A few pages from Dr. Evil's playbook
October 30, 2014 5:16 PM   Subscribe

When lobbyist Richard Berman gave a speech to the Western Energy Alliance, he was seeking to raise millions from energy companies for his Big Green Radicals campaign attacking groups like the Sierra Club and NRDC. What he didn't know was that one of the executives in the room would be so offended that he would secretly record the talk and hand it to the New York Times. The transcript (pdf) reveals Berman's strategies for creating non-profit groups to influence public debate and policy.

Berman, christened "Dr. Evil" by both friends and enemies, and his firm have been behind corporate-funded non-profit groups such as The Center for Consumer Freedom, The Center for Union Facts, and The Employment Policies Institute, organizations formed to counter anti-smoking campaigns and legislation, fight unionization, and argue against increases to the minimum wage.

The speech tells energy executives that they, as summarized by the Times, "must be willing to exploit emotions like fear, greed and anger and turn it against the environmental groups. And major corporations secretly financing such a campaign should not worry about offending the general public because “you can either win ugly or lose pretty,” he said."

A hallmark of his campaigns is the lack of transparency:
“People always ask me one question all the time: ‘How do I know that I won’t be found out as a supporter of what you’re doing?' " Mr. Berman told the crowd. “We run all of this stuff through nonprofit organizations that are insulated from having to disclose donors. There is total anonymity. People don’t know who supports us.”
A particularly salient bit from the transcript of Berman's speech (the first five or so pages, before his associate starts up, are particularly interesting):
We're reframing this debate so it's not just about going up to $10.10 [the minimum wage], there's some other things that people need to think about.

You want to get people to say, one of my north stars is to get people to say, "You know, I never thought of it that way before."

Because, if you can get people to say that, here's what you get: instead of getting the 'he said, she said debate,' what you will get with the factual debate, often times, you're going to get into people get overwhelmed by the science and 'I don't know who to believe.' But, if you get enough on your side you get people into a position of pralysis about the issue.

We're not experts and so you don't want them trying to be experts. But if you put enough information out there and say, "Well, it could go to $10.10 but ou could also lose a lot of jobs, the Congressional Budget Office says you can lose a lot of jobs." And again, we got a lot of ads on this thing.

You get in people's minds a tie. They don't know who is right. And you get all ties because the tie basically ensures the status quo.

People are not prepared to get aggressive and in moving one way or another. I'll take a tie any day if I'm trying to preserve the status quo.
posted by zachlipton (38 comments total) 55 users marked this as a favorite
 
Man, what is the deal with guys named "Rick Berman?"
posted by entropicamericana at 5:27 PM on October 30, 2014 [18 favorites]


Lovely. The Gish Gallop as advocacy.

Stick him on a melting chunk of polar ice cap and let 'im float away.
posted by notsnot at 5:28 PM on October 30, 2014 [6 favorites]


Isn't this why the IRS got all picky with new non-profits a few years ago? 'Cause they knew shit like this was happening? (or am I off base here?)
posted by NoMich at 5:29 PM on October 30, 2014 [5 favorites]


The thing that surprised me about all this is the energy executive who thought it was wrong.
posted by jamjam at 5:34 PM on October 30, 2014 [39 favorites]


I'm floored that he literally said:

"I'll take a tie any day if I'm trying to preserve the status quo"

That is what, in my mind, I sort of imagine these types of guys say - but of course they wouldn't actually state it quite so nakedly. Yet here we are. Amaze.
posted by jnnla at 5:40 PM on October 30, 2014 [9 favorites]


Christ, what an asshole.
posted by bumpkin at 5:41 PM on October 30, 2014 [12 favorites]


When I looked at this I thought 'Dr Evil' was kind of a... joke, something throwaway.

But no. This really is true evil: lying to everyone, purposefully deceiving them, making the world an objectively worse place for everyone, to line your pockets and those of your employers.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 5:54 PM on October 30, 2014 [22 favorites]


Very Machiavellian, I kind of admire his chutzpah. Too bad one of the executives had a sense of ethics and exposed him...
posted by Renoroc at 5:55 PM on October 30, 2014


If you can't say that sort of stuff in a roomfull of business executives, is anyone safe anymore?
posted by uosuaq at 5:58 PM on October 30, 2014 [12 favorites]


That is what, in my mind, I sort of imagine these types of guys say - but of course they wouldn't actually state it quite so nakedly. Yet here we are. Amaze.

