'How Everybody Exists' Doesn't Have to Be

If you want to know how things really get done in Washington -- or don't get done, depending on the desires of America's corporate executives -- all you have to do is read a couple of paragraphs in a Jan. 23 Philadelphia Inquirer story (see page 2).

Reporter Joe DiStefano quotes a vice president at APCO Worldwide -- one of DC's most powerful and influential PR firms -- in response to questions about my book, Deadly Spin. Throughout the book I disclose the previously secretive work APCO did for the health insurance industry to manipulate public opinion on health care reform, in part by trying to scare people away from a movie, Michael Moore's 2007 documentary Sicko.

The surprising gem in the Inquirer piece was that APCO VP Bill Pierce essentially agreed with me. He acknowledged that interest-funded pressure groups "are all over the place" in Washington. "That's how everybody exists here," Pierce said.

He's right. That is indeed how the influence peddlers and spinmeisters exist (although a much more accurate word is thrive) in Washington.

Credit Where Credit is Due

Here's the context. Pierce -- an old (and probably now former) friend from my nearly two decades inside the insurance industry -- was quoted by DiStefano as saying that I erred when I wrote that APCO set up and operated a fake grassroots front group, Health Care America, to discredit Moore and his movie because insurance company executives were terrified that Sicko would convince even more Americans that the government should play a much greater role in the U.S. health care system.

The trend was already going against the industry: In the spring of 2007, a few weeks before Sicko's U.S. premiere, the insurance industry's pollsters told the executives that for the first time ever, more than half of all Americans were so disillusioned with the way private insurers controlled the health care system that they wanted more government involvement.

My error, according to Pierce, is not in pointing out that APCO was doing the dirty work of the industry through its phony front group -- but that I failed to acknowledge the role that other big special interests played in funding Health Care America, as well. (Pierce was listed on the now-defunct group's press releases as Health Care America's media contact. If you called the number on the press release for Pierce, you would have reached him at his desk at APCO.)

DiStefano is at least the second reporter to hear Pierce complain that I did the public a disservice by not giving sufficient credit to other big special interests who paid APCO to create and run Health Care America. In November of last year he told PR industry watchdog Jack O'Dwyer the same thing.

In response, I wrote a blog post on Nov. 22 detailing the history and work of the front group. Here's an excerpt:

O'Dwyer blogged last Tuesday that, 'Just about every known evil practice that PR has ever engaged in is described in Deadly Spin.' He noted that I had mentioned APCO -- the second biggest firm in the O'Dwyer ranking, with $100.3 million in fees in 2009 -- several times in the book. APCO and AHIP must be paying a media monitoring service to alert them immediately when I am mentioned in the media, as they did for Michael Moore and Sicko three years ago. Within hours, APCO Senior Vice President William Pierce sent O'Dwyer an email to challenge my credibility because of my failure to disclose Health Care America's original incarnation. He's right -- partially. I should have pointed out in the book that APCO repurposed Health Care America for the insurance industry and other special interests who were concerned that Sicko might lead to reforms that would threaten their profits, too. I would have disclosed it if I had known about it. Unlike PR people who practice the dark arts of PR, I had no intention of misleading anyone.

Textbook Playbook

Had Pierce been more forthcoming, he might have shared with DiStefano the PR plan APCO prepared for America's Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), the insurance industry's big lobbying group, to discredit Sicko and set the stage for the industry's campaign to shape health care reform legislation.

Since he didn't, I will.

Here it is, courtesy of Bill Moyers, who disclosed  portions of the APCO/AHIP plan on the July 10, 2009, edition of Bill Moyers Journal, and posted it on his website. As you can see, the plan shows how APCO planned to use Health Care America and other organizations that APCO could press into service in the industry's campaign against Sicko. If you've ever wanted to know how to create a PR plan to discredit an enemy and manipulate public opinion, you should take a look at this one. It's a classic.

Back to Pierce's comments to DiStefano. Here's the full quote:

'Pharma, hospitals, doctors backed Health Care America, not insurers,' Pierce said. He doesn't see why Potter thinks such groups are a threat to democracy: In Washington, interest-funded pressure groups 'are all over the place,' and many are backed by liberals. 'That's how everybody exists here.'

Pierce and I agree on this last point. Pierce admitted in a few words that one of the core truths of my book is indeed true: The near-total control exerted by corporate special interests over the democratic process in America is simply, and in the most literal way possible, business as usual.

The irony seems to be lost on Pierce, however. What's the big deal, he asks?

Endangered Democracy

The big deal is that this dynamic threatens the very foundations of our democracy. It puts the interests of corporations, and the institutional shareholders that own them, above the interests of individual citizens -- you and me. It concentrates power in the hands of a few "business leaders" rather than in the people who vote and the people those voters elect to represent them. It gives the loudest voice not to those with the best ideas but to those who can afford the most expensive lobbyists.

In the end, the true will of the people -- such as the widely popular but still elusive policy of providing universal access to affordable, quality health care, as do the countries featured in Sicko -- will continue to be thwarted until this is no longer "how everybody exists" in Washington.