If you’re a big fan of Glenn Beck., Bill O’Reilly or any of the other practitioners of juvenile, accusatory, confrontational “journalism” that TV has sunk and slunk into these days, then there is really no reason for you to watch the conversation between Michael Moore and Wendell Potter on MSNBC. It will probably put you to sleep with its adult, conciliatory tone, and its illuminating and informative comments. Even the host, the normally loose-lipped Keith Olbermann, is so overcome by the substance of the discussion that he mostly remains silent and just lets them talk.
You surely know who Michael Moore is, especially if you’ve paid any attention to any of the practitioners of juvenile, accusatory confrontational “journalism”. You’ve heard that he’s a “loose cannon”, that he’s “anti-American”, and that he “wants the terrorists to win”. And those are probably among some of the nicer remarks.
But who is Wendell Potter? He’s a corrupt corporation’s worst nightmare: a former key employee turned outspoken whistleblower. In his new book, Deadly Spin, he details how, as Head of Corporate Communications for CIGNA, he helped the insurance cyclops reap obscene profits by obscenely denying its customers the service they paid for. Meanwhile, Michael Moore had released his blockbuster expose, “Sicko”, which sent CIGNA into a panic. Its honchos held meetings in which they planned damage control by doing everything in their power to discredit Moore. In other words, to wage an intensive campaign of negative propaganda.
The insurance cartel was already, for many years running, at black belt level in the propaganda game. They had brainwashed countless Americans into accepting as vital their way of doing business – i.e., charging outrageous premiums, then denying coverage; paying their CEOs in the millions, but forcing their customers to choose between losing a kidney and losing their home; and preaching that any attempt by the government to reform such unethical behavior is “socialism” and/or “big government”. (These terms do not apply, of course, to government intervention that lessens corporate accountability. In order to qualify as “big government”, it has to be intended for the protection of consumers, silly.)
In another MSNBC interview, Congressman Anthony Weiner of New York notes that 230 billion bucks a year ends up in the pockets of insurance companies. And then he asks the very fundamental question, what do insurance companies contribute toward health care in return? It’s a question everyone should be asking. But host Joe Scarborough is so thrown for a loop that after stammering a bit, the only response he can offer is “I’m astounded by your question.”
In the case of the assault on Moore, we’d like to point out two particular techniques CIGNA used, because you’ll be seeing them used over and over by savvy propagandists everywhere.
First, they formed a front group. There are two reasons for doing this: it distances the parent organization from the dirty work, and it gives the propaganda effort an air of legitimacy if it seems to be coming from an authoritative organization. The petroleum industry, for instance, has whipped up several front groups (including one with the Orwellian name Greening Earth Society), some with “scientists” on board, to dispute the evidence about climate change, giving the impression that scientists are at odds over the data (hint: they aren’t) and even that global warming is a hoax (hint: it isn’t).
The front group that CIGNA concocted was called Health Care America, which poses as a legitimate health-oriented service, offering some benevolent and potentially useful information. But at the time it was formed, its focus was the health of CIGNA’s bottom line, and its main objective was to “push Michael Moore off a cliff”, in the words of one CIGNA executive.
Second, this front group circulated some carefully chosen soundbites about their target; and a potent soundbite can wipe out all of the logical arguments that any mere mortal possibly could devise. You may be aware, for instance, of how much bite the “death panel” soundbite has had in the health care “debate” in recent months. It was popularized by the former half-term governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin, who is now officially fair and balanced. And it took off like… well, like soundbites usually do.
Several soundbites were attached to Moore, including the old war horse epithets “Un-American” and “communist”. Whenever you hear someone use one of these – and especially when you hear someone use both of them – it’s a big red flag that someone is trying to pull a big wool blanket over your eyes.
But for this particular film, Health Care America added a phrase formulated especially for the occasion: Michael Moore, they claimed, “played fast and loose with the facts”. That phrase was apparently first uttered by Sarah Berk of Health Care America on CNN, which did not disclose her connection with CIGNA. And again, it was a phrase that echoed from network to network. It led to Moore’s verbal blitzing of CNN host Wolf Blitzer, which the media then spun into an unwarranted “meltdown”, as if he hadn’t been called a liar just seconds before going on the air.
Thanks to Wendell Potter, we know that even as the good folk at CIGNA were trying desperately to convince the public that Moore was lying, they were gnashing teeth behind closed doors because he was too close to the truth. They feared him not because he was an effective propagandist, but because he was an effective muckraker. Big difference.
But let’s be clear: there probably is no chance whatsoever that we will ever have real health care reform in America. None. Zero. And there is probably even less chance that the anemic attempt at health care reform enacted by the Obama administration will survive. The insurance cartel has unlimited resources – in funding, in connections, and in strategic expertise – to torpedo any measure that might threaten one precious dime of its profits. Wendell Potter may have defected, but he was only one head of a hydra that knows no limits.
Nice work if you can get it.