Fronting for Business

by Mark Megalli and Andy Friedman

AN OCTOBER 18, 1991 ARTICLE in the New York Times titled "Court Lets ęBaby Bells' Branch Out," quotes the Alliance for Public Technology and identifies the group as "a Washington-based association representing educators, the disabled, the elderly, and other groups that favor quickly expanding the availability of information services." In fact, APT is a corporate front group, set up by the Bell companies to push government to allow the regional phone companies access to a multi-billion dollar information services market. Genuine consumer groups oppose allowing the regional Bells access to this market, fearing market concentration in communications.

 A September 1, 1991 front page New York Times article titled "Experts Question Staggering Costs of Toxic Cleanups," reports that "environmental experts" are questioning whether the U.S. government's program to clean up hazardous waste dumps is worth the estimated $300 to $700 billion cost. The environmental experts referred to in the article say it isn't. But who exactly are these environmental experts? One is Tom Grumbly, who the Times reporter identified as an "environmentalist who is president of Clean Sites, a non-profit organization in Virginia that advises communities on hazardous waste cleanups."

Actually, Grumbly, as he himself pointed out in a September 11, 1991 letter to the Times, does not represent an environmentalist constituency. Clean Sites is a corporate front group, concerned about the costs to its sponsors of toxic cleanups.

 Every day, groups with deceptive names, groups that represent major U.S. corporate powers, seek to dupe journalists and citizens into believing that the reports they produce and the positions they advocate are something other than the usual corporate propaganda.

The reason is simple: it is easier to believe disinformation when the disinformation is coming from an apparently uninterested party.

The rise of corporate front groups in the United States is a recent phenomenon, a direct response to the burgeoning consumer, citizen and environmental movements. Before these movements took hold in the late 1960s, major corporations delivered their messages through their lobbyists in Washington. The names of these traditional corporate lobbies told the stories - The National Coal Association, Chamber of Commerce, American Petroleum Institute.

 But as public-interest groups began to win widespread public support, it became clear that new mechanisms were needed to deliver the corporate message.

 If Burger King were to report that a Whopper is nutritious, consumers would probably roll their eyes in disbelief. If Anheuser-Busch were to report that a beer a day could lead to a happier life, consumers might see this as another attempt to sell beer. And if the Nutrasweet Company were to insist that aspartame has no harmful side effects, consumers might be skeptical.

 But when the American Council on Science and Health and its panel of 200 "expert" scientists report that Whoppers are not so bad, consumers might actually listen. When the Health Education Foundation, headed by Dr. Morris Chafetz, reports on "The Good of Alcohol," beer drinkers might be less inclined to cut down on drinking. And when the "Calorie Control Council" reports that aspartame is not really dangerous, weight-conscious consumers might continue dumping the artificial sweetener in their coffee every morning without concern.

 Increasingly, big business is creating front groups to influence legislators, the media and consumers. These corporate front groups advertise, hold conferences, publish newsletters and reports, write editorials and appear on talk shows in an effort to sway public opinion toward industry views.

How to be a front

 An average person reading about Citizens for Sensible Control of Acid Rain would probably take the name at face value, assuming the group is mostly comprised of citizens wishing to curb acid rain. In fact, the group's membership list includes no individual citizens.

Often, the use of a scientific-sounding name is the most effective tool for peddling an industry position on an issue. This method is employed by many of the chemical and nuclear power companies. Examples include the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology, the American Council on Science and Health and the Information Council on the Environment. Contrary to their names, these groups often disregard compelling scientific evidence, arguing, for example, that pesticides are not harmful, saccharin is not carcinogenic or that global warming is a myth.

Another tactic is to use a name which suggests concern for the public interest. Organizations which utilize this tactic want the public to believe they are environmentally sensitive or are consumer advocates, when in fact they are primarily concerned about their sponsors' profits. For example, the National Wetlands Coalition, which uses the logo of a duck flying blissfully over a swamp, is working to make it easier for landowners to transform wetlands into shopping malls or oil drilling sites. And Consumer Alert fights adamantly against government regulations concerning product safety.

 In several instances, front groups use buzzwords in their names which are immediate tip-offs to questionable motivations. Words like "sensible," "responsible," and "sound" indicate probable corporate backing. These reserved terms tend to downplay the severity of environmental dangers such as acid rain and ozone depletion by implying that admitting to and confronting these crises would not be sensible, responsible or sound.

Finally, there are the groups that simply have innocuous-sounding names which give no indication of the groups' ties to business. These groups have names which may even reveal their true agenda. However, because the name does not indicate corporate sponsorship, the real motivation behind the agenda is not made clear. For example, although the American Tort Reform Association is pushing for the reform of state tort law to benefit the association's business and corporate members, its name does not include the words "industry," "business," "corporation" or "company."

 Front groups' funding, control and membership are usually exclusively corporate, although groups often purport to have high grassroots involvement in one of these areas to give an air of authenticity.

