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Outside editorial: Industry-created front group attacking MADD lacks credibility

Posted: September 4, 2011 - 11:02pm

The following editorial first appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

At first glance, an emailed press release seemed unremarkable: another trade group trying to score a couple of points at the expense of an adversary.

But with a second glance, profound tackiness emerged. A group calling itself the American Beverage Institute was hammering at Mothers Against Drunk Driving for not getting as much mileage out of its fundraising efforts as other non-profit groups and for earning comparatively poor scores from two charity ratings organizations.

In addition, the institute’s claims that the charity scores indicated a recent change of MADD’s priorities were not supported by the actual reports.

The tone of the release was smug and snarky, peculiar given MADD’s 31-year record of positive achievement. Even if they were mad at MADD, smart lobbyists for the beverage industry would not go out of their way to pick a fight with the organization.

The American Beverage Institute describes itself as an industry group representing chain restaurants, individual restaurants and “on-premise retailers.” It claims to be “the only organization dedicated to the protection of responsible on-premise consumption of adult beverages.” It opposes sobriety checkpoints, opposes lower blood-alcohol level legal thresholds and opposes ignition interlocks that prevent intoxicated people from starting their cars. With regard to traffic safety, it claims that the various forms of “distracted driving” are “today’s biggest problem, not alcohol.”

And it attacks the alcohol-related work of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the National Transportation Safety Board, the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and — yes — MADD.

In fact, the beverage institute is the creation of Berman and Co., a Washington, D.C., communications company that invents front groups on behalf of clients that are anti-regulation, anti-worker and anti-public activism.

The names of some of these groups falsely suggest academic or think-tank connections: the Employment Policies Institute, the Center for Union Facts, the Center for Consumer Freedom and (our favorite) the Center for Economic and Entrepreneurial Literacy.

Other names, often listed under the umbrella of the Center for Consumer Freedom, imply grassroots outrage, thus hiding their special corporate interests. These include Sweet Scam, Obesity Myths, Mercury Facts, Fish Scam, How Much Fish, Defeat the Debt and Teachers Union Exposed.

Most of these groups are little more than websites that shill industry propaganda. Several list the same street address in northwest Washington — 1090 Vermont Ave., Suite 800 — as the Berman firm. Telephone numbers closely resemble one another, sometimes differing only in the last one or two digits.

Staff members seem to serve multiple roles for multiple groups. For example, the American Beverage Institute press release and website identify Sarah Longwell as the group’s “managing director.” But the website for the Center for Consumer Freedom lists her as a press contact in the media department.

As for the press release that started all this, Mothers Against Drunk Driving may be having some fundraising problems, as a great many non-profit groups have had since the economy collapsed late in 2007.

Even so, MADD remains infinitely more credible than all of the industry-funded blather from all of the interconnected industry front groups spun by a Washington PR outfit.

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