Co-founder, Environmental Media Services; director, Environmental Working Group; founder, Fenton Communications; co-founder, New Economy Communications; co-founder, Death Penalty Information Ctr.; former PR director, Rolling Stone MagazineDavid Fenton has turned leftist activism into big business with his firm Fenton Communications, the single most easily identifiable nexus of anti-consumer activism in Washington, DC. Fenton and his staff masterminded the mad cow scare campaign, the organic marketing craze, the phony Alar-on-apples food scare, and more. He’s very good at what he does, and groups like the Center for Food Safety, Greenpeace, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Organic Consumers Association, and SeaWeb are all happy to pony up big bucks to give their radical messages the Fenton touch.
Fenton started out in the music biz, directing public relations for Rolling Stone. He entered the activist fray in the anti-nuclear movement of the late 1970s, co-producing the 1979 “No Nukes” concerts headlined by Bruce Springsteen and Bonnie Raitt. From there, he went on to found his own activism-centered PR empire, Fenton Communications, in 1982. Within that umbrella are “three independent nonprofit organizations” all co-founded by Fenton: the Death Penalty Information Center, New Economy Communications (an anti-globalism outfit), and Environmental Media Services.
Fenton’s first big publicity coup came in 1989, when his firm launched an attack on Alar, a chemical used by apple growers to keep their fruit fresh and crisp prior to market. Using the Natural Resources Defense Council as a foil — NRDC was already a Fenton client — Fenton leaked a damning (but false and unsubstantiated) report on Alar to CBS News. The report had not undergone scientific review, and was not based on human exposure to Alar. Nevertheless, Fenton and NRDC concluded that Alar caused cancer, particularly in children. CBS jumped at the release and aired a feature on “60 Minutes.” The nationwide panic that followed devastated apple growers across the country and forced Alar’s manufacturer to withdraw the product from the market.
The study was wrong. The accusations about Alar were groundless. Still, Fenton was unrepentant: “We designed [the Alar campaign] so that revenue would flow back to the Natural Resources Defense Council from the public,” he told his other clients in an internal memo later reprinted by The Wall Street Journal. “And we sold this book about pesticides through a 900 number and the ‘Donahue Show.’ And to date there has been $700,000 in net revenue from it.”
Given that Fenton Communications also represented a host of organic and “natural” food producers (and still does to this day), perhaps we should forgive him for continuing to gloat about the success of his ploy. “A modest investment repaid itself many-fold in tremendous media exposure and substantial, immediate revenue,” Fenton wrote. “Lines started forming in health food stores. The sales of organic produce soared. All of which we were very happy about.”
David Fenton has applied the “lesson of Alar” to many other campaigns since 1989. “Usually it takes a significant natural disaster to create this much sustained news attention for an environmental problem,” he concedes. But when the environmental “problem” is a sales drought for his commercials clients (or worse yet, a news drought for a food-scare group on his roster), you can be sure that Fenton Communications will find a way to create a high public profile out of thin air. Just don’t expect them to have any intimate relation with the truth.