Thanks to science writer Faye Flam for her July 27 blog post on Forbes.com about an off-point article about scientific literacy.
The story, “Quiz: can you answer 5th-grade science questions? Most Americans lack a basic understanding of science,” was authored by Alexandra Sifferlin and dated September 18, 2014, on Time.com. (I don’t know if it ever appeared in Time magazine, as I don’t read it, for reasons that should be obvious by the time you get to the end of this post.)
The sole source of information identified in this story was Joseph Perrone, chief scientist for the Center for Accountability in Science (CAS), and a survey conducted by his outfit.
CAS is a project of the Center for Organizational Research and Education (CORE), which describes itself as “a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit dedicated to research and education about a wide variety of activist groups, exposing their funding, agendas, and tactics.” CORE used to operate as the Center for Consumer Freedom, “a nonprofit organization devoted to promoting personal responsibility and protecting consumer choices.” CORE’s web site identifies only one staff member by name – CAS’s chief scientist Perrone. It offers a street address, telephone number, and a “contact us” email address (firstname.lastname@example.org). That’s it. Oh, and an opportunity to “donate,” if you like.
One of CORE’s “tactics” is to “expose” so-called activist groups by posting their IRS annual reports on its web site. (These reports are public documents and available elsewhere). Neither CORE nor CAS posts its IRS reports. Many of the organizations it’s “exposing” do. CORE’s IRS reports are available elsewhere – for instance, on guidestar.org.
CORE is a project of the D.C. PR firm Richard Berman and Company. CORE and Berman’s firm share the same address. Berman’s web site does not name clients. Form 990s do not name specific sources of contributions, only total contributions for the year. I have not been able to find any information on CORE’s contributors or Berman’s clients, but based on what I’ve learned today I can only assume they’re corporations.
Here are a few of CORE’s projects:
- The Environmental Policy Alliance (EPA – haha, get the joke?) “is devoted to uncovering the funding and hidden agendas behind environmental activist groups and exploring the intersection between activists and government agencies.”
- Big Green Radicals “is a project of the Environmental Policy Alliance (EPA), which exists to educate the public about the real agenda of well-funded environmental activist groups. The EPA receives support from individuals, businesses, and foundations.”
- EPA Facts “is a project of the Environmental Policy Alliance dedicated to highlighting the high cost of the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulatory actions and peeling back the layers of secrecy surrounding the agency’s actions.”
- Humane Watch: “The dog-watchers at the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) need their own watchdog too. HSUS now has an annual budget around the size of an NFL payroll. It has become too big and too unaccountable. Someone has to pay closer attention.”
- I wondered who was behind Humane Watch when I saw its in-your-face HSUS attack ads plastered all over the walls and floors of D.C.’s Metro stations a few months ago. Now I know. Figures.)
- PETA Kills Animals “exposes the deadly hypocrisy of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which kills up to 97% of the cats and dogs at its “animal shelter” every year.”
- Prop 65 Scam: “In 1986, environmental and public health activists convinced California voters to approve the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act — better known as Proposition 65. Prop 65 Scam exposes the law’s many flaws that have imposed massive burdens on businesses without appreciably improving Californians’ health.”
CORE’s web site also “outs” a long list of “activists” such as Pamela Anderson (“She has posed topless for PETA advertisements”), Alec Baldwin (“Celebrity Spokesperson, Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and Farm Sanctuary; Fundraiser, Performing Animal Welfare Society”), Candace Bergen (“Celebrity endorser, Humane Society of the United States”), Jane Goodall, Stephen King, Bill Maher, John Mellencamp, Meryl Streep, Barbra Streisand, and Betty White.
Wow, what a bunch of scary people….
Berman and Company says it “specializes in research, communications, and creative advertising.”
That phrase “creative advertising” sent a bit of a shiver up my spine…. And then I spotted an even more chilling statement on the company’s web site: “Using innovative messages, dynamic websites and creative outreach tactics, we successfully change the debate in broadcast, print, and online media. Our work has been featured on NBC’s Today show and Nightly News, the CBS Evening News, ABC’s World News Tonight, 20/20 and Good Morning America, on countless cable news and talk radio programs, and in every major American newspaper and news magazine. Berman and Company also places over 300 op-eds per year on behalf of clients.”
Consumer protection vs. corporate protection, consumer information vs. consumer snow jobs, citizens vs. Big Business, it’s been going on for decades. Online and social media make it easier than ever for “activist” groups, corporations, and PR firms to reach huge audiences.
My concern is that the media – mass media, online media, social media – are using an undoubtedly corporate-backed PR firm as a source of information for “the news.”
I make my living as a communication researcher, and my work involves a lot of media monitoring and analysis. Most people aren’t like me. Most people will read Time or watch the CBS Evening News and assume that producers, reporters, and editors have properly identified their sources. Time should have, at least, indicated who/what Perrone and CAS are.
Let “consumers” (I prefer “citizens”) consider their sources – and to consider their sources, they need to know who exactly they are – and decide who they want to believe. Though I hope I may be wrong, I suspect that most media using CORE and CAS as sources do not bother to explain that these groups are operated by a PR firm (that does not reveal its sources of funding).
If you’re interested in media education – for yourself, your family or your friends (and especially your children), see the excellent work of the Media Education Foundation.