Michael Moore Meets Wendell Potter on “Countdown” With Keith Olbermann, Part 1
Michael Moore Meets Wendell Potter on “Countdown” With Keith Olbermann, Part 2
OLBERMANN: In his book “Deadly Spin” former health insurance executive Wendell Potter describes his industry’s efforts to de-legitimize Michael Moore’s 2007 documentary “Sicko.”
According to Mr. Potter, the industry at large had a plan to figuratively, quote, “push Moore off the cliff.”
In our third story tonight, my guests, Wendell Potter and Michael Moore. We’ll discuss cliffs and pushes for the first time. Of course the premise of “Sicko” was to highlight the fundamental flaws in this country’s for-profit health care system as well as the benefits of universal health care at a time when no one in this country was even really talking about either.
According to Potter, insurers feared the movie could crater their industry. So to subvert the movie, Potter says American Health Insurance Plans, AHIP, funded a campaign to smear “Sicko.”
The principals, a public relations firm APCO which in turn created a front group called Health Care American and some media outlets took the bait. June, 2007, “USA Today” prints an op-ed critical of “Sicko’s” premise. The author Sarah Berk was identified as executive director of Health Care America, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization.
No acknowledging that Berk was essentially on the payroll of the health insurance industry. The same Sarah Berk showed up in that infamous CNN’s Sanjay Gupta report on “Sicko.” Berk, never identified in the piece, told CNN’s audience that Michael Moore, quote, “played fast and loose with the facts.”
An ironic quote in retrospect.
Joining me now as promised Academy Award-winning filmmaker, Michael Moore, and the former head of Corporate Communications at CIGNA, now senior fellow on health care at the Center for Media and Democracy, author of the new book “Deadly Spin,” Wendell Potter.
Gentlemen, good evening. Thanks for your time.
WENDELL POTTER: Thank you. Hey, Michael.
OLBERMANN: Wendell, on your blog today, you apologized to Michael Moore. Is there anything you’d like to say to him more or less in person here?
POTTER: Well, I’m sorry for the part that I played in attacking the movie. I did see the movie actually twice before it was screened across the country. Once in Sacramento when you had the initial screening an then the official premier in your hometown in Bel-Air.
I knew when I saw the movie the first time that you had really gotten a lot of it right. And I was really not very happy at all to have to be a part of the effort to discredit the movie. But I was still working for the industry then. So my apologies.
MOORE: Well, first of all, Wendell, thank you for saying that. And certainly, the apology is accepted. In fact, I think of you as a real hero. You’ve done something very brave and courageous, giving up a very good job and knowing that you would not earn that income again and probably be vilified by this industry.
And to come forward — I mean I have been making these movies for over 20 years. And I’ve never had a top executive come forward and admit what you’ve admitted. And — and yet, I’ve been dealing with this with every movie since “Roger and Me” when — I remember actually I was on “The Tonight Show,” it was my first time ever on national TV.
And 20 minutes before the show, they’re telling me that some executive from General Motors is there with a packet of information about Michael Moore and trying to smear me to the people, the producers of “The Tonight Show.” And it was that same line that — your first, the Health Care America, the fake organization, that CNN used and “USA Today” used and so many other media outlets used when “Sicko” came out, saying he plays fast with the truth.
And I’ve listened to that for 20 years. And it’s always a lie because all the facts in my film are always true. And I am very, very careful with this. I take it so seriously. And — because I want to win the political argument that I’m trying to make. So the very first and foremost thing is that things have to be correct.
And so when you were working at CIGNA and what — you know, your insurance, all the insurance executives apparently — I read your book this weekend, all got together and met a number of times and you came to the small village in Michigan where I was living and I didn’t realize it until I read your blog this morning that actually you had — we had met before.
POTTER: That’s right.
MOORE: And that you were there, as you said, in the blog this morning, to spy on me and to do reconnaissance on the film. And it was — you know I’ve had to go through a lot of this stuff for so long. And I’m just so — you know, if you don’t mind, Keith, I don’t mean to — could I ask Wendell a question?
OLBERMANN: Go ahead, please, Michael, please.
MOORE: I — I mean — maybe we can — this is the first time we’ve talked. So maybe we can talk later.
POTTER: I hope so.
