The soda companies, clever marketers that they are, want to ensure they will escape blame for the obesity scourge, and that there will be no tax on pop that might deter consumers from buying it. So a front group, the Center for Consumer Freedom, has been running the food police ads which reinforce the lobbying messages of Coca-Cola’s heavy hitters. The group’s Web site claims it promotes personal responsibility and protects consumer choices. “We believe the consumer is King. And Queen,” it says.

The Center says that more than one hundred companies and thousands of individual consumers contribute to its financing. According to Source Watch, the group has previously received money from food companies and restaurants such as Coca-Cola, Cargill, Tyson Foods, Wendy’s, Applebee’s, Outback Steakhouse, and Monsanto. The Center has also been active in waging campaigns against the anti-obesity movement, and has worked to rebut claims that link obesity to junk foods.

The group clearly admits that it is biased:

Yes! We believe that only you know what’s best for you. When activists try to force you to live according to their vision of society, we don’t take it lying down.

It’s equally clear that the group is not lying down, and here’s where the press comes in. Apparently, one of its tactics is to place op-eds and letters to the editor in strategic newspapers. In September, the Detroit Free Press published an anti-soda tax op-ed, identifying the author, J. Justin Wilson, as a senior research analyst at the Center for Consumer Freedom—a “nonprofit coalition supported by restaurants, food companies, and consumers to promote personal responsibility and protect consumer choices.” A week or so later, the New York Daily News ran a similar op-ed and similarly identified Wilson and his group. A separate Daily News news story, which featured a quote from Wilson, said the center “gets money from food and beverage companies.”

But the Baltimore Sun slipped up. About the same time as the op-eds appeared, the Sun ran a letter to the editor penned by Wilson, arguing that the soda tax shouldn’t be used to punish people for the food they choose. The paper identified Wilson as a senior research analyst at the Center for Consumer Freedom. Sounds kind of benign, doesn’t it?

If media outlets choose to accept op-eds and letters from outfits like this, full disclosure please.

If you'd like to get email from CJR writers and editors, add your email address to our newsletter roll and we'll be in touch.

Trudy Lieberman is a fellow at the Center for Advancing Health and a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR’s healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.