Monday, April 7, 2008

My brush with Mark Penn

Well, really it was with his PR firm, Burson Marsteller, and it was more of an indirect interaction.

Last year, I helped out with a campaign to phase out the use of a toxic class of flame retardants known as PBDE's (Polybrominated diphenyl ethers) here in Washington state. These chemicals are used in all kinds of home and commercial products, from consumer electronics to office furniture and mattresses. As these products age, the chemicals leach out into the environment and are ubiquitous in household dust, bodies of water and even in breast milk. In fact, just about every nursing mom that gets tested has these toxins in her breast milk. PBDEs are linked to liver and thyroid problems, as well as neurodevelopmental effects on fetuses and babies.

Through working on this, I came to know the dirty, deceptive tactics of Burson Marsteller. The company was hired by the Bromine chemical producers trade group (a pretty sleazy organization in and of itself) to fight off the bans in several states. Although perfectly effective alternative flame retardants are available (Sony, Apple, HP, Dell and IKEA have all long ago stopped using PBDEs), the industry, with B-M's help, tried to fight off the bans with the argument that, essentially, all our children would be burned alive if we banned PBDE's.

The methods used by B-M were particularly abhorrent. They created videos of living rooms and nurseries going up in flames; created fake fire safety groups such as the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation and American Fire Safety Council; hired retired fire chiefs as hired guns; and brought in people (from out of state) with severely burned faces to testify against the bill in legislative committees. These guys - Mark Penn's people - would stop at nothing to try to kill the bill. It worked for two years before, in the third try, outraged fire chiefs, the state Fire Marshall, and the Firefighter's union joined the environmental community's effort to pass the bill.

And B-M didn't just use these tactics in the fight over PBDEs. As a lengthy story published last May in the Nation laid out, B-M pioneered the technique of creating false grassroots organizations to make evil companies, or in some cases, evil governments, look good. The technique is known as "astroturfing." Hired by the commercial fishing interests to push back against warnings to expectant mothers not to eat fish species likely to be tainted with mercury, B-M formed an organization called "Healthy Mothers/Healthy Babies Coalition" to release a biased report urging mothers to eat as much fish as they wanted, even fish on the government's do-not-eat list. Penn and B-M have also done work for the union-busting uniform company, Cintas; worked to make Royal Dutch Shell look good in spite of a long record of human rights abuses in Nigeria; and the company has a contract with the Blackwater USA, which was contracted by the US government to provide security services in Iraq that killed eight innocent civilians as they fled a public square in Baghdad.

In other words, Hillary's most trusted advisor, until today, was the CEO of one of the most despicable, sleazy PR firms in the world (and by many reports, he remains in the campaign's inner circle). Mark Penn was Hillary's Karl Rove - a man who would stop at nothing to win. He was the architect of the plan to win the nomination by destroying Obama. Fortunately, it appears that she has not only jettisoned Penn , but also this strategy. Still, Hillary chose, for most, if not all her campaign, to be associated with this man and his strategies. It's one of the reasons, I believe, that she does not deserve the nomination (at least not the Democratic nomination!). Mark Penn may no longer be Hillary's chief strategist, but his impact on her character, as well as her campaign, lingers on.

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