Busting Through the Media Firestorm: 6 Essential Facts About the Komen Controversy
Photo Credit: AFP
The melodramatic tale of the breakup and pseudo-makeup between the Susan G Komen Foundation and Planned Parenthood -- and the ensuing media firestorm -- simply will not die. Last week, after Komen announced it would end its grants to Planned Parenthood affiliates around the country and promptly spent several days fending off a barrage of criticism, it at last issued an apology and a promise to restore Planned Parenthood's eligibility for grants.
But the fury at Komen hasn't ended: it has outlasted the Nevada caucuses, the Superbowl and even Madonna's halftime performance. And as with any incident that blows up in such a massive way, there are rumors and inflated facts obscuring the kernels of truth, and the important lessons embedded within a narrative which is constantly being added to by embarrassing leaks by insiders and revelatory digging by outsiders.
Komen is not the true champion of women's health many thought it was. But how many of the rumors and stories are inflated, and how many get at the heart of why women responded to this decision with so much outrage?
Here, we push aside some myths and present the essential facts.
1. Yes, Komen reversed itself, but the exact future of the grants to Planned Parenthood remain unclear.
This is the most important thing to know. It's true that the new rule that would have excluded Planned Parenthood from Komen grants has been changed. This stipulation previously barred any organization under investigation, but has now been altered so that the investigation must be criminal, not political.
So while Planned Parenthood is now once again "eligible" for grants from Komen, the funding is not yet assured.
As the Washington Post explains, "It did not specifically state that the foundation would fund Planned Parenthood but said that the group would be eligible to apply for future grants."
There are a few more hurdles on the way back to funding, the article notes -- for instance, it might be too late to apply for those Komen grants.
Martha Edmonds, vice president of public affairs for Planned Parenthood of Central New Mexico, said she thought it was unlikely her group could obtain Komen funding this year because the deadline for applying to the local affiliate has already passed.
“We didn’t end up submitting a grant application for this current cycle because we thought we wouldn’t be eligible,” she said.
Furthermore, in its reversal, Komen didn't address its second reason for denying funds to PP -- the fact that it provides mammogram referrals and initial screenings, not actual mammograms.
Again, from the Washington Post:
Nonetheless, because Komen officials have not backed away from their earlier talk of refocusing funding on groups that directly provide mammograms and other breast screenings, [Charmaine Yoest, president of Americans United for Life] said she is hopeful that the ultimate result will be that the foundation ceases future funding of Planned Parenthood.
So while the PR and initial fundraising victory was decisively Planned Parenthood's, the story of this partnership is not necessarily written in stone, and it doesn't necessarily have a happy ending.
2. The deeper problems with Komen include a lack of checks and balances and a strong connection to Republican politics.
Komen Foundation CEO Nancy Brinker, a well-known Republican donor who traded favors with George W. Bush, is both the chair of the Komen board and its president, while her son and several close friends serve on the board. "A review of the board of directors of Komen...reveals that Brinker has the likely votes to control board decisions at any given time, and that those votes are either Republican stalwarts or individuals personally loyal to her," Buzzflash reports. In addition, Komen is one of many nonprofit giants with fairly high executive compensation (read all about it here (PDF).
Still, those who study the nonprofit world are less concerned with the more than comfortable salaries at Komen, and more with how the organization is structured. Lori Stahl at "She the People" spoke to experts:
James Abruzzo, a management and global business instructor at Rutgers Business School, said the picture that emerges from the Komen documents does raise several concerns, however.
First, he said, Brinker’s duals roles at Komen may hobble the decision-making process. “When you have a chairman who’s also the president, you have a lack of checks and balances,’’ Abruzzo said. “The founder generally populates the board with friends and associates.’’
And that's where the problems come in.
3. Right-wing Republicans Karen Handel and Ari Fleischer both had direct influences on this decision that was so fateful for Komen's brand.
Karen Handel, a Tea Party type who came on board as a senior VP recently at Komen, has been the subject of much speculation about her link with this policy, despite repeated denials from the company, and leaks making it clear those denials are false.
At the Huffington Post, Laura Bassett received a particularly damning leak from within the organization:
"Karen Handel was the prime instigator of this effort, and she herself personally came up with investigation criteria," the source, who requested anonymity for professional reasons, told HuffPost. "She said, 'If we just say it's about investigations, we can defund Planned Parenthood and no one can blame us for being political.'"
Emails between Komen leadership on the day the Planned Parenthood decision was announced, which were reviewed by HuffPost under the condition they not be published, confirm the source's description of Handel's sole "authority" in crafting and implementing the Planned Parenthood policy.
