A visit to the ActivistCash.com web site
This article is part of the Center for Media & Democracy's spotlight on front groups and corporate spin.
Like many corporate front groups, ActivistCash.com (a web site owned by lobbyist Rick Berman's misleadingly-named Center for Consumer Freedom) has received uncritical support from leading news media. The Wall Street Journal assisted the public launch of ActivistCash.com with a December 13, 2001 editorial column by Kimberley Strassel, titled "Activist, Inc."
Relying entirely on information provided by ActivistCash, Strassel made several claims for which she offered no evidence, some of which are demonstrably false:
- "These days, most 'grassroots' groups are far better moneyed, networked and operated than many corporations and political lobbies." Actually, grassroots groups only spend a tiny fraction of the money that corporations spend on lobbying and public relations. According to statistics compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, environmental organizations spent a total of $4.7 million on lobbying Congress in 1998. The sum total for all single-issue ideological groups combined, on all sides of the issues—including pro-choice feminists, anti-abortionists, human rights groups, consumer organizations, senior citizens, and a variety of other groups—was $76.2 million. During that same year, the agribusiness industry alone spent $119.3 million, and the lobbying expenditures of all industries combined added up to $11.2 billion.
- "Companies—especially 'powerful' public ones—are required to keep their operations transparent and regularly make public their financial records. Activist groups, even though most receive non-profit status and must file with the IRS, have been reluctant to let anyone see their records." Yet neither Strassel nor ActivistCash.com are able to cite any examples of activist groups "being reluctant to let anyone see their records." In fact, all of the information that appears on ActivistCash was provided to Berman's researchers by the activist groups themselves (with the exception of some false information that we detail below). As for the claim that corporations regularly make public their financial records, this is only true of publicly-traded corporations, and as the recent Enron scandal demonstrates, even this information can sometimes be limited and misleading. Moreover, corporations rarely disclose the details of their spending on PR campaigns designed to influence public opinion. Case in point: the ActivistCash.com itself does not provide any information about its corporate sponsors - nor do any of the other corporate front groups run by Rick Berman, the Washington, DC lobbyist who runs ActivistCash.
Strassel also quoted John Doyle, Berman & Co.'s communications director. "What we uncovered is an intricate, organized, well-funded web of what you might call the 'new left,' " Doyle said. "It allows a person to finally link the environmental activists with the animal rights activists with the anti-corporate activists, and see that they all operate together in the anti-choice arena."
To test these claims, PR Watch editor Sheldon Rampton visited ActivistCash on December 18, 2001. The first thing he noticed was the site's preoccupation with a narrow list of organizations. Only 16 activist groups appeared in its database. A year later, in January 2003, the number had grown to only 33. By June 2004 the tally had only inched up to 39.
In contrast, the Capital Research Center, another tobacco-funded think tank that purports to "expose" the funding sources of nonprofit organizations, had 2,879 groups in its database as of January 8, 2003.
Organized by main area of interest, the groups listed on ActivistCash were:
- Animal Rights/Vegetarian
- Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD)
- National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA)
- Action on Smoking and Health (ASH)
- Earth First!
- Environmental Media Services
- Environmental Working Group
- Greenpeace USA
- Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)
- Waterkeeper Alliance
- Sea Shepherd Conservation Society
- Food Safety
- Center for Food Safety
- Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI)
- Chefs Collaborative
- Mothers for Natural Law
- Organic Consumers Association
- News Media
- Sustainable Agriculture/Family Farming
- American Corn Growers Association
- Dakota Resource Council
- Dakota Rural Action
- Idaho Rural Council
- Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy
- Northern Plains Resource Council
- Powder River Basin Resource Council
- Turning Point Project
- Western Organization of Resource Councils
- Foundation on Economic Trends
- Institute for Social Ecology
- Ruckus Society
- Tides Foundation
Of course there are many other groups that work on these issues, so ActivistCash is being very selective in its choice of targets. But do these groups really form an "intricate web"? Upon examination, it turns out that the anti-tobacco and anti-alcohol groups (ASH, MADD and CASA) have no discernible connection whatsoever with any of the other groups on the list. The "connections" section of ActivistCash.com admits, "We have not found ... networking connections with other organizations in our database at this time." These groups appear to have been included simply because ActivistCash.com dislikes their stance on booze and cigarettes.
Contrary to the claim that these activist groups all work in concert, they actually have different and sometimes opposing agendas. PR Watch, for example, has published lengthy articles criticizing Greenpeace, as well as shorter but pointed criticisms of the NRDC and CSPI.
