This was a book I put on hold at the library a while ago and forgot about. After a few months, it came up in my holds list and I couldn’t wait to rush to the library to pick it up. I was looking forward to reading this book, while also sort of dreading what I might learn.
It’s as bad as you might imagine. Actually, it’s much, much worse.
I don’t know about you, but I read headlines and follow links with a fair amount of skepticism. News used to be “factual,” or at least somewhat based on the truth. Now you need be aware of the underlying agenda in order to be educated about what you are reading. Nothing can be trusted at face value anymore.
Slight tangent. I have come to hate the word “agenda.” It’s become a vile word. An “agenda” is always tucked into the back of the “opposition’s” cause in order to make it ominous, predetermined and evil. The “homosexual agenda.” The “global warming agenda.” And from someone I actually knew but am no longer friends with: The “black agenda.” I don’t know what the “black agenda” is. But I guess I’m supposed to be afraid of it. And if you ever meet a black gay environmentalist, their agenda will be to eat your children.
Okay. Deadly Spin was written by Wendall Potter, a PR professional whose job for 20 years was to protect the images of health insurance giants Humana, and then CIGNA Corporation. He starts with his own history of studying journalism and being a reporter. Early in his career as a young reporter his notoriety grew, he rose through the ranks and made an easy jump from journalism to PR. Journalism is dying. Newspapers are understaffed, reporters are under paid and pressed for time. PR flacks issue press releases into the hands of harried reporters and their messages get published with little question. PR is flourishing, and it pays better than journalism.
He explains how PR works, using tactics from WWII propaganda: Fearmongering. Patriotic generalities and phrases. Offering “expert” testimonials. Identifying as “plain folks.” Euphemisms, doublespeak and confusion. Bandwagoning. Approval from respected authorities. You know these various tactics are at play when reading the news. But it was chilling to see how efficiently and seamlessly the “spin” becomes the message.
He describes his tasks in dealing with various crisis situations, like preemptively derailing the movie Sicko to minimize the political fallout and protect health insurer profits. Or the teenager who died because the insurance company called her liver transplant “experimental.” Or healthcare reform. The author was clearly very good at his job. At any sign of any potential threat, a well tuned and vastly funded machine started evasive maneuvers. Outside PR firms were hired, industry funded front groups were created with patriotic names, “grassroots” movements were seeded, studies and statistics were contorted into frightful numbers, friendly politicians, pundits and news outlets were groomed with the message.
Do you think the US has the best healthcare in the world? Do you remember the term “death panels?” Would a single payer health system be “socialist?” These messages didn’t come from the public or a groundswell of support. They were handcrafted from the companies that had the most to lose.
Meanwhile, as congress was debating reform, health insurance companies plied on the charm, agreeing that “something” must be done to reform healthcare. They displayed the public persona of willing partner and angelic victim, while behind the scenes, they did everything they could to undermine real reform. This is how laws are created and defeated.
Guess what? Everyone does this. Tobacco. Coal. Oil. Agriculture. Big banks. These industries have a lot of money, and a lot of PR. I don’t mean to sound alarmist or paranoid, but it’s much, much worse than we think it is.
On a personal level, we just had to wade into the individual health insurance market. Besides being freaked out that they would find a reason to deny me coverage, we had to worry how much would the cost of our health insurance eat into our budget as we try to build our own small business. To keep our monthly premiums low, we got a $5000 deductible plan. For each of us. Our plan doesn’t shell out a penny until we spend $5000 first.
As the book describes, this type of plan is known as “consumer driven,” because we have some “skin in the game.” What this actually means is that we probably won’t go to the doctor, unless we are broken in half, because it costs too damn much. Somehow we now have more of a “choice,” because we can “choose” not to go to the doctor because it’s not covered. Employers are moving to this model as well. Higher deductibles, higher premiums, lower coverage. They are calling this the future of healthcare.
I knew this book was going to piss me off. It did. It was fascinating and disturbing. I think you should read it too.