Meanwhile, another influential right-winger was involved in this catastrophic moment for the company, reports AdAge: "Former George W. Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer, who had previously been brought in by Komen to assist with an executive search for a senior VP-communications, provided informal advice. "When Nancy called me, I gave her my two cents worth," he said via email.
These kinds of facts, as well as the stories of the Brinkers' history as big Bush donors, have torn the "pink curtain" off of Komen, revealing it to be far less neutral than its bland facade would indicate.
4. Komen has led lobbying efforts against common-sense healthcare bills for years--even those that would help women.
In 2009, activists trained their ire on Komen because it retained Hadassah Lieberman--just as her husband turned against the public option in the healthcare reform fight. They cited her own ties to the pharmaceutical industry.
Komen has had a long history of lobbying for the wrong things--a shoddy Patients' Bill of Rights, among others -- and has stood in the way of research into environmental causes of cancer.
This history is well documented. Back in 2002, AlterNet ran a story from Southern Exposureby Mary Ann Swissler that remains one of the most comprehensive exposés of the nonprofit giant's extensive insider Beltway lobbying and corporate ties--ties that run much deeper than sponsorships by yogurt and soda corporations.
It's no accident the Komen side favors the Republicans. A July 12, 2001 agreement between the President and five companies to run a Medicare prescription discount card program for Medicare patients, included a company called Caremark Rx where Nancy Brinker was on the board of directors, according to financial records. Another vendor, Merck-Medco, is one of the many drug companies found in the Komen investment portfolio. (Nancy Brinker resigned all board seats, including Komen, when she was appointed). If approved, the discount cards would provide up to a 10 percent discount on brand-name drugs.
The story shows the link between the Brinkers, their circles and legislation they lobbied for which left poor women and the environment frequently in the lurch, and aided GOP politicians and big corporations. Swissler profiles a small group of activists outmaneuvered by Komen and its huge, feel-good races:
The races, they say, merely focus women on finding a medical cure for breast cancer, and away from environmental conditions causing it, the problems of the uninsured, and political influence of corporations over the average patient.
5. While the PR win of this brouhaha belongs to Planned Parenthood, the backlash has brought up some unfortunate myths -- e.g. "abortion has a medical link to cancer."
There is no known link between abortion and breast cancer. This false idea has been circulated both leading up to and in the wake of this decision by Komen, most notably by Rick Santorum.
From the American Cancer Society, hardly a bastion of liberalism: "At this time, the scientific evidence does not support the notion that abortion of any kind raises the risk of breast cancer or any other type of cancer." Every major study supports this finding.
Nancy Brinker herself called such rumors an "old wives tale" in her memoir, in the very same section where she mounts a vigorous defense of the very Planned Parenthood grants she was prepared to end last week (after an attack by the religious-run Curves fitness centers):
"The grants in question supplied breast health counseling, screening, and treatment to rural women, poor women, Native American women, many women of color who were underserved--if served at all--in areas where Planned Parenthood facilities were often the only infrastructure available. Though it meant losing corporate money from Curves, we were not about to turn our backs on these women."
In the subsequent pages, Brinker dismisses the "ridiculous old wives' tale that abortion causes breast cancer."
So why, Jodi Jacobsen of RH reality Check asks, did Komen add Jane Abraham, of the anti-choice Susan B. Anthony List to its board? "Abraham is also closely affiliated with the Nurturing Network, a global network of crisis pregnancy centers," Jacobsen writes, adding "Groups like Nurturing Network are the nucleus of lies about abortion and breast cancer. "
6. The backlash against Komen was a widespread grassoots revolt, not a conspiracy by the "liberal media" (sorry, Ross Douthat):
Ross Douthat, unsurprisingly, uses his column space to bemoan what he claims is a media erasure of American "pro-life" voices -- but he misses the story that many American women were furious at the decision regardless of their feelings on abortions. Viral videos and stories of women began to pop up talking about how their cancer didn't give a crap about who was in office or who was "pro-life"--and therefore their cancer organization shouldn't either.
Deanna Zandt, who created the Planned Parenthood Saved Me tumblr, has a post explaining who was coming to her site, which was gathering so much steam it hit the mainstream media. "You might think our crazy traffic came from those media mentions. Shockingly, no -- most of the hits came before the major media. So, to repeat: telling and sharing our stories matters," she writes.
The media saw this grassroots outrage growing on one hand -- and then got crickets, or contradictory information from within Komen. And thus, a narrative was born.