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DAVID FENTON Printer Friendly Page

David Fenton: Media Maestro of the Left
By John Gizzi
December 2004

Putting the Progressive in PR
By Linton Weeks
May 31, 2007

America's Red Army
By Jennifer Verner
September 1, 2004

Peaceful Tomorrows, Leftist Todays
By Thomas Ryan
March 17, 2004




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  • In the 1960s, was a media specialist for the Liberation News Service and a photographer for the domestic terror group Weatherman
  • Orchestrated the “No Nukes” concerts of the 1970s 
  • Worked in media relations for the Communist regimes of Angola, Nicaragua, and Grenada in the 1980s
  • Directed the anti-Bush media blitz for the group September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows 
  • His company, Fenton Communications, assists in the public relations strategies for MoveOn.org and Win Without War.

David Fenton is the founder and CEO of Fenton Communications, a public-relations firm that has directed the media strategies of scores of left-wing activist groups, and which now bills itself as “the largest public interest communications firm in the country.” He also sits on the board of directors of the Environmental Working Group. Fenton describes his own political leanings thusly: “‘Left’ is a pejorative term. People I hang with use the word ‘progressive.’”

Born in 1953 in Queens, New York, Fenton dropped out of high school in order to work as a photographer and media specialist for the Liberation News Service (LNS), which was named after the National Liberation Front of South Vietnaman anti-American, Communist movement that sought to promote the overthrow of the South Vietnamese government and the reunification of North and South Vietnam. “I started working on causes I believe in,” Fenton recounts.

Fenton and his LNS associates, headed by Allen Young and George Cavalletto, actively supported the ideals and crusades of the New Left. Fenton became a member of the White Panther Party (WPP), which sought to foment a “cultural revolution” that would further the aims of the Black Panther Party, which, in Fenton's estimation, was a “disciplined, organized” group that “provided true social services to the poor.” The official motto of the White Panthers was: “total assault on the culture by any means necessary, including rock and roll, dope, and fu**ing in the streets.” Fenton became editor of the group's newly revamped newspaper, The Ann Arbor Sun. Following a bitter dispute over a plan to move that publication's headquarters to Detroit, Fenton left the WPP.

A noteworthy influence on Fenton as a young man was the counterculture poet Allen Ginsberg, who taught him how to meditate. “Yippie” movement co-founder Abbie Hoffman, meanwhile, was a mentor to Fenton. “I owe much of my knowledge of public relations to Abbie,” says Fenton, “and his wild and effective antics.” (When Hoffman, who in 1974 had jumped bail to avoid prosecution for selling cocaine, emerged from his Thousand Islands, New York hideaway in 1980, Fenton helped arrange newswoman Barbara Walters' September 2 interview with the former fugitive.)

In the late 1960s and early '70s, Fenton established a reputation as one of the counterculture movement’s principal photographers, documenting such events as street riots, anti-war demonstrations, the trials of Black Panther Party leaders, and musical performances by stars like Janis Joplin. Due to his close relationship with LNS and the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), Fenton was the only journalist permitted to photograph members of the domestic terror cult Weatherman. He also snapped many photos of the infamous Chicago Seven, who incited the riots that occurred at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

In the 1970s Fenton ventured into the music business, and in 1976 he began directing public-relations campaigns for Rolling Stone magazineIn 1978 he collaborated with two former Rolling Stone staffersHoward Kohn and Susan Kellamto solicit the help of rock stars in raising money for the lawsuit which was filed on behalf of the late Karen Silkwood against the nuclear fuel producer Kerr-McGee. And in 1979 Fenton orchestrated the famous “No Nukes” (anti-nuclear power) concerts which were headlined by such performers as Bruce Springsteen, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, James Taylor, Bob Dylan, Carly Simon, Graham Nash, and the Doobie Brothers.

In 1982, David Fenton created Fenton Communications (FC) to formulate and orchestrate media strategies for leftist organizations. “PR [public relations] is [generally] … a pejorative title,” Fenton once said. “It means to most Americans: 'We'll say anything for money.' We're not like that. We have a point of view.” As such, FC only represents clients whose views and agendas David Fenton embraces. Among FC's many clients have been:
the AFL-CIO, Air America Radio, America Coming Together, the American Friends Service Committee, Amnesty International, the Blue Moon Fund (formerly the W. Alton Jones Foundation), the Campaign for America's Future, Citizen Action, the Columbia Foundation, the David and Lucille Packard Foundation, the Energy Foundation, Environmental Media Services, the Environmental Working Group, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, the Ford Foundation, Global Exchange, Greenpeace, Health Care for America Now, the Heinz Family Foundation, the Institute for Policy Studies, the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Joyce Foundation, MoveOn.org, the NAACP Voter Fund, the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, the National Urban League, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Nature Conservancy, the Open Society Institute, the Organic Consumers Association, People For the American Way, Public Citizen, the Rainforest Action Network, Rock the Vote, School of the Americas Watch, the Service Employees International Union, the Sierra Club, the Tides Foundation, TransAfrica, Trust for Public Land, the Turner Foundation, UNITE, Win Without War, and the World Wildlife Fund.

