Exposing the Insurance Industry's Vast Conspiracy to Smear Michael Moore
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It is the summer of 2006; Filmmaker Michael Moore is putting the finishing touches on his latest film, Sicko, a documentary that purports to take on the health care system in the United States. Coming on the heels of the critical and box office successes of Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11, the highest grossing documentary in history, Moore is hot, Hollywood hot. People's Choice Awards hot -- in January of 2005, at the 31st Annual People's Choice Awards, Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, receives the "Favorite Movie" award. Titans in the insurance and pharmaceutical industries have every reason to be concerned.
No one, other than Moore and his crew know what's in Sicko, although it appears that health care industry operatives are doing all they can to sniff out the details. Variety reported that when plans for the making of Sicko became public, several large drug companies "mounted plans to combat the doc, including circulating memos to employees warning them not to cooperate with Moore." The memos instructed their employees to be on the lookout for "a scruffy guy in a baseball cap" going around asking too many questions. PhRMA (Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America), which represents the country's leading pharmaceutical research and biotechnology companies, had not yet issued any public statements regarding the film.
Fast forward four-plus years: In a recent appearance promoting his news book Deadly Spin, on MSNBC's "Countdown with Keith Olbermann," Wendell Potter, a former vice president of corporate communications at CIGNA -- one of the United States' largest health insurance companies -- and now a fellow at the Center for Media and Democracy, a corporate watchdog group, talked about how America's health care industry worked feverishly to defeat President Barack Obama's health care reform initiatives.
During the course of the interview, Potter mentioned the insurance industry's plan to discredit Michael Moore prior to the release of Sicko. "We ran a story in our online newspaper saying Moore is embarking on a documentary -- and if you see a scruffy guy in a baseball cap, you'll know who it is," Stephen Lederer, a spokesman for Pfizer Global Research and Development, told the Los Angeles Times at the time.
"Moore's past work has been marked by negativity, so we can only assume it won't be a fair and balanced portrayal," said Rachel Bloom, executive director of corporate communications the Delaware-based firm, AstraZeneca. "His movies resemble docudramas more than documentaries."
Listening to Potter's revelations, I flashed back to the spring of 2006 when I received a e-mail from an editor of a publication called the Pharmacist (no longer in print) asking me if I was interested in writing a story about the film. Since I had never heard of the publication, and assumed it was an industry-sponsored magazine, I hesitated to take the assignment, although it sounded like it could be a bigger payday than I was accustomed to. (It wasn't.)
First of all, I told the editor, I didn't know anything more about the film than anyone else. Second, I was a fan of Moore's work, having written about him previously, and I was not about to do an industry-funded hit piece on him.
In the course of my investigation of the Pharmacist I discovered that it was a publication for pharmacists, published by a West Chester, Pennsylvania-based organization called Result Media, LLC. It had an un-developed Web site that didn't bother to upload any of the magazine's content. I also found out that it tackled issues rarely dealt with in your basic trade publication. In the same issue my piece ran, the cover story was headlined "Does Sex sell Rx? Pharma Sales Reps Talk."