Meet Rick Berman, A.K.A. "Dr. Evil"
This segment was originally broadcast on April 8, 2007. It was updated on July 17, 2007.
Rick Berman takes a certain pride, even joy, in the nickname "Dr. Evil." But the people who use it see nothing funny about it—they mean it.
His real name is Rick Berman, a Washington lobbyist and arch-enemy of other lobbyists and do-gooders who would have government control—and even ban-a myriad of products they claim are killing us, products like caffeine, salt, fast food and the oil they fry it in. He's against Mothers Against Drunk Driving, animal rights activists, food watchdog groups and unions of every kind.
As correspondent Morley Safer reports, Berman believes we are fast becoming a nation of passive children ruled by the iron thumb of self-appointed "nannies" and he gets paid good money to keep all those "Mary Poppinses" at bay. And they have reserved a special place in hell for him.
"Let me just take you through some of the things your critics have said about you. Sleazy, greedy, outrageous, deceptive, ineffective except when it comes to making money for yourself, corporate lackey who is one of the scariest people in America," Safer remarks.
"You know, I grew up in the Bronx. Name-calling is not the worst thing that I've been subjected to," Berman replies.
Rick Berman is lawyer and a lobbyist, which some might say is bad enough, but he would say lawyer and lobbyist for personal freedom.
"If the government is truly interested in my health and welfare, I'm appreciative of it. But, I think I can take care of myself," Berman tells Safer.
Berman claims that we are quickly becoming a "nanny state," an overregulated society with ever-declining freedom of choice from how much we earn, to when we may drive, to what we eat.
He has particular contempt for so-called "food cops" who claim to know what's best for us.
"They create this Chicken Little mentality that the sky is falling over everything," Berman says. "You know, the latest study says this, the latest study says that. And they drive the government to satisfy that artificial public need."
Berman blames activist, safety and watchdog groups—"do-gooders run amok" he calls them—for trying to scare America into submission. He points to those endless reports, often contradictory, which offer us a dizzying array of fearful news about everyday food and drink that might just kill you: like tuna fish, chicken, diet soda, salt, and that demon, trans-fats.
"I don't think that the other side should be allowed to talk and the response be intimidated into submission or silence. And so I'm the other side," Berman says.
The other side as in big business, mainly the food, beverage and restaurant business, which have a vested interest in encouraging people to continue to eat, drink and be merry to their heart's delight.
Berman's the booze and food industry's 6'4", 64-year-old weapon of mass destruction. They hire him to front for them in the "food wars."
"The businesses themselves don't find it convenient to take on causes that might seem politically incorrect, and I'm not afraid to do that," Berman says.
Asked if has become a major tool for corporate America, Berman says, "My mission is not to defend corporate America."
"You're a hired gun," Safer remarks.
"Well, I go out to people and I say, 'Look, if you believe in what I believe, will you help fund it?' Now, I don't know if that's a hired gun or not. But, the point is, yes, I do get paid for educating people. If that's my biggest crime, I stand accused," Berman says.
And it's not just the "food police" Berman goes after: it's anyone who seeks to limit or regulate our way of life, like animal rights activists, trial lawyers, and his current favorite, union leaders.
And Berman uses ads to drive home the message.
"You know what I love? Paying union dues, just so I can keep my job," one TV ad says. "I really like how the union discriminates against minorities!" "Nothing makes me feel better than knowing that I'm supporting their fat-cat lifestyles. Find out the facts about union officials at unionfacts.com" "Thanks, union bosses!"
"There's no sense in putting out a 17 page scientific report that nobody will read. So, I put out a 30 second commercial that makes the point," Berman explains.
But the "point" is not made by Berman and Company. He has come up with a clever system of non-profit educational entities. Companies can make charitable donations to these groups, which have names like Center for Consumer Freedom and Center for Union Facts. They are neutral sounding but "educating," with a particular point of view, all perfectly legal.
Berman and his staff of young crusaders attack the nanny culture by combing through watchdog and government reports, seeking inconsistencies, overstatements, seizing on the one fact here or there that might discredit the research. And Berman says he's rarely disappointed.
He blasts MADD for no longer being run by mothers, and PETA, who he accused of killing animals in its care. And he questions the danger of mercury in tuna; he says it's massively over-hyped.
Web sites devoted to nanny bashing and ads showing children being exploited by union bosses are all in a day's work for Rick Berman.
In the end, Berman says it's all about "shooting the messenger."
"Shooting the messenger means getting people to understand that this messenger is not as credible as their name would suggest," Berman says.
While those tactics have made him rich and powerful, they have also made him mightily unpopular. Even in a mudslinging city like Washington, it's difficult to find someone who provokes as much venom as Rick Berman.
"He's a one-man goon squad for any company that's willing to hire him," says Dr. Michael Jacobson, who heads the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a healthy food advocacy group. Jacobson has been the point man in the "food wars" for decades.
Jacobson's declaration of war on obesity has often brought him face to face with "Dr. Evil."
"Berman is against every single measure, no matter how sensible. He'd have no restrictions on tobacco advertising, junk foods galore in schools. No minimum wage," Jacobson tells Safer. "He wants to leave corporate America unfettered of any regulations that protect the public's health."
Jacobson says corporate America simply hires Berman to say the nasty things they wouldn't dare say themselves.