To view a more extensive list of FC clients, click here.

In February 1982 Fenton 
signed a letter of agreement with Francisco Fiallos, Nicaraguan Ambassador to the U.S., for a “short-duration project” to publicize a tour of the United States by Commandante Jaime Wheelock of Nicaragua's Marxist Sandinista government.

In 1983-84, FC registered with the U.S. Justice Department as an agent for: (a) Daniel Ortega's Marxist regime in Nicaragua, (b) Prime Minister Maurice Bishop's Marxist regime in Grenada, and (c) the anti-American governments of Greece (under Andreas Papandreou) and Jamaica (under Michael Manley).

In 1986, Fenton served as the public-relations consultant for a Christic Institute campaign charging that Nicaraguan anti-Communist Contras and ex-CIA officials were involved in drug trafficking, gun running, and conspiring to kill a rival Contra leader.

That same year
, Fenton performed media services for the Marxist Angolan government's Bureau of Information and Propaganda, which hired him to sully the reputation of a right-wing rebel group that Angola's Communists had been fighting against for years.

Fenton also did media work for El Salvador's revolutionary Marxist guerrillas, the Farabundo Marti Liberation Front (FMLN), a group responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocent people in that country's long civil war.

Fenton's first widely publicized environmental initiative was his 1989 attack against the producers of Alar, a preservative (used in apples) that he erroneously characterized as carcinogenic. The misinformation which Fenton fed to the news media triggered widespread public fear and ultimately caused the apple industry to lose more than $200 million in revenues. In a memo later uncovered by the Wall Street Journal, Fenton bragged: “We designed [the campaign against Alar] so that revenue would flow back to the Natural Resources Defense Council [one of Fenton's primary clients] from the public. And we sold this book about pesticides through a 900 number and the ‘Donahue Show.’ And to date there has been $700,000 in net revenue from it.” Fenton also wrote of the anti-Alar campaign: “A modest investment repaid itself many-fold in tremendous media exposure and substantial, immediate revenue. Lines started forming in health food stores. The sales of organic produce soared. All of which we were very happy about.” (A number of Fenton's clients were producers of organic and health foods.)

According to the Competitive Enterprise Institute, Fenton was
also “a major force in the silicone breast implant scare” of the early 1990s, “serving as the PR firm to the trial lawyers in implant litigation.” Pressured by media hype about the unproven dangers of implants, and by smears against the implant manufacturer Dow Corning, the FDA in 1992 banned silicone implants except in controlled studies where their safety could be evaluated. “Years later,” reports the Media Research Center, “multiple scientific studies would show no connection between cancer and autoimmune diseases and the implants. In 2006, the FDA approved silicone breast implants for use again.”

In 1994, David Fenton used the Tides Center to establish Environmental Media Services (EMS), whose daily operations he subsequently ran. Soon thereafter, EMS became one of FC's leading clients and issued numerous dire warnings against the consumption of certain foods or the use of certain products because of allegedly dangerous additives or preservatives they might contain.

Starting with a series of press conferences in the late 1990s, Fenton and Environmental Media Services attacked the dairy industry's use of BST, a bovine growth hormone that was sometimes administered to cattle in order to increase their milk production. Claiming that BST rendered milk harmful and even carcinogenic, Fenton and his company demanded that the hormone be banned from the marketplace. With the help of funding from the organic food industry, they organized a Genetically Engineered Food Alert Coalition and promoted, as “experts,” the ecologist Michael Hansen, journalists-turned-activists Steve Wilson and Jane Akre, and Dr. Samuel Epstein, whom the American Association for Cancer Research once rated as “the least credible scientist on issues of environmental cancer.” Though both the American Dietetic Association and the American Medical Association eventually pronounced BST entirely safe for consumption, Fenton's anti-biogenetic message—promoting the notion that organic foods are healthier than conventional or biotech products—gained many permanent adherents. And this earned millions of dollars for Fenton's clients such as Whole Foods Markets, Honest Tea, Kashi Cereal, Green Mountain Coffee, and Rodale Press (a magazine publisher of periodicals promoting organic gardening and foods). Another key beneficiary was the ice cream producer Ben & Jerry’s, also a client of Fenton’s. Ben & Jerry’s ice cream stood to gain from the bad press aimed at the dairy industry, because their ice cream was made with hormone-free milk.

