David Fenton is best-known as the founder and CEO of Fenton Communications, a public-relations firm that has directed the media strategies of scores of left-wing activist groups. 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 begin working, in 1968, as a photographer and media specialist for the Liberation News Service (LNS), which was named after the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam—an anti-American, Communist movement that sought to promote the overthrow of the South Vietnamese government and the reunification of North and South Vietnam. According to David Armstrong’s A Trumpet to Arms: Alternative Media in America: “The propagandistic nature of LNS was embedded in its coverage. Like any of the underground media, LNS often romanticized foreign revolutionaries, making them into larger than life superheroes with qualities that American radicals hoped they, themselves, would have someday.”
“I started working on causes I believe in,” Fenton recounts when speaking about his tenure with LNS.
Fenton and his LNS associates, headed by Allen Young and George Cavalletto, actively supported the ideals and crusades of the New Left. Fenton, for his part, 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.”
During his time with WPP, Fenton became editor of its 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 organization.
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, 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 magazine. In 1978 he collaborated with two former Rolling Stone staffers—Howard Kohn and Susan Kellam—to 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. To view a list of some of FC’s noteworthy clients, click here.
Among Fenton’s clients have been a number of repressive Marxist and anti-American regimes in various nations. For example:
Notwithstanding the work he has done for the aforementioned Marxists, Fenton told The Weekly Standard in 1996: “I’m not a Marxist, I’m a Democrat!”
In 1984 Fenton helped publicize the claims of former President Jimmy Carter‘s ambassador to El Salvador, Robert White, who alleged that the Reagan administration was now trying to cover up the fact that a Salvadoran political leader named Roberto D’Aubuisson had masterminded the 1980 murder of El Salvador’s Catholic archbishop, Oscar Romero. To aid White’s cause, Fenton handled the publicity for a group White had organized — the “Commission on United States-Central American Relations” — whose members included Institute for Policy Studies associate Cynthia Arnson; journalist I. F. Stone; actor/activist Ed Asner; Adam Hochschild of Mother Jones magazine; and Janet Shenk, vice president of the North American Congress on Latin America (an offshoot of the late Students for a Democratic Society).
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.
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 at least $150 million in revenues. Fenton coordinated and timed his campaign to coincide with the release of a Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) report titled Intolerable Risk, which built upon Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) claims that lab mice who had ingested Alar commonly formed tumors. But “unbeknownst to most people,” noted an article in The Weekly Standard, “… was that the mice in this [EPA] study developed cancer only after being fed doses 35,000 times higher than a schoolchild’s estimated daily intake. In other words, the schoolchild would have had to eat 50,000 pounds of apples a day over a lifetime to contract cancer from Alar.”
To further disseminate his misinformation regarding Alar, Fenton organized a follow-up coalition called Mothers and Others Against Pesticides, headed by actress Meryl Streep. “Our goal was to create so many repetitions of NRDC’s message, that average American consumers … could not avoid hearing it,” Fenton wrote in a memo that was later leaked to the Wall Street Journal. “The idea was for the ‘story’ to achieve a life of its own, and continue for weeks and months to affect policy and consumer habits.”
Then-Food and Drug Administration director Alvin Young described the Alar scare as “one of the worst instances of where statements were made without the benefit of scientific review.” Richard Adamson, director of the National Cancer Institute division devoted to the study of cancer causation, said that eating apples with trace amounts of Alar posed “certainly less than the risk of eating a well-done hamburger.” The American Medical Association, the National Cancer Institute, the World Health Organization, Health and Welfare of Canada, the Farm Bureau, the EPA, and Britain’s Advisory Committee on Pesticides likewise agreed that Alar was safe to consume safe in regulated quantities.
But as journalist Matt Labash pointed out:
“None of this mattered. Alar was such a p.r. fiasco that its manufacturer, Uniroyal, withdrew it voluntarily. [David] Fenton was delighted: ‘Consumer buying habits changed overnight. Lines started forming in health-food stores. The sales of organic produce soared. All of which we were very happy about.' As apple growers went broke, the Natural Resources Defense Council profited, according to an interview that Fenton gave Propaganda Review, a leftist San Francisco journal: ‘We also designed [the campaign] so that revenue would flow back to NRDC 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 revenues from it.'”
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 Fenton Communications’ 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.
Fenton co-authored the bestselling 1996 book, Our Stolen Future: Are We Threatening Our Fertility, Intelligence, and Survival? Then-Vice President Al Gore wrote the foreword, wherein he characterized the book as a sequel to Rachel Carson‘s Silent Spring). In April 1996, journalist Matt Labash summarized Our Stolen Future‘s contents as follows:
“Already in its fifth printing, the book contains speculative charges about the effects of synthetic chemicals on the environment. These chemicals, called ‘endocrine disruptors,’ are said to mimic estrogert and to disrupt hormonal development. They are potentially so heinous that, according to the authors, they might be reducing sperm count. They might be causing undescended testicles and shorter penises. They might be increasing reproductive dysfunction, and may even be responsible for a host of ‘social problems’ like child abuse, lower IQ and SAT scores, crime, impairment of motor abilities, mental retardation, and ‘the loss of human potential.’
