Environmental Media Services
If you’ve ever been advised to steer clear of a food, beverage, or other consumer product based on the claims of a nonprofit organization, you’ve likely been “spun” by Fenton’s multi-million-dollar message machine — and Environmental Media Services (EMS) has probably been the messenger.
EMS is the communications arm of leftist public relations firm Fenton Communications. Based in Washington, in the same office suite as Fenton, EMS claims to be “providing journalists with the most current information on environmental issues.” A more accurate assessment might be that it spoon-feeds the news media sensationalized stories, based on questionable science, and featuring activist “experts,” all designed to promote and enrich David Fenton’s paying clients, and build credibility for the nonprofit ones. It’s a clever racket, and EMS & Fenton have been running it since 1994.
Tired of being nagged about which fish are politically correct to eat? Fretting about choosing the “right” catch of the day? You just might be under the influence of SeaWeb and the Natural Resources Defense Council (both Fenton clients), and their “Give Swordfish a Break!” campaign, communicated for over two years by the trusty flacks at EMS. Never mind that Rebecca Lent of the National Marine Fisheries Service said that Atlantic swordfish “are not considered endangered.” The point was to make SeaWeb and NRDC more believable and trusted when the next big enviro-agenda came along.
Freaked out about so-called “Frankenfoods”? Worried that biotech corn will make you glow in the dark? You’ve probably been exposed to something harmful, all right — EMS’s anti-biotech message, approved and bankrolled by the large segment of the “natural” and organic foods industry that relies on Fenton Communications for its publicity. These include Whole Foods Markets, Green Mountain Coffee, Honest Tea, Kashi Cereal, and Rodale Press, a magazine publisher (Organic Style, Organic Gardening, and many more) that makes millions off of the misguided notion that organic foods are safer to eat than their conventional or biotech counterparts. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s position, by the way, is crystal clear. Former USDA Secretary Dan Glickman has said that “[j]ust because something is labeled as ‘organic’ does not mean it is superior, safer, or more healthy than conventional food.”
Afraid to eat dairy products from cows that have been treated with hormones to produce extra milk? Scared that the hormone, which the FDA calls “entirely safe,” will make its way into your body and cause cancer or other irreparable damage? Beginning with a huge press conference in 1998, EMS pushed that very message relentlessly for over two years. And they did it on behalf of Ben & Jerry’s, a paying Fenton client. Why would Ben & Jerry’s care? Because their ice cream is made with hormone-free milk, and David Fenton calculated that a little health hysteria would drive customers to their “alternative” product quite nicely.
It’s called “black marketing,” and Environmental Media Services has become the principal reason Fenton Communications is so good at it. EMS lends an air of legitimacy to what might otherwise be dismissed (and rightly so) as fear-mongering from the lunatic fringe. In addition to pre-packaged “story ideas” for the mass media, EMS provides commentaries, briefing papers, and even a stable of experts, all carefully calculated to win points for paying clients. These “experts,” though, are also part of the ruse. Over 70% of them earn their paychecks from current or past Fenton clients, all of which have a financial stake in seeing to it that the scare tactics prevail. It’s a clever deception perpetrated on journalists who generally don’t consider do-gooder environmentalists to be capable of such blatant and duplicitous “spin.”
The first rule of this game is that it’s strictly pay-for-play. For a price, you too can promote your product by maligning the competition with junk-science smear tactics. To Fenton Communications, you’ll be a “client”; down the hall at EMS, though, you’ll join the ranks of its “project partners.” And nobody will be the wiser.
In December of 1998, Environmental Media Services (with several Fenton Communications staffers in tow) held a press conference with guests including activist representatives from the Center for Food Safety and the Consumers Union. Before news cameras and dozens of reporters, this panel of “experts” warned that “recombinant” Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH) given to cows would render milk harmful to humans, and even cancerous. The Boston Globe, the New York Times, and ABC News (among others) all ran stories based on this “breaking news” event suggesting that American consumers should be suspicious of any dairy products associated with rBGH.
Not surprisingly, the press event produced by EMS made no mention of the fact that Ben & Jerry’s was both a Fenton client and a major stakeholder in the debate. Just one year earlier, Ben & Jerry’s had made headlines (again, with a wind-assist from EMS) with a legal settlement in which it would be permitted to use product labels touting its products’ lack of rBGH as an advantage for consumers. Back then, EMS was very open about its relationship with Ben & Jerry’s, sending out press releases touting the ice cream maker’s “legal victory.” Fenton Communications knew full well that its client was interested in painting rBGH-wielding competitors as cancer conduits, and EMS was happy to oblige.
