"Death Panels" and Big Tobacco

This week's issue of Rolling Stone has an illuminating article, "The Lie Machine," by Tim Dickinson on anti-heath reform spin. Dickinson's article quotes internal corporate memos showing how Big Tobacco spun media stories about health care reform in 1994 and how its progeny are striking again.

Among other things, the RS article excerpts a memo by Philip Morris describing how the company worked "off-the-record" with a right-wing "think" tank, the Manhattan Institute (MI), and author to manufacture an "exposé in The New Republic (TNR) on what the Clinton plan means to you." The TNR article, titled "No Exit," was the tip of the spear against health care reform in 1994, and was part of Big Tobacco's strategy to place stories opposing the health care plan with "friendly contacts in the media."

MI's Lawrence Mone issued a statement in response to the memos that noted Philip Morris' influence, asserting that: "At no time were [the author's] ideas influenced or controlled by anyone but the author herself." The term "control" might have been more difficult to dispute, but "not influenced" seems counter-factual to me; the Philip Morris memo speaks for itself and it speaks "influence," to say the least.

The "No Exit" article got the cover of TNR and the attention of George Will. It was then magnified by the right-wing echo chamber and these misleading claims were etched into the public's mind about the reforms. Years later the article was repudiated by TNR, but not before it launched the career of its author (or rather its co-author, given Big Tobacco's invisible hand), Betsy McCaughey.

You may not have heard of her back then but you've certainly seen her recent work. She's the woman behind the erroneous "death panel" talking points that made the rounds this August. The New York Daily News described the timeline of how Betsy birthed the notorious and misleading "death panel" claims that were spread by the echo chamber this summer:

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McCaughey got the ball rolling on ex-Sen. Fred Thompson's radio show on July 16, when she called the bill "a vicious assault on elderly people" that will "cut your life short." She then wrote a column July 24 that claimed Obama advisers don't want to "give much care to a grandmother with Parkinson's or a child with cerebral palsy." Days later, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) recited much of the article on the House floor. Sarah Palin then unleashed her "death panel" comment, basing it on Bachmann's floor speech, and the firestorm raged.

Watch Jon Stewart take her to task for her misleading claims on this and other issues in the health care debate. Still, given how far her propaganda penetrated, it seems Betsy learned well the tools of her trade from the tobacco companies that funded and helped craft her "independent" research early in her career.

It makes you wonder who's paying Betsy's bills and helping with her "research" this time around. She's been at the Hudson Institute, another think tank funded by the right and big corporations that want to give perches to people like Betsy and partisan operative Frank Luntz, oh and scoundrels like Scooter Libby who joined Hudson direct from Dick Cheney's office and then was convicted and pardoned by then-President George W. Bush. Hudson has reported receiving over $9 million in annual funding, including some taxpayer dollars through federal grants during the Bush Administration. I'd like to know not just who's buying Betsy's misleading spin this time around (besides Sarah Palin, tea-baggers and other dupes) but who's paying for it, literally.

In the meantime, for more details on CMD's in-depth analysis of linkages between the tobacco industry's PR machine and the current health care debate, check out Anne Landman's blog, "Big Tobacco, Big Insurance and You". And, visit our tobacco pages on our SourceWatch site for more original research and analysis about the industry's lies and spin. And, of course, please check out Wendell Potter's blogs on health insurance spin and needed reforms.

Lisa Graves

Lisa Graves is President of the Board of the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) and co-founder of Documented Investigations. She served as CMD's executive director for eight years from July 2009 through October 2017.

CMD launched its award-winning ALEC Exposed investigation after a whistleblower gave Lisa all of the model bills secretly voted on by lobbyists and lawmakers. CMD also publishes PRWatch.org, SourceWatch.org, and ExposedbyCMD.org.