ActivistCash points to a number of allegedly sinister "connections" between some of the groups on its list, but upon examination, these connections actually turn out to be fairly obvious and innocuous. For example, ActivistCash.com says that Greenpeace is "connected" to PETA because one of its employees used to work for PETA. SeaWeb is connected to NRDC because it was originally a project of NRDC before spinning off to become a separate organization—true, but hardly a secret. The Center for Food Safety and the Organic Consumers Association are both connected to each through CMD director John Stauber, who serves on their advisory boards. EarthSave and Physicians for Responsible Medicine are "connected" because some of their staff members have spoken at the same events. If this sort of thing constitutes an "intricate, organized web," then PR Watch is also "intricately organized" with Harvard and Johns Hopkins Universities, Borders and Barnes & Noble bookstores, the NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center, and dozens of newspapers and radio stations throughout the United States that have chosen to interview its staff or invite them to speak. Moreover, ActivistCash sponsor Berman & Co. itself must be part of the conspiracy, because Berman employee John Doyle is the brother of Mary Beth Doyle, an environmental activist who once helped arrange a speaking tour of Michigan featuring PR Watch editor Sheldon Rampton.
ActivistCash tries to deepen the sense of a wide-ranging conspiracy by listing 24 popular celebrities who support activist causes, including Pamela Anderson, Bob Barker, Kim Basinger, Harry Belafonte, David Duchovny, Danny Glover, Stephen King, Ann Landers, Yo-Yo Ma, Robert Redford, Barbra Streisand and Mary Tyler Moore. Once again, there is nothing particularly remarkable or secret about fact that celebrities have publicly endorsed various causes. These endorsements have all been widely publicized—which of course is the purpose of celebrity endorsements. Here too, ActivistCash seems to have done only superficial research. Former X-Files star David Duchovny is included on the ActivistCash list of celebrities, based solely on the fact that he and wife Tea Leoni once participated in a fundraiser in which they sold "butt paintings" to raise funds for an unnamed animal rights cause. (One of the "connections" that ActivistCash seems to have missed is the fact that PR Watch editor Sheldon Rampton and David Duchovny both graduated in the same year from Princeton University. Even when the "truth is out there," ActivistCash apparently can't find it.)
ActivistCash.com also provides some information about the funding sources for the activist groups in its database, but the data actually undermines their claim that the groups are intricately connected. The 16 activist groups listed as of December 2001 received funding from 212 different foundations. If anything, this suggests that the activist groups draw their support from a diverse range of funders. To assess the degree of coordinated foundation giving, we looked at the first 50 foundations in the ActivistCash database in December 2001. Only 14 of the 50 had given grants to more than one of the activist groups listed, and none had given grants to more than three groups. Of the foundations which did give money to more than one group, most gave to groups with similar missions. For example, the David & Lucile Packard Foundation (established by one of the founders of the Hewlett-Packard Company) made grants to SeaWeb, Greenpeace and the Natural Resources Defense Council—all environmental groups.
The giving history of the foundations listed on ActivistCash.com also undermines the claim that activist groups are rolling in cash these days. Most of the foundations listed give the majority of their money to non-activist groups and causes. The Benjamin J. Rosenthal Foundation, for example, is listed as a grantmaker to Greenpeace, PETA, and the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. Rosenthal's grants to these three groups total $22,000 over the course of three years—not much, considering that the Rosenthal Foundation gives away more than $500 million annually.
Misleading Analysis of ASH
ActivistCash seems to find enormous significance in the funding that the F.M. Kirby Foundation has given money to Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), the anti-tobacco organization headed by law professor John Banzhaf III . It states: "John Banzhaf has done a masterful job of fooling people into thinking that ASH is a grassroots effort. The group's web site even boasts that 'ASH is entirely supported by tax-deductible contributions from people like you concerned about smoking and protecting the rights of nonsmokers.' However, publicly available documents show grants totaling $330,000 from New Jersey's F.M. Kirby Foundation."
Actually, this charge of deception is based on a straw man argument to begin with, because ASH does not really describe itself as a "grassroots" organization. A search of the ASH website in December 2001 turned up only 17 pages that contained the word "grassroots," none of which used that word in reference to ASH itself. Two of the pages, in fact, used the term to describe the tobacco industry's fake grassroots front organizations. When describing itself, ASH simply states that it is a "national antismoking organization which is entirely supported by tax-deductible contributions." Since the Kirby Foundation's grants fall into the category of "tax-deductible contributions," this claim is accurate.
Moreover, the grants that ASH has received from the F.M. Kirby Foundation represent only a small part of the ASH budget. During fiscal year 2000, ASH received $60,000 from the Kirby Foundation—5.5% of its total revenues of $1,079,279.
Kirby's grants to ASH are also small by Kirby Foundation standards, and represent only a tiny fraction of its overall giving. The Kirby Foundation—established by the late Fred M. Kirby, owner of variety stores including F.W. Woolworth—is the 82nd largest foundation in the United States, with assets of more than half a billion dollars. Administered today by Kirby's descendants, it gives grants to a wide range of nonprofit organizations. Recent examples include: a $2 million grant to support research on the brain; $5 million to fund construction of an addition to a business school in North Carolina; $2 million to create a neurobiology research chair at Rockefeller University; $1 million to the United Network for Organ Sharing; and $32.5 million to Lafayette College in Easton, PA.