It's the most concise summary of how FUD works I think I've ever seen. The really amazing part to me isn't that line, it's when he says that he doesn't want a factual debate, he wants to get people into a "position of pralysis [sic] about the issue." (sorry for all the typos, I had to retype from the transcript since it doesn't support copy/paste.) We've seen this strategy over and over again with things like "I don't know if evolution is true, but I know they sure haven't proved it yet." The attitude is phenomenally unscientific; it's pretty much the "math is hard; let's go shopping" of public debate. But we see it all the time, largely because people are spending millions to make it so.
posted by zachlipton at 6:03 PM on October 30, 2014 [14 favorites]


Of all the really fucked up lies, the one that really gets me is "climate scientists are just lying for grant money", and the like. Because the public doesn't know that the money in government and academic research is an absolute joke if you can even get it, and the real money is in saying shit like that on behalf of industries that have insane amounts of money to pay someone willing to say it for them.
posted by George_Spiggott at 6:03 PM on October 30, 2014 [35 favorites]


> ...one of the executives in the room would be so offended...

And now we know what it takes to be capable of that kind of accomplishment.
posted by ardgedee at 6:06 PM on October 30, 2014 [4 favorites]


Berman's son David (who is the guy from the Silver Jews) called him a "human molestor" and a "world historical motherfucking son of a bitch."

I've been reading that PDF for the last twenty minutes. It's utterly fascinating. It reads like The Century of the Self was adapted into a stage monologue by Satan.
posted by theodolite at 6:13 PM on October 30, 2014 [21 favorites]


I think this is the guy who hires all those people to post comments on newspaper articles.
posted by theodolite at 6:16 PM on October 30, 2014 [17 favorites]


That's completely ridiculous. And I think he is a wonderful, wonderful man. Did you know that he helps the homeless? It's certainly something you can say!
posted by Drinky Die at 6:20 PM on October 30, 2014 [7 favorites]


To offer a slight derail, the original forum link seems stale, but this archive link shows David Berman's post ostensibly quitting music because of his father. And what he thinks of the guy.
posted by deadbilly at 6:28 PM on October 30, 2014 [9 favorites]


I suppose for his role in corrupting the media he has been forced to flee his home by those tweeting about ethics in journalism, right?
posted by humanfont at 6:38 PM on October 30, 2014 [35 favorites]


> I think this is the guy who hires all those people to post comments on newspaper articles.

If he did his job well, he doesn't have to do things like that.
posted by ardgedee at 6:39 PM on October 30, 2014 [1 favorite]


NOW we know who invented #gamergate.
posted by oneswellfoop at 6:45 PM on October 30, 2014 [5 favorites]


So my name is Jack Hubbard, and I do own a weedwacker.
posted by Wonton Abandon at 7:25 PM on October 30, 2014


Yeah the "jokes" are phenomenally weird here.
posted by zachlipton at 7:32 PM on October 30, 2014 [1 favorite]


It depresses me to know that this one guy got exposed in this one instance and that will not make a goddamn bit of difference because of all the other shitbags out there who are doing this.
posted by rtha at 7:33 PM on October 30, 2014 [7 favorites]


Non zero chance that Berman himself was the anonymous leak on the story. Chaotic evil.
posted by one_bean at 7:41 PM on October 30, 2014 [1 favorite]


Non zero chance that Berman himself was the anonymous leak on the story. Chaotic evil.

You have a world on the edge of catastrophic climate change, a room full of energy executives, and everyone is calling the flack at the podium "Dr. Evil." That, my friends, is public relations.
posted by ennui.bz at 7:46 PM on October 30, 2014 [15 favorites]


Shit like this makes me hope for apocalypse. Like, we as a species have all this power and these are the guys we give it to. I hope that the melting ice caps reveal R'Lyeh and Cthulhu rises from the deep and lays waste to all of these people.

