[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. - bev]
John Chandley, Host:
Many of you who closely followed the national debate leading up to the Affordable Care Act of 2010 know about Wendell Potter. He’s the former VP of Communications at health insurer giant CIGNA who resigned his head PR job in May 2008 after he came to believe his job and the industry he was shielding were morally offensive.
Potter’s resignation followed a series of “road to Damascus” epiphanies, including a visit to a free health care clinic in 2007, where he saw thousands of uninsured and underinsured Americans lined up to get care they could not otherwise afford, even with insurance. He helped the industry plot how to discredit Michael Moore and SICKO, but he realized that Moore’s basic points were correct. He later apologized to Moore on Countdown.
But the “horrors” he had to defend hit home when Potter had to draft CIGNA’s PR responses to the November 2007 death of Nataline Sarkisyan after CIGNA, playing the insurer’s role of a real death panel, initially said it would not cover a liver transplant for a patient already suffering from cancer. CIGNA’s PR reaction to the public outrage was to mount a massive PR campaign using APCO Worldwide and front organizations to deflect attention from CIGNA and the insurance industry’s practices. Potter recalls his reaction to what he’d helped create:
I was dismayed with what I read and disgusted with myself. It finally dawned on me that, in my own quest for money and prestige, I had sold my soul. I had become the antithesis of what I had once tried to be as a journalist many years before. “Who are you?” I remember asking myself that day. “How did you get here? How did this happen to you?”
In July of 2009 Potter first appeared in the national debate, testifying before Senator Rockefeller’s Committee on how health insurers cynically used rescission, denial of coverage, purging of small businesses (with older, sicker workers) to limit coverage. Soon after, he did a half-hour interview on Bill Moyers Journal, interviews on Democracy Now and became a regular on network and cable shows during the health reform debate.
Deadly Spin retells much of that reform effort story, and that alone is a great read and a fine resource from an ex-industry insider. But there’s much more here. That story becomes a platform for relating over a hundred years of failed efforts, led by corporate America, to bring universal health care to America. We’re still failing, though Potter, who endorsed the need for a strong Public Option, calls the ACA a “partial victory, of sorts.”
Deadly Spin is necessarily an indictment of private health insurance. We read of its evolution and market concentration after the Clinton failure, its capture by Wall Street and how investors’ demand for profits and lower “medical loss ratios” combined with CEOs’ greed for obscene compensation to drive actual “health care” out of insurer’s corporate priorities
But as worth reading as all that is, it’s all preface to Potter’s broader message: that American democracy is now being systematically “spun” by corporate PR – much of it dishonest and harmful propaganda – in ways that stifle needed reforms in every field from health care to food safety to energy and climate change and financial reform.
Potter began as a reporter but became a PR expert, as good as anyone in his industry, and he now sees the dark side of his craft everywhere, especially it’s effects to corrupt media and distort debate. Most of what we read or see on TV on controversial issues is probably coming from an industry paid-for PR firm, laundering money, concealing accountability and running front groups to dupe unsuspecting members or protesters. The Koch Brothers, Dick Armey’s “Freedom” group and the Tea Party are the result and now the norm.
We see the practices of “big oil” (think, BP’s efforts after the Gulf Oil disaster, or Chevron/Exxon-Mobil’s attacks on climate science), “big soda” – those ads you’re seeing about an invasive “food tax” are sponsored by Coke, Pepsi, Dr. Pepper and beverage can makers trying to avoid a tax on soda sugar content. And of course, “big banks,” who managed to water down financial reform by using basic PR techniques to portray themselves as part of the solution while buying off Congress and the Administration. And most recently, Jane and Marcy Wheeler have been exposing the same type of PR hit campaign for the Chamber of Commerce and Bank of America.
Potter reminds us all these industries learned their craft from Big Tobacco’s relentless decades long efforts to avoid going to jail, even though their products contribute to the deaths of over 400,000 people every year. As Wendell puts it, in a section entitled, “Our products kill, but we’re socially responsible,” we live in a PR world dominated of Big Tobacco’s “Playbook,” the anti-Bible of PR men. “The tobacco industry has, in effect, injected its negative, manipulating DNA into corporate culture worldwide.”
So how can we become smarter and fight back? Potter tells us to watch for the signs of the tobacco “playbook.” Here’s a sample of how corporations manipulate the public debate behind the scenes:
• Hire a big and well-connected PR firm, preferably one that has established a reputation not so much for public “relations” as for public “deception.” . . .
• Set up and operate a coalition or front group, which, if at all possible, should have words like “American” or “freedom” or “choice” in its name. You can launder your money through your PR firm . . . The PR firm will also:
• Recruit third parties to list as members of your front group. [who] can range from mom-and-pop bodega owners and motel operators to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation of Independent Business, . . .
• Write letters to the editor and op-eds and place them in local and national publications. In fact, the PR firm will do all the writing and placing. . . .
• Cultivate close relationships with editors and publishers. . . . to influence the tone and content of articles that those reporters write about your company and your industry . . .
• Conduct a bogus survey or slice and dice data with the intend of misleading or “lying with statistics.” . . .
• Feed talking points to TV pundits and frequent contributors to op-ed pages. . . .
• Develop and carry out a duplicitous communications campaign. . . . Behind the scenes, your firm will be using the front groups and their devious tactics to do the necessary dirty work for you.
And on that cheery note, please welcome Wendell Potter to FireDogLake. As always, please keep all comments relevant to Wendell’s fine book.