses that reap the rewards stay out of the fray. Instead, they quietly write Berman's nonprofits a check.
As The New York Times noted, Berman's groups provide the most valuable asset one can have in a PR war — "anonymity for companies that would rather their customers not know they are behind certain attacks."
That strategy enrages Berman's many detractors.
"With a professionally written essay from a PR firm, an attention-grabbing topic, and the illusion of respectability his nonprofit façades provide, he has little difficulty in convincing newspapers to publish his op-eds," says John Doppler Schiff, a volunteer with HumaneWatch.info, an animal-rights group.
Take, for example, the Tennessean plastic-bag column. Snappily written and thinly researched, Wilson's column advocates against the regulation of plastic bags by claiming that reusable bags — their emerging rival in the marketplace — have lead in them. At the end, a brief bio identifies Wilson as the senior research analyst at the Center for Consumer Freedom.
In fact, the Center for Consumer Freedom has no separate existence from Berman & Co. It doesn't even require a commute: The group is housed in the firm's D.C. offices. Wilson also doubles as "managing director" for the Center for Union Facts, an anti-labor group run by Berman as well.
Sarah Longwell, communications director for Berman & Co., says her boss merely takes on anti-regulatory crusades out of conviction. She says the Center for Consumer Freedom approached The Tennessean about writing its latest column.
"I imagine the Tennessean published it because people are very concerned about whether there is lead in these reusable bags," Longwell says.
Longwell herself is a Tennessean contributor. In August, the paper published her op-ed arguing against stricter DUI measures. A brief bio identified her as "managing director of the American Beverage Institute."
"It's not good PR for the alcohol industry to attack Mothers Against Drunk Driving," says Laura Dial, executive director of MADD Tennessee. "People who work with us have had loved ones killed by drunk drivers. That's why they hide behind these entities."
It's not clear if The Tennessean knows its op-ed contributors are fronts. Editor Mark Silverman did not return repeated requests for comment.
But Silverman, along with editorial-page editor Dwight Lewis, should have figured it out by now. For more than six months, the blogger Southern Beale (an actual Tennessee voice) has blown the whistle on such Trojan Horse op-eds. Earlier this month, a few weeks after Wilson's plastic-bag column, she emailed Lewis and Silverman to say the paper shouldn't be running billable shilling disguised as community opinion.
"They misrepresent themselves and who they work for," she wrote them. "And The Tennessean falls for it every time."
As of press time, no one at The Tennessean had responded. Maybe she should go work for Richard Berman.
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