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Editorial cartoon (3/30/11)

If you want to figure out how an extremist like Scott Walker can get elected governor of a state that has historically been known for its enlightened politics, you need to read Wendell Potter’s book “Deadly Spin.”

Potter is the longtime senior public relations executive for two of the largest health insurance firms in America, who became so disgusted at their tactics that he quit and set out to tell the world what really goes on.

The book describes in astonishing detail how corporate America cleverly sets the public agenda by manipulating the news media, buying politicians and effectively misleading consumers.

When you read this book you come to understand how it was that the big tobacco companies were able for years to discredit mountains of medical research that cigarettes cause cancer and how today’s big conglomerates like those operated by the notorious Koch brothers are able to convince millions of Americans that the world’s scientific community is wrong about global warming.

And how clever advertising can convince tens of thousands of citizens to vote against their own interests.

Specifically, “Deadly Spin” describes how the health insurance industry has been able to demonize any plan to improve health coverage for Americans, including so-called ObamaCare, which for the first time expands health coverage to millions of citizens who have had to go without in our terribly broken health system.

Potter, now a fellow at the Madison-based Center for Media and Democracy, insists that much of the vehement anti-health care reform rhetoric trumpeted by Republican politicians and “angry” tea partiers is being orchestrated and underwritten by for-profit insurance corporations. While those corporations assure consumers they really care about consumers’ health, the truth, according to Potter, is that millions die as a result of inadequate health care, and it’s all aimed at increasing profits.

A case involving a 17-year-old girl named Nataline Sarkisyan was the final straw that caused Potter, who at the time was chief of public relations for the giant insurer CIGNA, to quit. Nataline was critically ill and only a liver transplant could save her. Doctors had found one but couldn’t operate because CIGNA denied the request to cover the costs, claiming a transplant was “experimental,” even though the doctors insisted it was not.

Relatives and friends appealed to the media for help and the outcry was so great that CIGNA reversed its decision. But it was too late. Nataline died a few hours after the insurance giant relented.

After her death, CIGNA was swamped with calls from an outraged public. Opinion columnists lambasted the company and there was concern at CIGNA that Congress would get involved, so CIGNA hired a huge law firm and a public relations firm that had worked previously to discredit Michael Moore after his documentary “SiCKO.” Potter describes how the outside firms aggressively planted articles with friendly politicians and pro-industry news media, all aimed at creating doubts that Nataline would have lived in the first place.

The lawyers and PR firms planted a “spy” at Nataline’s funeral and, when the family filed suit against CIGNA, assigned a team of lawyers to keep track of the family and its lawyer.

“It became clearer to me than ever that I was part of an industry that would do whatever it took to perpetuate its extraordinarily profitable existence,” Potter writes. “I had sold my soul.”

I met Wendell Potter at Fighting Bob Fest a couple of years back. He talked to the crowd about the extraordinary measures that the for-profit health insurers will go to in order to convince the public that any government plan would do everything from ration health care to restrict their choice of doctors. And, of course, for the most part, they have succeeded so far.

But the book, which hadn’t been written then, goes much further in describing how some unscrupulous public relations practitioners are able to turn the public’s perception about an issue completely upside down. And the book does it in an even-handed, no-nonsense way.

Potter admits that “we will never be free of spin, but we can be wise to it, and we can push back against it.”

His book should be read by anyone trying to make sense of all that’s happening around us these days.

Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times.