 Some organizations, established and entirely funded by corporations in one industry, are pure industry fronts. The Council for Solid Waste Solutions, for example, is nothing more than an amalgamation of plastics industry corporations. It was conceived and created, and is funded and controlled by, plastics manufacturers wishing to improve their public image.

 Many public relations front groups simply operate out of the offices of a public relations firm, with employees of the firm often acting as directors. This is also true of many of the lobbying front groups, given their transient nature. Other groups work out of the law offices of the firms that act as their counsel. And still others are located in the same offices as one of their larger corporate or trade association supporters. The Alliance to Keep Americans Working, an anti-labor coalition of 90 business organizations, for example, lists the same phone number and address as that of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

 People for the West!, on the other hand, is funded and controlled by mining companies, but has a significant roster of individual members. Miners and loggers certainly have a vested interest in securing their jobs, so it is no wonder that they join this organization, which has a pro-mining and pro-timber agenda. However, because People for the West! is heavily funded and controlled by large mining and timber companies, it qualifies as an industry front, despite its grassroots membership.

Tobacco and alcohol corporations, like the mining and timber companies, also tend to set up "grassroots" organizations - in this case, to fight for lower excise taxes and pro-smoking and drinking legislation. These groups - such as Smokers' Rights, People United For Friendly Smoking and Beer Drinkers of America - are heavily funded by industry, and the members are used as pawns by corporations lobbying for pro-industry legislation. In an attempt to create the appearance of widespread popular support for industry positions, these front groups ask their members to sign pre-written letters and send them to their Congressional representatives.

The life of a front

 Front groups tend to focus their activities on lobbying, public relations or a combination of both. Obviously, the groups which focus on lobbying tend to be more transient. The Coalition for Vehicle Choice was created by auto makers to lobby against the federal legislation which would increase the current corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards from 27.5 to 40 miles per gallon. When Congress votes on the bill, the Coalition will most likely dismantle.

Historically, other groups have come and gone. The Clean Capital Cities Committee was formed in 1987 to fight a proposed mandatory bottle deposit law in Washington, D.C. The group, which was created by beverage companies, bottlers and grocery stores, dismantled when it succeeded in defeating the bill. And the Clean Air Working Group, which fought to weaken the Clean Air Act of 1990, dispersed upon the bill's passage. The group was the creation of several coal companies and spent millions of dollars in its attempt to thwart clean air legislation.

 Most other front groups which do not focus solely on legislation have been created as public relations arms for industries. These groups serve corporations which have an inherent need to better their public image in order to remain profitable - cigarette manufacturers, alcohol distributors, producers of ozone-depleting chemicals, producers of hazardous waste, oil drillers and others.

Front groups are not limited to one particular industry or issue. They are used by tobacco corporations and nuclear power companies alike; by mining interests and asbestos manufacturers; by the National Association of Manufacturers and the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation.

Key areas in which front groups operate include:

 Not all powerful industries have found it necessary to utilize such groups, however. Notably, the gun and defense industries appear able to successfully promote their agendas without using front groups.

 Though gun manufacturers seem likely candidates to set up fronts to defeat legislation such as the recently passed Brady bill, which imposes a five-day waiting period for the purchase of firearms, the National Rifle Association itself performed most of the lobbying in opposition to such legislation. Smaller groups, such as the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, have also battled such legislation, but they do not seem to be funded by gun manufacturers.

The defense industry, which has also avoided the use of front groups, has enjoyed a political climate which has posed little threat to its profits.

 For those industries that perceive themselves as under attack from citizens' organizations, however, front groups are an ever-more popular tool. They promise to proliferate unless citizens groups can successfully unmask them.



Front Group Case Study:

American Council on Science and Health

IN 1989, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) published the results of a two- year study of the plant growth enhancer Alar. The group found that this chemical, when sprayed on apples used in juice and applesauce, posed a serious cancer risk for children, who tend to consume a higher proportion of these foods than do adults. The question of what to do about the findings held a prominent spot in the public eye throughout the early months of 1989. Occasionally, headlines such as, "Hysteria Obscures Issue of Toxins, Carcinogens," "Doctor Says Alar Fear Needless," and "Consumer Health Advocate Fights ęBan Everything' Trend," would appear in the nation's largest publications. The author of, or spokesperson quoted in, these articles would usually be Dr. Elizabeth Whelan, PhD. Whelan is executive director of the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), a self-proclaimed "public education group directed and advised by over 200 prominent scientists, physicians and policy experts."

 When publications listed these credentials, or stated even less about the doctor and her group, it was easy for a reader to take the point of view expressed at face value. Readers were left unsure how dangerous Alar really was. But when following a March 14 Wall Street Journal article by Dr. Whelan, entitled "Apple Dangers Are Just So Much Applesauce," the editor added, "Mrs. Whelan heads [ACSH], a New York group that gets about 10 percent of its funding from pesticide producers such as Uniroyal Chemical Co., the maker of Alar," readers might have begun to wonder.