MOORE: But I just — you mentioned that your son. You took your son to the screening when you came to the little town that I’m in in Michigan. And I’m just wondering, you said that he was — that — I mean you sat next to him during these two hours. He is watching on the screen what you do for a living, which, as you say in your book, contributing to the deaths of 45,000 Americans every single year because of this for-profit health insurance system we have.
It causes that many deaths every year. And you say in the book that you were a part of that. And I’m just wondering, as you were sitting there next to your son, being a dad myself, and after the movie, he wants to come up and have his picture taken with me. You say this morning in your blog that he is telling you I’m his hero, yet he is watching what you do for a living.
At that time, I’m just curious what that must have done to you or how you felt going through that experience?
POTTER: He knew that I was having problems with the job that I was having to do, that I was having misgivings about what I was supposed to be doing as a spokesman for the industry.
And as you depicted in the movie, a lot of the people in this country have insurance but it’s very, very inadequate. And people are finding every day that the insurance that they think they have is going to be there for them really isn’t.
And he saw me be very affected by that movie. It’s hard to watch that movie and not almost tear up. Many times here in the movie. And he and I talked. And I told him that I was thinking of leaving my job. I didn’t know how I could do it. But I felt like I should do something other than what I was doing.
I just didn’t feel very good about having to do what I had done to spy on your movies, to go to the back of theater and take notes as I was watching it and — you know then come back and know that I was going to have to be on the front line of the calls from the media when it did start showing nationwide.
And people would be calling me about the people who were CIGNA members in the movie. That was going to be tough and I knew it was going to be tough.
OLBERMANN: When — go ahead, Michael.
MOORE: Yes. No, I was just — at the time when you saw CNN falling, taking the bait and “USA Today” and “TIME” magazine and, you know, much of the media using the actual language that you and your guys developed —
MOORE: — on referring to me as against American principles, socialist, all this stuff and of course FOX News then taking it —
MOORE: You know, running with it. I mean, that must felt like — I mean it must be a real victory when you’re in those meetings, having a sense that when you can actually get our major media organizations, supposedly responsible journalists to just repeat verbatim your talking points.
POTTER: It was just amazing. We had a clipping service. I mean we – – every day we would get articles that would appear that had our talking points in them. And this, by the way, is a 23-page PR plan that was developed and carried out against the movie.
I was at the meeting when it was explained. And I’m not supposed to have this. This was something that was actually obtained by Bill Moyers when he did an interview with me last year. But —
MOORE: Could I just read a line — actually I pulled up Bill Moyer’s thing. There is a line in that plan that you guys put together where you said, I’m quoting, “The worse case scenario would be that ‘Sicko’ would evolve into a sustained populist movement.”
MOORE: That that was your worst fear.
MOORE: That this movie could make that happen.
POTTER: That’s exactly right. And the industry monitored public opinion from that moment prior to the premier of the movie or the national release of the movie until, you know, many weeks after the premier just to see what — how public opinion had changed and also monitored the box office receipts of the movie and all these clips that we got.
Many of them were placed by Health Care America, which, as we’ve talked before, was a front group and a very successful one at that.
OLBERMANN: Michael, hold on a second, I’ve got to take a —
POTTER: Because they know — they know if there was a populist movement against them.
OLBERMANN: Michael? Michael?
MOORE: They know if there was a populist movement against them, that’d be the end of their —
OLBERMANN: Michael, forgive me.
OLBERMANN: I’ve got to take a commercial break. If you guys can stick around —
MOORE: Sure. Sorry.
OLBERMANN: — we’ll do this after — obviously, we have to sell something.
MOORE: I’m so sorry, Keith.
OLBERMANN: That’s right. I was staying back deliberately. Michael Moore and Wendell Potter, stand by. We’re going to take a quick break and resume where we were in just a moment.
OLBERMANN: We’ll resume where we were now in the first conversation between the former CIGNA executive, Wendell Potter, now an insurance industry whistleblower, and Michael Moore, the film director of “Sicko.”
Michael, you were saying before the commercial interrupted, you tried to follow up with a question to Wendell.
MOORE: Well, I was just — I’m sorry. And I just — this is the first time we have had a chance to talk. And I just want to say, first of all, you’re the Daniel Ellsberg of corporate America.
I mean, what that man did during Vietnam helped to end that war. And it would be my wildest dream that what your courageous action has done here to — and not just about my movie and me. People should read this book.
