When someone talks about pushing you off a cliff, it's just human nature to be curious about them. Who are these people, you wonder, and why would they want to do such a thing?
That's what I was thinking when corporate whistleblower Wendell Potter revealed that, when "Sicko" was being released in 2007, the health insurance industry's PR firm, APCO Worldwide, discussed their Plan B: "Pushing Michael Moore off a cliff."
But after looking into it, it turns out it's nothing personal! APCO wants to push everyone off a cliff.
APCO was hatched in 1984 as a subsidiary of the Washington, D.C. law firm Arnold & Porter -- best known for its years of representing the giant tobacco conglomerate Philip Morris. APCO set up fake "grassroots" organizations around the country to do the bidding of Big Tobacco. All of a sudden, "normal, everyday, in-no-way-employed-by-Philip Morris Americans" were popping up everywhere. And it turned out they were outraged -- outraged! -- by exactly the things APCO's clients hated (such as, the government telling tobacco companies what to do). In particular, they were "furious" that regular people had the right to sue big corporations...you know, like Philip Morris. (For details, see the 2000 report "The CALA Files" (PDF) by my friends and colleagues Carl Deal and Joanne Doroshow.)
Right about now you may be wondering: how many Americans get pushed off a cliff by Big Tobacco every year? The answer is 443,000 Americans die every year due to smoking. That's a big cliff.
With this success under their belts, APCO created "The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition." TASSC, funded partly by Exxon, had a leading role in a planned campaign by the fossil fuel industry to create doubt about global warming. The problem for Big Oil speaking out against global warming, according to the campaign's own leaked documents, was that the public could see the "vested interest" that oil companies had in opposing environmental laws. APCO's job was to help conceal those oil company interests.
And boy, have they ever succeeded. Polls now show that, as the world gets hotter, Americans are getting less and less worried about it.
How big is this particular cliff? According to the World Health Organization, climate change contributes -- right now -- to the deaths of 150,000 people every year. By 2030 it may be double that. And after that...well, the sky is literally the limit! I don't think it's crazy to say APCO may rack up even bigger numbers here than they have with tobacco.
With this track record, you can see why, when the health insurance industry wanted to come after "Sicko," they went straight to APCO. The "worst case," as their leaked documents say, was that "Sicko evolves into a sustained populist movement." That simply could not be allowed to happen. Something obviously had to be done.
As Wendell Potter explains, APCO ran their standard playbook, setting up something called "Health Care America." Health Care America, according to Potter, "was received by mainstream reporters, including the New York Times, as a legitimate organization when it was nothing but a front group set up by APCO Worldwide. It was not anything approaching what it was reporting to be: a 'grassroots organization.' It was a sham group."
Health Care America showed up online in 2007 (the year "Sicko" was released) and disappeared quickly by early 2008. You can still find their website archived here. As you'll see, their "moderated forum" allowed normal, everyday, in-no-way-employed-by-the-insurance-industry Americans to speak out. For instance, here's something Nicole felt very strongly about:
"Moore shouldn't be allowed to call his film a 'documentary.' It should be called a political commercial. We need to fix our health care system, but we shouldn't accept a Hollywood moviemaker's political views as the starting point."
Here's what Wendell Potter revealed about the insurance industry's media strategy:
"As we would do the media training, we would always have someone refer to him as 'Hollywood entertainer' or 'Hollywood moviemaker Michael Moore.' They don't want you to think that it was a documentary that had some truth."
Thanks for your perspective, "Nicole"!
Now, how big was THAT cliff? A pretty good size -- according to a recent study, 45,000 Americans die every year because they don't have health insurance.
And here we are in 2010. A lesser PR firm might be resting on its laurels at this point, content to sit back and watch hundreds of thousands of people continue to be pushed off the various cliffs they've built. But not APCO! Right now they've taken on their biggest challenge yet: leading a giant, multi-million dollar effort to help Wall Street "earn back the trust of the American people."
We may never know the size of this particular cliff. But we can be sure it's gigantic. According to the New York Times, one of the things Wall Street's recession gave us is "the crippling of the government program that provides life-sustaining anti-retroviral drugs to Americans with H.I.V. or AIDS who cannot afford them." Internationally, organizations fighting AIDS and other diseases are "hugely afraid" of cutbacks in funding.
Of course, there are the 101 ways recessions kill quietly. For instance, children's hospitals are seeing a sharp 55% rise in the abuse of babies by parents.
And that's just the previous cliff. If APCO and its Wall Street co-conspirators lull us into turning our backs on them again, we can be sure the next cliff -- the next crash -- will be much bigger.
Anyway, this is all just a way for me to say to APCO: No hard feelings! My getting mad at you would be like a chicken who's still happily pecking away getting mad at McDonald's. Compared to the millions you've already turned into McNuggets, you've actually treated me much, much BETTER! Spying on my family, planting smears and lies about me, privately badgering movie critics to give the film a poor review, scaring Americans into believing they'd be committing a near-act of treason were they to go to the theater and see my movie -- hey, ya done good, health insurance companies of America. And, most important, you stopped the nation from getting true universal health care. Good job!
There's only one problem -- I'm not one of those "liberals" you fund in Congress, the ones who fear your power.
I'm me. And that, sadly, is not good for you.
Yours in good health,
P.S. It seems to me that APCO's discussion of pushing me off a cliff should legitimately be part of their Wikipedia page. And why not something about their role in Wall Street's new PR offensive? So I'm asking everyone interested to write something up that meets Wikipedia's guidelines and help bring the APCO Worldwide entry up to date. Post it somewhere online and send a tweet about it to @mmflint. I'll award a signed copy of "Sicko" by noon Sunday to the best entry...and then deputize you to post it on Wikipedia for real and make sure APCO's minions don't take it down. Just be sure afterward not to walk near any cliffs!
P.P.S. The late, great comedian Bill Hicks had some thoughts about marketing and the people who do it.