If you watched the Academy Awards ceremony last month, you may have noticed something out of character with the evening's festive atmosphere -- a 30-second spot attacking the Humane Society, America's largest animal protection organization. The commercial, broadcast on ABC and reminiscent of the negative campaign ads we've been seeing on TV lately, began with a flashing red light and throbbing alarm sound as the voiceover warned, "Attention: consumer protection alert."
But this was no altruistic effort to inform the public. On the contrary, it was part of a well-orchestrated campaign to defame one of our nation's most beloved charities.
Who would want to attack a group dedicated to supporting pet shelters and preventing cruelty to animals? There is no hint in the ad itself, which was funded by a group that calls itself "Humane Watch" -- an organization that turns out to be a front group for Washington P.R. man Rick Berman, A.K.A. "Dr Evil," as the lobbyist is not-so-affectionately known in Washington.
Berman takes a perverse pride in this nickname, according to CBS's Morley Safer, who called him, "the booze and food industry's... weapon of mass destruction." Safer observed on 60 Minutes in 2009 that "even in a mudslinging city like Washington, it's difficult to find someone who provokes as much venom as Rick Berman."
Berman's usual strategy is to set up nonprofit "educational entities" and websites such as "Center for Consumer Freedom" and "Center for Union Facts" that claim to be public watchdogs, but whose real aim is to disseminate the views of unnamed corporate interests.
"He's a one-man goon squad for any company that's willing to hire him," says Dr. Michael Jacobson, a co-founder of the Center for Science in the Public Interest and a leading safe-food advocate. "Berman is against every single measure, no matter how sensible. He'd have no restrictions on tobacco advertising, junk foods galore in schools. No minimum wage."
What does Rick Berman have against the Humane Society? If you believe the TV ad, Berman's beef is that the organization uses only 1 percent of its funding to support local animal shelters. That is technically true, according to Humane Society President Wayne Pacelle. But Pacelle says that running animal shelters is not what the organization is all about. While the Humane Society assists local shelters in a variety of ways, and supports programs for sterilization, animal protection and animal rescues all over the country, the largest part of its budget is dedicated to "advocacy and public policy." And this is what really irks Rick Berman and his nameless industry sponsors.
The Humane Society has pushed for laws to prevent cruelty against animals, including livestock and wildlife, not only domestic pets. Just last week, McDonald's announced jointly with the Humane Society that it will require its pork suppliers to phase out the use of gestational crates, which are used to confine sows while pregnant.
The ad shown during the Oscars claims that the Humane Society received a "D" rating for its performance from the American Institute of Philanthropy. But other charity rating agencies disagree. The respected group Philanthropedia commissioned 169 experts in animal rights to assess organizations working in the field. They chose the Humane Society as the most effective in 2011.
The reason the Humane Society is so successful in the view of many is that its impassioned activism has helped to revamp numerous laws and regulations. Caring for animals compassionately costs money that many big livestock and food interests would prefer not to pay, hence their interest in attacking the Humane Society.
This is a free country. Everyone -- including corporations -- can express their views. What's wrong is when corporate bullies hide behind phony facades to slander hard-working charitable organizations. Just as we require political ads to disclose the sources of their funding, we should make sure that these faceless front groups come out of the shadows and tell us up front -- on the ads themselves -- who exactly is paying for them.