Ironically, the F.M. Kirby Foundation gives most of its "public policy" grants to right-wing organizations. Kirby has been a major funder of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI), one of the most prominent conservative organizations on college campuses. ISI's annual budget of $5 million funds more than 60 conservative student newspapers and pays for prominent conservative speakers like Oliver North to speak at campuses across the country. Its 23-acre national headquarters in Delaware is called the "F.M. Kirby Campus" in recognition of the $1.5 million grant—the largest single grant in ISI's history—that the Kirby Foundation provided to pay for its purchase.
Kirby is also a major funder of the Young America's Foundation (YAF), which also sponsors conservative activism on campus. YAF's annual budget is close to $9 million, and, like ISI, its national headquarters is named after the Kirby Foundation in appreciation of the grant that paid for it.
The Kirby Foundation has also funded Citizens for a Sound Economy (CSE), one of the leading corporate-funded think tanks. According to budget documents obtained by Public Citizen, CSE takes millions of dollars of year from corporate interests, including Exxon for projects related to global warming, Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds for tobacco projects, and the Florida sugar growers' lobby to oppose a federal plan for Florida wetlands restoration. In 1998, CSE received $1,124,050 from tobacco companies at the same time that it was spearheading the opposition to new cigarette taxes. That same year, CSE received $22,500 in unrelated funding from the Kirby Foundation.
Members of the Kirby family are entitled to give their money away as they please. Some people would deplore the fact that they contribute to right-wing propaganda centers like the ISI, YAF and CSE. ActivistCash chooses to deplore the comparative pittance which the same foundation has given to a group that opposes smoking. If ActivistCash were honest, however, it should note that Kirby also provides funding to pro-tobacco groups. Moreover, ActivistCash should own up publicly to the fact that its own work is supported by tobacco money. Actually, Berman & Co. has taken more money from Philip Morris in a single year than ASH received from the Kirby Foundation during all of the years combined for which ActivistCash has bothered to collect data.
A Comedy of Errors
PR Watch editor Sheldon Rampton also reviewed what ActivistCash.com has to say about PR Watch's own sponsoring organization, the Center for Media & Democracy and was struck by the number of demonstrably false claims that they managed to sandwich into a fairly brief profile:
- ActivistCash says that the Center for Media & Democracy "seems to largely be a PR tool for selling Stauber's books." Wrong! CMD was founded in 1993. Rampton and Stauber's first book, Toxic Sludge Is Good For You, was not written until 1995. Moreover, no royalties or payments from any of Stauber and Rampton's books accrue to the authors. All rights are held by the Center, and all revenues from the sale of books go to the Center. Rampton and Stauber receive a salary from CMD, but most of CMD's revenues come from sources other than book sales.
- ActivistCash claims that CMD has received $10,000 in grants from the John Merck Fund, $5,000 of which went to buy an advertisement in the New York Times for Rampton and Stauber's book, Mad Cow USA. Wrong! CMD to date has never received any funding from the John Merck Fund for any purpose.
- David Merritt, another CMD board member, is listed as executive director of the Citizens Utility Board (CUB), a Wisconsin consumer advocate that opposes utility rate increases. Wrong! Dave is a former executive director of CUB, but he has not worked for them since 1996.
- ActivistCash claims that PR Watch editor Sheldon Rampton has "directed the Wisconsin Coordinating Council on Nicaragua (WCCN), taking part in a project that he said 'channeled more than $7 million in loans to Nicaragua' while that nation was under Sandinista (Marxist) control." Wrong! Sheldon Rampton has been active with WCCN for many years, including serving as a paid WCCN staff member from 1993-1997. He currently serves as a volunteer on the WCCN board of directors but has never been its executive director. The project that channeled "more than $7 million in loans to Nicaragua" is the Nicaraguan Credit Alternatives Fund (NICA Fund). It offers loans to low-income Nicaraguans with no access to commercial credit so that they can start their own small businesses. Typical borrowers are engaged in activities such as farming, ranching, retail, carpentry and making tortillas. It's a great project that continues to operate and has actually given out more than $10 million in loans to assist some of the poorest people in the western hemisphere. However, the NICA Fund did not channel money to Nicaragua during the years of the Sandinista government. It was not even started until 1992, two years after the Sandinistas lost the 1990 Nicaraguan elections
- ActivistCash says that Rampton is a member of the CMD board of directors. Wrong! Rampton edits PR Watch, but he has never even been to a board meeting.
- ActivistCash says that John Stauber is a member of the CMD board of directors. Wrong again! Stauber is the executive director of CMD, but he is not a board member.
- Finally, ActivistCash says that CMD only has two staff members. Wrong yet again! At the time, CMD had three staff members. Anyone who visitied the PR Watch staff biographies page could see a nice color photograph of PR Watch associate editor Laura Miller. (Starting in November 2003, the Center staff roster expanded to six people.)
Information correcting all of these errors was published on the PR Watch web site in January 2002, but ActivistCash has not bothered to post a retraction or correct the false information that continues to appear in its profile of CMD.
Related SourceWatch Articles
- Berman & Co.
- Rick Berman
- Center for Consumer Freedom
- American Beverage Institute
- Employment Policies Institute
- Employment Roundtable
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