What they never told you was that Ben & Jerry’s also had to agree to a disclaimer, which still appears on some ice cream cartons today: “The FDA has said no significant difference has been shown and no test can now distinguish between milk from rBGH treated and untreated cows.”
Surely by now you know that money makes the world go ‘round, and the globe doesn’t stop spinning for Environmental Media Services just because it calls itself “nonprofit.” EMS exists to make money. It turns a profit for Fenton Communications by improving the bottom lines of a wide variety of Fenton clients. Understanding how the money changes hands, though, requires a shift in focus from Washington to San Francisco, where the Tides Foundation is based.
The Tides Foundation is an unusual philanthropy in many ways, not the least of which is that it gives away other foundations’ money. Corporations, individuals, and other foundations can all use Tides as a pass-through vehicle, “designating” that their cash be funneled to tax-exempt third parties. Tides is also unusual in that it runs its own “incubator” for these nonprofit entities, a subsidiary called the Tides Center that runs the day-to-day operations of new activist groups so they can focus on making life difficult for the rest of us. The end result is a “foundation” that uses its own tax-exemption as a sort of blanket coverage for newly-formed nonprofits (all of them left-of-center), while funding them with money that originates somewhere else.
In this arrangement, startup activist groups don’t have to risk being turned down when they ask the IRS for tax-exempt status: they just ride piggy-back on Tides’s exemption, giving them the same privileges extended to churches and universities without having to satisfy any real requirements. And big-money donors with anti-corporate or anti-consumer leanings can readily fund the lunatic fringe without having to disclose where their money went. They only need mention in their tax returns that a donation was made to the Tides Center, and their legal obligations are fulfilled. One more curious side effect of this deal is that newly-incubated activist groups (what Tides calls “projects”) can appear to have absolutely no expenses of their own for employees, lobbyists, or fundraising contractors, as Tides officially cuts all the checks.
So while Environmental Media Services was started, and is still run, by staffers of Fenton Communications, it was officially instituted as a “project” of the Tides Center in 1994. This gave Fenton some plausible deniability and initially shielded him from the suggestion that EMS was just a shill for his clients. It has also provided a ready-made funding mechanism for foundations, “progressive” companies, and other Fenton clients who don’t want their contributions to EMS noted for the public record [Editor’s note: despite the logistical roadblocks set up by Tides, our research still has been able to reverse-engineer several million dollars in foundation grants to EMS].
Of course, anyone ingenious enough to invent such a scheme is also probably crafty enough to abuse it as well. Consider that the Tides Center paid EMS president Arlie Schardt over $115,000 in 1998. Fair enough, since he was technically a Tides employee, in addition to being the “Senior Counselor” at Fenton Communications and a board member at Friends of the Earth. But that doesn’t explain the $583,727 that Tides paid to Fenton that same year, which was designated as “public relations” expenses in Tides’s tax return. You see, Tides has never “officially” been a Fenton client, as that would appear to be a huge conflict. The Fenton Communications web site doesn’t list Tides as a current or former client either. So what was the half-million-dollar payout for?
We may never find out. But we do know that in the past three tax years (1998-2000), the for-profit companies “eGrants,” Seventh Generation, and Working Assets (which sells long-distance phone service and brokers credit cards), have each put over $1 million into Tides. They are all, by the way, clients of Fenton Communications. So are big-money foundations like the Pew Charitable Trusts, the David & Lucille Packard Foundation, and the John Merck Fund. Together, they have contributed another $1.6 million (that we know of) to EMS, using Tides as a money-funnel.
The big picture, then, is a quasi-money-laundering scheme worthy of a name like “Tides” (apologies to Procter & Gamble). Fenton Communications’ for-profit and foundation clients put massive amounts of cash into Tides, and enjoy a healthy tax write-off for their trouble. Tides turns around and makes huge “grants” to Fenton’s nonprofit clients, including the Environmental Working Group, Natural Resources Defense Council, and SeaWeb (just to name a few). Tides also funds EMS, which David Fenton uses as a mouthpiece in order to promote fear campaigns which benefit his other for-profit clients. EMS makes good use of the “experts” who haunt the halls of Fenton’s nonprofit clients. Tides pays everyone’s salary, and even sends the odd half million dollars to Fenton Communication for its trouble.
The remarkable thing here is that this is all legal, and that it takes this much concentrated duplicity to produce an effective food scare.