 A closer look at the entire list of ACSH's major contributors reveals that the group is funded almost entirely by corporations within the food, drug and chemical industries, including Dow Chemical U.S.A., Kraft Foundation, The Nutrasweet Company, PepsiCo Foundation, Inc., General Mills, Inc., the Anheuser-Busch Foundation, Archer Daniels Midland Co., Burger King Corporation and The National Starch and Chemical Foundation. ACSH promotes corporate interests by promoting the idea that almost no food, drug or chemical is harmful if consumed in moderation. Low doses of asbestos, caffeine, Agent Orange and PCBs are all harmless, it claims. According to Dr. Whelan, there is "no such thing as ęjunk food' and ... there is insufficient evidence of a relationship between diet and any disease." Furthermore, "cancer, except that from smoking, is overrated as a threat and ... the chemical industry is taking a bum rap for its publicly perceived role in raising cancer rates." Almost every one of these claims is dependent on the group's contention that animal studies do not provide a fair gauge of health risks posed to humans.

ACSH's work clearly benefits its corporate patrons. As Mike Jacobson, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based public interest organization, Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), puts it, "Industry invests in this pretend consumer group, and the investment pays off nicely when there's a controversy." He notes that "most reporters, wire-service people and local TV reporters don't have any idea who the group is."

 In the face of constant criticism concerning her group's biases, Whelan justifies her findings by referring to her panel of 200 "scientists and other experts," 20 to 100 of whom review every position paper ACSH publishes. But Peter Harnik, in a report on ACSH for CSPI, says the list of experts is "designed to look impressive to the casual observer... [but] a close look at it reveals a pro-industry bias to warm the heart of a junk food salesman." According to Harnik, the scientists are mostly consultants, paid representatives or employees of corporations in the food, drug and chemical industries. And in 1989, a member of the "scientific panel" wrote to Dr. Whelan: "I am concerned that the Council is bending too far in favor of protecting industry without a balancing concern for the safety of the consumer. ... I think it is now time that I remove my name from the list."

 - M.M. & A.F.



Front Group Case Study:

Coalition for Vehicle Choice

WORSENING PROBLEMS with global warming, acid rain, smog and and oil spills have made energy conservation ever more important. Hoping to address this situation, Senator Richard Bryan, D-Nevada, has proposed a bill that would raise Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards by 20 percent by 1995 and 40 percent by 2001. The automobile industry opposes the Bryan bill and led a successful campaign against it in 1990, which culminated in the bill's defeat. However, with fears concerning U.S. dependence on foreign oil intensified by the Persian Gulf War, the bill was reintroduced in 1991. And the auto industry has gathered its forces together again.

In the 1990 campaign, industry defeated the bill by claiming that it would do little to combat air pollution or save gas, and that it infringed upon U.S. citizens' right to drive large cars. In 1991, the industry chose a new tack. Hidden behind the "Coalition for Vehicle Choice" (CVC), U.S. auto makers and suppliers now claim that increasing CAFE standards would compromise safety.

 The Coalition was founded by Motor Vehicle Manufacturers of America (MVMA) of the United States, the National Automobile Dealers Association and the Association of International Automobile Manufactures (AIAM), with initial funding coming from MVMA and AIAM. The Coalition's spokesperson, Ron Defore, who is also vice-president of the public relations firm E. Bruce Harrison Co., has said that CVC has "never tried to hide" the sources of its support. However, the Big Three auto makers, which provided the primary funding, are only listed as members of the Coalition through the MVMA. Furthermore, CVC ads claim that the group is supported by "over 200 automotive, and other business, consumer, farm, and safety organizations." Actually, its membership includes exactly one consumer organization - the pro-industry, corporate-funded Consumer Alert, two safety organizations which are also auto industry fronts (the American Coalition for Traffic Safety and the Detroit-based Traffic Safety Now) and less than 100 individual consumers.

CVC is headed by former National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) Administrator Diane Steed, who has long opposed strict auto safety regulations. According to the consumer groups Public Citizen and the Center for Auto Safety, in her six years as administrator, Steed "compiled a dismal record trying to revoke existing safety standards and failing to act on others." Since leaving NHTSA, she has made about $150,000 a year as a consultant testifying in product liability cases, and now earns an additional $144,000 per year as CVC head.

Coalition for Vehicle Choice ads claim that increased CAFE standards "will leave [automakers] little choice but to build smaller, lighter cars - at the expense of safety." The ads feature a small car being crushed by a larger one in a crash test, and end with the line: "Fuel economy is important, but safety is vital."

 These sentiments are moving, but irrelevant. A Center for Auto Safety report titled "The Safe Road to Fuel Economy" shows that "for a given population of cars there is no relationship between CAFE and current levels of safety." The report points out that of the 13.8 miles per gallon gain in CAFE achieved between 1974 and 1991, only 1.4 percent resulted from an actual down-sizing of automobiles. The large majority came from technological improvements. The Center for Auto Safety concludes that cars can attain a CAFE level of 40-45 miles per gallon, while simultaneously reducing the vehicle fatality rate.


- M.M. & A.F.



Corporate Front Groups