The Real Life Mod Squad

04/11/2006 02:14 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Washington, DC -- As Tom DeLay exits stage right, and as Thank You for Smoking hits America's silver screens at stage left, the real-life character on whom the movie's sleazy protagonist should have been based moves to stage center.

Richard Berman has hung out in the shadows of reactionary-right corporate land for a while, as the master of a series of websites and PR campaigns funded by tobacco, liquor, and industrial food interests. His main front group goes by the name "Center for Consumer Freedom," but he's also operated under such aliases as "www.NannyState.com", "www.fishscam.com," "activist cash.com," and even "animalscam.com," when a few years ago the big peril to the republic was organic food, because it might alarm consumers about pesticides.

According to a piece by Harold Meyerson in the Washington Post, Berman started out in 1995, with money from Philip Morris. "The concept," he wrote to Philip Morris at the time, "is to unite the restaurant and hospitality industries in a campaign to defend their consumers and marketing programs against attacks from anti-smoking, anti-drinking, anti-meat, etc. activists." According to the Center for Media and Democracy, Coca-Cola, Wendy's, Tyson Foods, Cargill, and Outback Steakhouse are among Berman's largest donors.

Berman for years operated as a website and press release component of the reactionary echo chamber. But now he's suddenly come into some serious money. One of his latest campaigns, to make the oceans safe for mercury, led off with a full page ad in The New Yorker claiming that the only mercury you need to worry about is the mercury in whales -- otherwise, not to worry.

The basic claim made in this website is that the FDA, in setting exposure limits, is wrong to use a safety factor in telling consumers how much of a particular fish they can eat a week. But this safety factor is not only reasonable, it's essential to protect your health -- first because the studies used in setting the risk factor are done on too small a population to be reliable without a safety margin, and second because a particular fish is not the only source of mercury for anyone -- and your body doesn't know, or care, whether the added mercury in your nervous system is from the canned tuna you ate at a picnic, the swordfish you had on your anniversary dinner, or the mercury amalgam in an old filling. What we do know is that one-sixth of American women already have a level of mercury in their systems that worries doctors, and that most of them ate very reasonable-sounding amounts of fish.

We have no idea whether the cash that enabled Berman suddenly to buy a full page in The New Yorker came from the tuna industry, which seems unlikely, or from coal or utility interests, which is more probable, but Berman's big bucks don't stop with fish.

He's also taking on, for the first time, organized labor by running a series of splashy full-page ads in newspapers such as the Washington Post and NY Times that compare labor leaders to Fidel Castro for arguing that workers ought to be able to join a union by simply signing a membership card. (Castro, last I heard, was even more hostile to unions than the Bush administration, by the way.)

My own guess is that Abramoff's guilty plea, DeLay's departure, and Berman's sudden wealth are connected. For years, corporate polluters could simply get their business done in Congress by having Jack Abramoff take members of Congress like DeLay on golf trips. Now that the junket strategy has run into trouble, the polluters are back in full public-relations mode, trying to discredit physicians, public health groups, environmentalists, and workers' advocates. Their hope: That we'll have no more credibility with the public than their departed Hammer, Tom DeLay, does.