I mean it is — the whole book lays it right out there about how the health insurance companies had bamboozled this country and lied, just outright lied about things. And it— to have you say in the book that what I said in the film that everything in there is true and that this is — that is what it’s like in Canada. That people do have it better. They do live three years longer.
It just — I just was just amazed as I turned every page of this book. And I was just, you know, thinking that this big fear of theirs, that there might be a populist uprising against the insurance companies because I believe that if people listen to what you have said and what you’re righting that eventually that will happen because people will see them for the organized crime syndicate that they are.
That’s what they’re set — they’re set up not to help you with your health. They are set up to make a profit. And the only way they make a big profit is to deny as much health care as possible to the people trying to get help. That’s the bottom line.
It’s a sick, rotten system. And for you to come forward like this is just — it’s just really — I’m just — I just can’t say enough for what you have done.
POTTER: Well, thank you, Michael. But you know I’ve been doing this for not even 18 months and you and many other people have been advocating for, you know, good health care reform for much longer than I have. So I’m glad to finally be on what I think is the right side this time and to do what I can to try to pull the curtains back so people can see exactly what these companies do to win and to manipulate public opinion, to influence public policy which is at the core front of what I’ve been writing about.
OLBERMANN: Let me jump in, Wendell. APCO, that PR film, issues a statement today that seems to contrasts some of the previous remarks you made about this personal APCO research on Mr. Moore.
Let me quote them. “APCO did not conduct research on Michael Moore’s family. We did not attempt to suppress turnout for his movie.”
Explain what you know about the personal research that was done on Michael Moore and his family.
POTTER: Yes, I think whoever wrote that, I think, she was just protesting too much. The industry did an enormous amount of research on what we thought was going to be in the movie and on Michael Moore as a movie maker.
I myself did. I have seen every one of Michael Moore’s movies, read all three of his books, I’ve seen all 24 episodes of “The Awful Truth.” I know where you went to school. I know when you dropped out of college. I know who you are married to. And so I know a lot about you.
Everybody in the industry knows a lot about you. We needed to know as much as we could, not that we necessarily were going to be using that if we didn’t have to. One of the things that I was afraid about doing what I’m doing was that I would be attacked not by the industry directly by but its allies which shows to try to attack my character and my reputation. So that what goes on in a lot of the campaigns like this.
MOORE: When this — when you were doing this research and this spying on myself and my family, what — I mean, to what ends, really? Because, you know, obviously, they don’t want to — they don’t really want to have the debate on the issue, whether or not a for-profit health insurance system is what’s really best for Americans.
MOORE: They want to do it — it seemed like their main goal was, if people get in to see that film, we’re doomed. So we’ve got to make sure as few people see that film as possible. And the way to do that is to smear Michael Moore, call him anti—American, say that he is not telling the truth.
And as you said the other day, you said that you — that you guys were ready for plan B. If that failed, if the movie was getting too much traction, that it might be necessary to push me off a cliff —
MOORE: — were the words. What exactly did that mean?
POTTER: Well, I was in that meeting and those words indeed were said. And it was not literal, obviously. But I think it meant that we would do what we had to do to create ads and op-eds that we would get conservative pundits to place in newspapers with the whole objective of, as they call it, reframing the debate, to try to move the attention from them to you as a filmmaker.
MOORE: I know we’re running out of time but I just — I notice a lot of the comments that Bush made about me in his recent book, it’s like the exact language that’s in the health industry insurance plan about me, about what names to call me.
MOORE: How to refer to me. Do you — I mean, and I notice on this — on your group, you had Bush administration officials as part of — were on the board of the fake organization, Health Care America. I mean what —
MOORE: What’s the connection there?
POTTER: Yes. We had a lot of Republicans and a lot of conservatives on the board. And people who were pollsters for the Republicans and — were becoming pollsters for the industry and for Health Care America. It was all connected.
OLBERMANN: Gentlemen, I’m out of time but it’s been time extraordinarily well-spent.
Wendell Potter, former CIGNA executive, and Michael Moore, of course. Thank you, gentlemen, appreciate it.
POTTER: Thank you. Thank you.
MOORE: Thank you. Thank you, Wendell.
Here’s the Sicko chapter from Potter’s book.