A week after Michael Moore’s one-man Broadway show closed — as scheduled — President Trump took to Twitter over the weekend to do what so many men in high places have done for years: malign Moore in an effort to make people believe that Moore hates America and its business and political leaders most of all.
To which Moore replied:
I don’t claim to have ever been in a place nearly as lofty as Donald Trump’s, but he and I do share a fear and loathing of Michael Moore. At least we once did, before an incident involving Moore changed both my opinion of him and the direction of my life and career.
On June 12, 2007, I flew across the country on a Michael Moore spy mission. My destination: Sacramento, California. That night, in the back row of a theater a few blocks from the state capitol, I watched the first U.S. screening of Moore’s latest movie, SiCKO. My assignment was to report back to my colleagues in Philadelphia about just how roughly Moore had treated our company, a big health insurer, in the film.
It was worse than I had anticipated. Several of our customers told about being denied coverage for care they needed. I remember thinking that refuting their stories would not be easy. It was clear Moore had done his homework in a movie that, as Moore always does, takes the side of the “little guy.” And I knew from experience that the stories in SiCKO were legitimate.
No one in the insurance industry knew before SiCKO’s world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival a few weeks earlier that we would be in Moore’s crosshairs. There were rumors for a while that SiCKO would be about the pharmaceutical industry. For my own sake, I hoped the rumors were true, but I couldn’t take any chances.
In the months before Moore wrapped up filming, and long before SiCKO would open at more than 3,000 American theaters, my corporate communications team and I had prepared for an unannounced visit by Moore and his film crew. I conducted numerous media-training sessions with our CEO and other company officials. I was prepping them for a Moore specialty — the ambush interview. I supplied them with a couple of lines to use if they were ambushed, one I hoped would make it less likely they’d have a starring role in SiCKO: “Oh, you’re the Hollywood entertainer Michael Moore, aren’t you? I can’t talk to you because I’m running late for a meeting, but our spokesman can help you. Give Wendell Potter a call.”
Between the Cannes and Sacramento screenings of SiCKO, several of my industry peers and I met in a day-long closed-door meeting in Philadelphia to finalize the details of a campaign our trade association and PR firm had developed to attack both Moore’s credibility and his patriotism. We wanted conservatives in particular to believe Moore was out of step with American values, and we wanted Democratic lawmakers to distance themselves from him.
The timing of SiCKO’s release couldn’t have been worse for our industry. Our pollster had recently told us that a majority of Americans now believed the government should take on the responsibility of controlling the cost of health care and making sure everybody had access to it. There had been a significant shift in public opinion since his last poll. Insurers had never been popular, but most people had always assumed we were necessary. Now they were questioning that assumption. SiCKO, we worried, would lead to growing and widespread support for a single-payer health care system.
At the Philadelphia meeting, my peers and I signed off on the campaign tactics we would use against Moore, one of which was the activation of an industry-funded front group that would be run out of the PR firm’s Washington office. The goal of the campaign was to not only to do harm to Moore’s reputation but to restore a specific fear that the American Medical Association, drug companies and insurers had instilled among Americans over many years. We needed to rekindle Americans’ fear of “government-run health care.”
Sure enough, the day after the Sacramento screening and a rally held by single-payer advocates just before it, our PR firm activated the front group. This was its opening salvo:
Health Care America, a non-partisan, nonprofit health care advocacy organization, released the following statement in response to a California rally held by Michael Moore and a variety of advocates in support of a government takeover of our health care system. The reality is that government-run health systems around the world are failing patients—forcing them to forgo treatments or seek out-of-pocket care in other countries.
Another part of our strategy was focused on the Democrats in Congress that our industry had supported with campaign contributions. The message to them, to be delivered discretely by our lobbyists, was a warning: if you support Michael Moore, the industry will back your opponent next time.
My involvement in that campaign contributed to what became a crisis of conscience. As I think back on it, there was one comment in particular at that Philadelphia meeting that triggered it. If we have to, the strategy leader said, “We’ll push Moore off the cliff.”
That single sentence woke me up. It made me realize exactly what we were doing, and I was disgusted, especially with myself. I had been a journalist in my first career. I had always tried to be honest and truthful. I had never intentionally or maliciously slandered anyone. But here I was, part of a well-financed plan that might be doing exactly that. And we all agreed it was perfectly OK.
After several months of soul searching I finally found the courage to tell my boss it was time for me to go. But I soon became convinced that quitting wasn’t all I needed to do. I felt compelled to try to make amends for all the times I was involved in efforts to mislead people to protect a profitable status quo.
I testified before Congress several times during the debate on health care reform the following year. Then I decided to return to journalism to explain how corporations and other moneyed interests manipulate public opinion and influence both elections and public policy. As part of my amends-making, I even apologized to Moore during a live TV interview.
Tarbell.org, the new journalism nonprofit my team and I are launching with a crowdfunding campaign, is, to a large extent, the latest of my amends-making efforts. It is without a doubt the biggest and boldest. Tarbell will expose corporate wrongdoing, spotlight solutions and, just as important, help people regain the power that a few others with far more money — and the influence it can buy — have stolen from them.
In our own fair but pull-no-punches way, we at Tarbell will be doing what makes powerful people so mad at people like Michael Moore: speaking truth to their power. As our namesake, investigative reporter Ida Tarbell, did more than a century ago, we’ll aim to hold powerful corporations, which all too often now call the shots in Washington and our state capitals, much more accountable.