"He's a hit man. He's dishonest, deceptive, he makes things up," Jacobson says. "He does things that the companies can't do or say themselves, badmouthing just about anybody who says anything critical of industry."
Who are the companies that support Berman?
"The food industry, the beverage industry, alcoholic beverage industry, the restaurant industry's a major supporter. He doesn't disclose the names of his funders," Jacobson says.
But a partial list of Berman's clients was leaked to the media some years back. Names included Coca-Cola, Tyson Chicken, Outback Steakhouse and Wendy's.
Berman will not confirm or deny. "You're not going to get a lot of companies who want to say that I'm funding Rick Berman to go after you. They're just not going to do it," he says.
Asked if these companies are embarrassed about being associated with him, Berman says, "I think it all comes down to not wanting to be targeted. I mean, I get attacked. But, I don't get attacked for my information. I get attacked personally."
And though his business rakes in millions, Berman says it's not about the cash. He says it's a calling.
"I didn't need to be doing this. I'm doing this because it's a passion of mind. I believe in what I'm doing," Berman tells Safer.
"But, you're also doing it for the money. C'mon, admit it," Safer says.
"I was making a lot of money before I ever started this firm. I do it because I believe in it. I do it because it's the right thing to do," Berman replies.
Berman says his methods are fair, and that he is only responding to his opponents, who consistently use scare tactics.
He has spoken out against trans-fat, that controversial frying oil under attack by city councils around the country. Berman says it's hardly the poison its enemies claim it is.
"People should not be led around by the nose with bad information," Berman says. "You can make up your own mind as to whether or not margarine is really rat poison as some people have said."
"Oh come on…," Safer remarks.
"But, that's what they've said," Berman replies.
"You just love it when they do that, though, don't you?" Safer asks.
"Well, they're so stupid when they do that because they leave themselves open for criticism," Berman says. "And that's the tension between these communication battles. Somebody exaggerating the hell out of a story and someone like myself coming in and saying, 'What in the world were you thinking.'"
And on the very genuine issue of increasing obesity in this country, Berman's blood boils when people describe it as an "epidemic" or "disease."
"There are people, the morbidly obese who truly do have a problem in this country. I mean, these are the people who when you see them walk down the street, you get the feeling that their butt is another zip code. OK, I understand that. Okay? That's a problem. Those people are at a health risk. But this whole issue that it's a disease, that it's not your fault that you're fat. I mean, if this is a disease, this is going to be the only disease in the country that you could solve by taking long walks and keeping your mouth shut. This is a personal responsibility issue in most cases," Berman says.
"I understand that and a lot of social activists and the government to some extent is trying to get these people to change these bad habits," Safer remarks.
"I have no problem with education. But, education turns into regulation, you know?" Berman says. "As the government gets deeper and deeper into people's lives, they start to dictate more and more. If a bartender can cut you off for visibly being intoxicated, why won't we get to the point where a restaurant operator is not allowed to let you order dessert? I mean, you could get there."
"Oh, it sounds ridiculous, right? 'Well, I can't imagine that.' But, imagine ten steps to get there and all of the sudden it doesn't appear so crazy," Berman adds.
And that is how Dr. Evil frames almost any issue he fights—resist or big nanny will crush you.
He says MADD won't be happy until there is a breathalyzer in every car. Caffeine and salt will disappear, America will be regulated to a police state, one without French fries or foie gras.
"I am not opposed to stopping any of the stuff that's really bad. But, I am opposed to making the problem seem worse than it is. And these groups will make it seem so bad so it justifies their Draconian solutions," Berman says.
But Michael Jacobson says Berman, in his malevolence, is distorting deathly serious issues that will have long term effects on Americans.
"An occasional hot dog is not gonna kill anybody. But, when you're having fettuccini Alfredo one night and the next day you have a double whopper with cheese at Burger King and the next day you go over to Denny's and you have one of their enormous breakfasts, that's what's killing us. Half a million people die every year of heart disease," Jacobson says.
Asked if Berman believes in what he does, Jacobson says, "He's a PR guy. How you can believe anything he says? I think he's in favor of making a lot of money."
"But I think he does hit a nerve in this country when he goes after the nanny state that everything you do is being controlled by Big Mother," Safer remarks.
"Yeah. Isn't it terrible? We have health departments that are trying to clean up restaurants, environmental agencies that are trying to clean the air and the water. It's just terrible," Jacobson says. "I think it's great that government sometimes protects the public's welfare. And he's there protecting industry."
Berman concedes government has a role, but says for the most part the marketplace will self-regulate.
"If the other side thinks that I'm all of these bad things, the one thing that they must think is I'm effective, or else they wouldn't be bitching about it so much," Berman says.
"The fact is you enjoy being the contrarian. You like to be out there," Safer says.
"Well, I don't want to be in a business where it's a me-too thing, where everybody's saying the same thing, and I'm saying, 'Oh by the way, I agree,'" Berman replies. "I'm not afraid to say that the emperor has no clothes."
Berman says he rates his success by one simple measure: is he making people think twice?
As for his critics, Berman says, "I say to them, 'Look, once you get past the name-calling, tell me what's wrong with our statistics. Tell me what's wrong with our science.' Have I said anything that's wrong, or am I just objectionable? And if I'm objectionable, I say, 'Take a deep breath and get over it. I'm not going away.'"
Produced By Deirdre Naphin and Katy Textor
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