Ia, Ia, Cthulhu Fhtagn!
posted by DGStieber at 8:26 PM on October 30, 2014


...I'm sorry, I know that's not fair, and not compassionate. We're not all universally blameworthy because shitty shitbags like this guy exist and get their way with the world. But the shittiest part is that this guy is probably gonna get away with his shit! Worst case scenario is no one works with him anymore, a.k.a he doesn't have to work anymore, and he's still a millionaire, and when the ecosystem gets fucked he'll have enough money to make it through to the end of his life better off than the global poor. With Cthulhu at least we're all fucked with equanimity.
posted by DGStieber at 8:30 PM on October 30, 2014 [1 favorite]


"We don't have to believe propaganda - Fox etc - in order for it to work. All it has to do is prevent us from forming a coherent response." quoted from Daniel Pinchbeck, although he may be quoting someone else.....
posted by lalochezia at 8:36 PM on October 30, 2014 [2 favorites]


George_Spiggott: I first encountered the climate change "debate" on a Famous Science Fiction Writer's (he's litigious) website, and therein, the "follow the money" meme supposedly damning the "corrupt" and "compromised" research advocating the seriousness of man-made
climate catastrophe. I attempted to follow the money, but I was conflicted: do I follow
the pennies and breadcrumbs of responsible academic research, or the rivers of billions
that energy companies were willing to spend to contradict said research. Oh, my, what to do, what to do?
posted by Chitownfats at 9:16 PM on October 30, 2014 [7 favorites]


That's completely ridiculous. And I think he is a wonderful, wonderful man. Did you know that he helps the homeless? It's certainly something you can say!

You know, I never thought of it that way before.
posted by Marmaduke Hammerhead at 10:26 PM on October 30, 2014 [11 favorites]




There's a ballot measure in my city that feels like it has this jackhole's fingerprints all over it. I get the feeling they're just playing from the same book.
posted by RakDaddy at 10:51 PM on October 30, 2014 [1 favorite]


That's completely ridiculous rickdiculous.
posted by XhaustedProphet at 11:17 PM on October 30, 2014


Non zero chance that Berman himself was the anonymous leak on the story. Chaotic evil.
Public discourse is basically dead at this point, Berman and his ilk have won.

I've often wondered if the natural progression is where the mechanism which leads people to believe things like climate change is a global conspiracy to get grant money becomes strong enough that Berman and his ilk don't even need the pretence of honesty.

The next step is people parroting talking points they know to be false because the propaganda mechanism is so ingrained.

In that case pulling back the curtain would definitely be too hard for Berman and his ilk to resist.
posted by fullerine at 2:02 AM on October 31, 2014 [4 favorites]


This is why we can't have nice things.
posted by Foosnark at 6:16 AM on October 31, 2014 [5 favorites]


The next step is people parroting talking points they know to be false because the propaganda mechanism is so ingrained.

We're already there. Stuff like the climate change denialism, the moon landing conspiracy, and gamergate are part of the same phenomenon. It's not about facts, it's about tribalism: professing these beliefs makes you a member of the tribe. Tribes are defined as much by who is NOT in them as who IS in them, so it's actually better if the tribal beliefs are lies, because that way you can point to the "That's not true, here are the facts" guy and say "He's not in the tribe!" Trying to fight the lies with the truth have the perverse effect of reinforcing the false belief.
posted by vibrotronica at 9:35 AM on October 31, 2014 [3 favorites]


If you can't say that sort of stuff in a roomfull of business executives, is anyone safe anymore?

This. I cannot count the number of times that because I'm an exec, white, male, over 40, etc., etc. it's assumed that I approve of this sort of zero-sum, scorched earth douchebaggery. They'll come right out at some event with cringeworthy pronouncements about minorities, women, economics...pretty much any topic, because, hey, everyone here is on the same page, amiright?? And when you call them on it, their all righteously indignant and "that's not on the record" and "who let you in here...". Ug.
posted by kjs3 at 10:46 AM on October 31, 2014 [10 favorites]


And here's the thing: it's not even going to matter. Anyone who says there's an organized disinformation campaign with rich and powerful backers will be dismissed as a nutty conspiracy theorist.
posted by Zed at 12:12 PM on October 31, 2014 [4 favorites]


I have known of this man for about as long as I've known about David Berman of the Silver Jews, and I had no idea until now that they are father and son. Mind. Blown.
posted by univac at 11:53 PM on October 31, 2014


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