By Tom Ferrick Jr.
It would be a shame if Herb Denenberg, who died earlier this month at the age of 80, is remembered only as a TV personality who did goofy things to promote consumer protection - ala Denenberg's Dump, which was dumped by his station after Herb's age got to be 2 ½ times the median age of its women anchors. (Not good for the demos.)
Herb was a wonderful, goofy character as a TV performer. His
shtick was to bark at the camera and denounce some big guy hurting little guys.
He was brusque. He was brash. He was a ham. He was over the top.
But, he was always dead on right about the offenses he reported. He was too smart and too diligent not to get his facts right.
Few people who watched him were aware of Herb's academic bona fides: a law degree from Harvard, a doctorate from Penn, once a professor at the Wharton School.
People also forget that Herb was an important figure in the consumer movement in America, a man who used his position in government to champion the idea that government had a central role in protecting consumers.
He did it from an odd platform. As the Pennsylvania Insurance Commissioner. For a while in the 1970's, Herb made the position of insurance commissioner sexy -- an oxymoron if there ever was one.
Gov. Milton Shapp, the man who brought Denenberg into state government, probably regretted recruiting Herb many times during his years as insurance commissioner. He caused him no end of political grief.
But, as a young reporter covering state government, I can attest to Herb's drawing power. A Denenberg news conference wasn't so much a news conference as it was performance art.
At the time, Herb's passion was no-fault auto insurance. He wanted it. The trial lawyers and most of the state legislature hated the idea. Battle royals ensued, with Herb giving better than he got. He had an instinct for a jugular and a genius for sound bites.
Eventually, Pennsylvania got no-fault. Herb was able to convince consumers that he was working in their interest - not the interests of the large insurance companies who also wanted it. That's because Herb really was working in their interests.
He had no time for the insurance companies either, and made their lives miserable when he was commissioner.
It helps to put this in historical context.
Herb emerged on the scene just six years after Ralph Nader published Unsafe at Any Speed, his withering critique of General Motors and its rear-engine Corvair that prompted GM immediately to act, not to improve the car but to hire private investigators to tail Nader - and try to entice him with prostitutes -- in the hope of discrediting him.
Nader's book was to the consumer movement what Rachel Carson's 1962 book Silent Spring was to the environmental movement.
It was the 1960's, so it didn't take much to convince people - especially young people - that corporate giants in America, in their pursuit of profits, really wouldn't care much if they ruined the environment, caused cancer or killed people by selling them dangerous products.
The difference was that Nader was an agent provocateur who worked outside of - and often in opposition to - government. Dennenberg was an agitator who happened to be let inside government.
Herb certainly didn't have Nader's range of interests or influence, but he did have his passion, mixed with a keen intelligence and a lawyerly desire to get the facts of his case right. Whenever Herb made assertions, they were always accompanied by the facts. It's one reason he was never sued for in all his years as a TV consumer reporter.
In 1974, Herb's ego got the better of him and he decided to run for the U.S. Senate. That was a mistake. As he told me later: "I didn't know what the hell I was doing." He lost.
Shapp nominated him to serve on the Public Utility Commission, where Herb offered the promise of doing to the state's big utilities what he did to the state's insurance companies. The utilities were not amused, nor was the legislature. It was payback time for all those verbal jabs in the eye. The Senate refused to confirm him.
Thus began Herb's long career in television. Love him or hate him, you have to admit he was a consumer advocate in the truest sense of the word, as opposed to the defanged version on TV today that offers us 10 Timely Tips on Buying Fruit and calls it consumer reporting.
Pusillanimous pabulum, as Herb might have called it.
Tom Ferrick Jr. is senior editor of Metropolis