When Rachel Maddow did this report about Rick Berman back in 2009, it should have sparked interest that paralleled the attention the Koch Brothers get for whatever they do. But Berman has managed to crawl back into the shadows, peering out occasionally to slam unions or mount campaigns against efforts to improve Americans' health.
Alternet has drawn back the curtain once again, exposing Berman's recent work for Big Food and agribusiness.
For Berman, the art of the kill circles in on emotional responses to message cues.
“Emotional understanding is very different; it stays with you,” Berman said. “Intellectual understanding is a fact and facts trump other facts. When I understand something in my gut, you’ve got me in a very different way.” Speaking to Minnesota’s Agri-Growth Council in 2012 about animal rights activists, he was blunter. “We should attack their credibility using ridicule and humor; not for what they’ve said but for who they are.”
Now 70, he has used front groups and exaggerated facts flung with a disregard for public consequences for decades. He created the American Beverage Institute in 1991, which attacked Mothers Against Drunk Driving, saying it was not run by women and that using a cellphone in a car is more dangerous than driving slightly drunk. Like fists on a punching bag, Berman unleashed a series of distorted claims to derail any effort that might alter the booze industry’s business model—such as lowering the legal blood alcohol level. His institute’s experts, on his payroll, blare that new cars will soon have breathalyzers, and that people won’t be able to have a “beer at a ballgame.”
In 2012, Berman launched a multi-million dollar attack on unions through his Center for Union Facts organization. The ads compared unions to North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il in order to convince viewers that they should support a federal right-to-work law.
Gut check, anyone?
In an interview with the Boston Globe, Berman summed up his ratf*cking style quite succinctly, declaring, "people remember negative stuff...We can use fear and anger — it stays with people longer than love and sympathy."
That's your conservative message playbook in one sentence. Fear and anger sticks longer than anything else.
As long as there's a client willing to pay, Berman and his henchmen are ready to climb down in the dirt to smear their opponents. In 2011, Berman employee David Martosko was deposed in connection with a lawsuit brought against Berman by the Humane League of Philadelphia, Inc. for defamation. In his deposition, he admitted that he created fake Facebook identities to friend and track activists via social networks, but he didn't stop there. According to his deposition, he used those accounts to actively harass activists for causes he opposed.
Shortly after giving his deposition, Martosko left Berman's employ and moved on to become the political editor at the Daily Caller. His tenure there was marked by the now-infamous faked story of Senator Robert Menendez and the Dominican Republic prostitutes. Shortly after that, he was quietly dispatched to the Daily Mail. (Even Tucker Carlson didn't want to get his hands quite that dirty.)
None of this is particularly secret, but it bears repeating when considered in the context of today's toxic political discourse online, on cable networks, and elsewhere. From the Alternet article:
Berman says he isn’t in interested in policy debates and position papers, but gut punches that people will remember. In one anti-union drive effort, his television ad begins with a smirking cashier, saying, “You know what I love, paying union dues just so I can keep my job.” A smiling black construction worker followed, saying, “I really like how the union discriminated against minorities.” Then a busy waitress, “Nothing makes me feel better than knowing I’m supporting their fat-cat lifestyles.” It ended, in unison, “Thank you union bosses,” with an on-air credit to the “Center for Union Facts.” In another television ad, a trial lawyer interrogates a Girl Scout on a witness stand because her cookies do not have nutrition labeling.
Berman calls this approach “shooting the messenger,” and told CBS it “means people getting that this messenger is not as credible as their name would suggest.” His staff goes through government reports, activist press releases, policy papers and books by anyone who might stand in the way of unfettered corporate profits. They take aim by seizing on small points—a research methodology, size of a poll, minority opinion—and blow up that trifle to smear a reputation, organization or agenda. They create websites parodying the points, write and air ads attacking groups, their leadership, their funding, and even push GOP officeholders to join in the bullying.
You know, we all want to be remembered for something, but I can honestly say that being known as King Ratf*cker and Chief Corporate Bully are two titles I could do without. That's good, because Rick Berman clearly owns them.