“The book is essentially smorgasbord science — it picks only the results that support its thesis and ignores other studies directly contradicting it. This method is actually anti-scientific, because the authors start with a culprit (synthetic chemicals) and then hunt for a disease (resulting in the conjectural laundry list). Instead of positing hypotheses and then trying to prove or disprove them, Our Stolen Future advocates its position by seeking out selective evidence, then drawing general (albeit equivocal) conclusions.
“The book’s publication, like other Fenton-assisted outbreaks, is beginning to devolve into what can basely be called a scientific pissing contest. The environmentalists selectively release alarming charges with sympathetic endorsements and credulous media attention, which leaves those business interests directly harmed by the charges to play catch-up. In this case, both the Chemical Manufacturers Association and the American Council on Science and Health have released small volumes refuting Our Stolen Future charge by charge.
“And there is much to refute. Evidence of the alleged symptoms persists in wildlife, especially in heavily polluted regions: gulls in the Great Lakes that have gone lesbian, for example, and short-penised alligators in a lake where there was once a pesticide spill. But there is no proof that the disruptors cause comparable symptoms in humans when we are exposed to synthetic chemicals in amounts regulated by federal agencies. The very idea of ‘endocrine disruption’ sounds fairly daunting until one learns that the same compounds already exist naturally in many foods — including garlic, peanut oil, and potatoes, to name just a few. The total effect of synthetic chemicals in this regard is actually 40 million times lower than the same effect from vegetables and other foods.
“Not to mention that at least one reputable study, by Columbia University’s Harry Fisch, shows that sperm counts haven’t fallen, period.”
In the late 1990s, Fenton and EMS 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 drew the support of more than 270 restaurant chefs and owners who, in 1999 alone, participated in a campaign to remove swordfish from their menus. 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, David Fenton and Fenton Communications launched an aggressive campaign against Campbell Soup and Kellogg’s, for their production and distribution of genetically improved foods. In response to Fenton’s initiative, the Center for Consumer Freedom wrote:
“Fenton Communications, the force behind the thoroughly debunked Alar apple scare, is now whipping up fear over genetically improved foods at the behest of the organic food industry. Twenty-two separate press events are being held today (targeting Campbell’s Soup Company and Kellogg’s with six more companies to be attacked in the next six to eight months) in an effort to pressure the companies to stop production of all foods containing genetically improved ingredients, despite broad scientific and governmental consensus on their value and safety. The organic industry is creating this fear as a marketing ploy. ”
Consistent with Fenton’s scaremongering tactics was the official “motto” of Fenton Communique, the newsletter which his PR firm published and sent to its clients. The motto read: “If you don’t like the news, go out and make your own.”
In 2004, Fenton arranged the New York event at which environmental activist and multi-millionaire Laurie David was initially exposed to 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.
Fenton collaborated with MoveOn.org in 2004 when he penned an entry for the book MoveOn’s 50 Ways To Love Your Country: How To Find Your Political Voice And Become A Catalyst For Change. The book consisted, in part, of 50 chapters authored by MoveOn members, famous liberals, and citizen activists, and it included tips on how to effectively draft petitions and organize rallies. Other essays appearing in the book were provided by such notables as Al Gore, Nancy Pelosi, Joan Blades, and Eli Pariser.
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, Fenton Communications 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 book—which includes rare photographs of radicals like Abbie Hoffman, the Chicago Seven, and the Black Panthers—features a foreword by Tom Hayden and commentary by Norman Mailer.
In September 2007, Fenton Communications 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 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.”
In 2017, Fenton lamented that the political left had not, in his view, used the power of mass media sufficiently to its own advantage:
“Progressives have historically not made unified, effective communications a priority. The progressive world, unlike the right, does not have a TV network or legions of talk-radio hosts. However, we do have enormous potential power if we adopt more of the basic principles of marketing and communications, such as simple messages and enormous amounts of repetition to target audiences. Our opponents do this routinely. It comes naturally to them, as they mostly have business or marketing backgrounds.”
In addition to co-founding Fenton Communications, Environmental Media Services, and New Economy Communications (which works on human rights issues in the global economy), Fenton has helped incubate and launch such groups as J Street, Climate Nexus, the Death Penalty Information Center, the Central America Media Project, the Southern Africa Media Project, and American Freedom.
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.”
Over the years, Fenton has given money to the political campaigns of a number of Democratic candidates, including Hillary Clinton, Howard Dean, Rosa DeLauro, Donna Edwards, Al Franken, Kirsten Gillibrand, Ralph Nader, Jerrold Nadler, Barack Obama, Chellie Pingree, Zephyr Teachout, and Elizabeth Warren, He has also contributed to the pro-Democrat organization ActBlue.
For additional information on David Fenton, click here.