Also in the late '90s, Fenton masterminded the “
Give Swordfish a Break!” (GSB) campaign for SeaWeb and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Billed as a grassroots effort to tighten federal fishing regulations and to raise awareness regarding the over-fishing of endangered species, the initiative was bankrolled by grants from some 270 food merchants and succeeded in persuading at least 750 chefs to stop serving swordfish. Eventually, however, analysts noted that: (a) swordfish were not actually endangered, and (b) even if they had been endangered, the GSB campaign would have done little to revive their numbers, since it targeted only the U.S. fish market. At its heart, “Give Swordfish a Break!” was part of a larger strategy to cast federal regulations over numerous varieties of seafood, whether they were endangered or not. Toward that end, NRDC claimed that, in addition to swordfish, seafood species like cod, scallops, sole, sea bass, sturgeon, redfish, red snapper, and monkfish should be classified as “over-fished.” The website ActivistCash.com offers insight into the financial motivations that likely underpinned the “Give Swordfish a Break!” initiative:

When SeaWeb and the Natural Resources Defense Council announced their joint effort to discourage the consumption of Caspian Sea sturgeon caviar, a news release blamed the imported caviar market for the 'overfishing' of these sturgeon.... Within three weeks … Whole Foods Markets announced that it would begin selling a new 'sustainable alternative to endangered wild sturgeon.' The news release was promoted to the mass media by another Washington PR outfit called Environmental Media Services (EMS).... Consider this: Whole Foods and EMS are both clients of Fenton Communications. It’s probably not a coincidence that one Fenton client is trying to skew public perception of an issue that could benefit another client.... The real purpose behind [such] campaigns seems to be to drive business to Fenton Communications’ other clients.”

In July 2000, FC launched an aggressive campaign against Campbell Soup and Kellogg’s, for their production and distribution of genetically improved foods. “At twenty-two Fenton-orchestrated press conferences held nationwide,” reports the Capital Research Center, “Campbell and Kellogg’s were urged to stop producing all foods containing genetically improved ingredients. The news conferences featured Peter Hoffman, incoming chairman of Chefs Collaborative, who spoke about the benefits of organic foods and 'sustainable cuisine.' Funding for the effort came from the organic food industry.”

In 2003, FC attacked sport utility vehicles as gas-guzzling polluters. In one campaign, Fenton produced ads for the Evangelical Environmental Network that asked, “What would Jesus drive?”—insinuating that driving SUVs was antithetical to the Christian duty to be a responsible steward of the environment. A second Fenton ad campaign helped syndicated columnist Arianna Huffington promote the notion that SUV drivers were supporting terrorism by consuming oil from the Middle East.

In 2004, Fenton arranged the New York event at which environmental activist and multi-millionaire Laurie David initially saw Al Gore's global-warming slide show, which later evolved into the documentary film, An Inconvenient Truth. During the early to mid-2000s, Fenton edited Gore's antiwar speeches.

Also in 2004, Fenton was commissioned by the Center for International Policy (CIP), a Fenton Communications client that, prior to 9/11, had focused mainly on lobbying to end economic sanctions and travel restrictions against Cuba. But now, Fenton established a CIP “war room” called the Iraq Policy Information Program (IPIP), whose chief objective was to get the anti-Bush foreign policy message out to the media, and to provide spokespeople who could repeat that message on radio and television talk shows.

In 2004 as well, Fenton coordinated the efforts of his then-newest client, September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, to oppose President George W. Bush’s bid for re-election. That same year, FC distributed an anti-Bush television commercial that featured an appearance by antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan. Fenton went on to promote Sheehan's Texas-based activism throughout much of 2004-05.

In 2005 Fenton published a collection of his photographs, titled SHOTS: An American Photographer's Journal 1967-1972. This bookwhich includes rare photographs of radicals like Abbie Hoffman, the Chicago Seven, and the Black Panthersfeatures a foreword by Tom Hayden and commentary by Norman Mailer.

In September 2007, FC helped to craft Moveon.org’s infamous attacks on Gen. David Petraeus, one of the most successful commanders in the U.S. military, as “General Betray Us”—a man who had allegedly deceived his countrymen by covering up America's many failures and transgressions in the Iraq War. Similarly, Fenton produced an ad campaign for the left-wing media group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting that falsely depicted the conservative broadcaster Sean Hannity as a bigot, liar and “Islamophobe.” Along the same lines, Fenton portrayed other leading conservative broadcasters as “Smearcasters” and “Islamophobia’s Dirty Dozen.”

Meanwhile, Fenton gave positive publicity to Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez’s free-heating-oil scheme for low-income Americans.

In 2009, Fenton's name appeared on the official list of people who had visited the Obama White House.

PR Week once named Fenton as “one of the 100 most influential P.R. people,” and The National Journal dubbed him “the Robin Hood of public relations.”

Fenton is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and a friend of the billionaire financier George Soros

In addition to Fenton Communications and Environmental Media Services (which was later renamed Resource Media), Fenton has helped incubate and launch such groups as JStreet, Climate Nexus, the Death Penalty Information Center, the Central America Media Project, the Southern Africa Media Project, New Economy Communications, and American Freedom.

Over the years, Fenton has given money to the political campaigns of a number of Democratic candidates, including Hillary Clinton, Howard Dean, Rosa DeLauro, Al Franken, Kirsten Gillibrand, Jerrold Nadler, Ralph Nader, and Barack Obama. He has also contributed to the pro-Democrat organization ActBlue.

For additional information on David Fenton, click here.




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