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Putting the Progressive in PR
Over the years, Fenton has been linked to nearly every ultra-liberal cause and celeb in U.S. politics. Anti-Bush billionaire George Soros, for instance. When Fenton Communications a few months ago took on the advocacy of the Appeal for Redress, a petition to Congress from members of the military who oppose the war in Iraq, Sean Hannity of Fox News said, "Appealforredress.org is not Fenton's only client. The list reads like a who's who of left-wing advocacy groups; MoveOn.org, America Coming Together, Campaign for America's Future, the AFL-CIO and the NAACP Voter Fund are just a few of their other clients. So the sponsors of the group are left-wing antiwar protesters, and their public relations mouthpiece spends the rest of their time flacking for George Soros and company, and we're to believe this is a nonpartisan effort?"
In response, Fenton says that Soros is a friend. "The last time we worked for him was during the 2004 campaign, when he toured the country promoting his views on how Bush was responding to terrorism. He expressed his view, now widely shared, that the Iraq war was a blunder that is making terrorism worse," Fenton says.
Fenton's political activism dates to his high school days. Born in the Rego Park neighborhood of Queens, N.Y., he is the son of an accountant and a garment district runway model. His parents split when he was 7. His mother remarried, and Fenton and his younger brother, Jonathan -- an osteopath in Burlington, Vt. -- moved to Manhattan and went to public schools.
When he was 13, David Fenton got a camera for his birthday. Three years later, he was taking photographs professionally. As a junior at the Bronx High School of Science, he received an assignment from Life magazine. He took the money, left school, rented an apartment and never looked back. It was that kind of free, unfettered, tie-dyed era -- all-night bull sessions in pot-smoky rooms behind beaded curtains. "But I didn't 'drop out,' " Fenton says. "I 'dropped in' to an organization that was a news service: Liberation News Service."
He calls it the Associated Press of the 1960s antiwar movement. "I started working on causes I believe in."
He took lots of shots of the radical fringe, including the Chicago Seven defendants, the Black Panthers and the bomb-detonating Weatherman faction of the Students for a Democratic Society. He sold his photos to newspapers and magazines such as Time and Rolling Stone. Some are collected in a book, "Shots: An American Photographer's Journal, 1967-1972" published in 2005.
Hoffman suggested the title years ago. "I owe much of my knowledge of public relations to Abbie," Fenton writes, "and his wild and effective antics."
Fenton headed back to New York in 1976 and persuaded Jann Wenner to hire him as Rolling Stone magazine's flack.
When the fugitive Hoffman decided to turn himself in to authorities in 1980, he needed somebody to handle the media fallout. He called on David Fenton.
In 1982, Fenton opened Fenton Communications in a two-office suite on West 57th Street. His first clients included the Sierra Club, Mother Jones magazine and Rodale Press. Later that year, he opened a Washington branch.
Today, Fenton's left-leaning PR firm has three offices -- in New York, Washington and San Francisco -- 70 employees and more than 50 clients, and bills more than $6 million a year. He bristles at the description. " 'Left' is a pejorative term," he says. "People I hang with use the word 'progressive.' "
And, he says, "PR is also a pejorative title. It means to most Americans: 'We'll say anything for money.' We're not like that. We have a point of view."