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The Fear of Sicko: CIGNA Whistleblower Wendell Potter Apologizes to Michael Moore for PR Smear Campaign; Moore Says Industry Was Afraid Film Would Cause a “Tipping Point” for Healthcare Reform

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We host a joint interview with Academy Award-winning filmmaker Michael Moore and Wendell Potter, who was the head of corporate communications for the health insurance giant CIGNA when Moore’s film Sicko was released in 2007. Potter left the company in 2008 and has since become the industry’s most prominent whistleblower. In the interview, Potter apologizes for his role in the industry’s attack on Moore and the film.
Moore accepted his apology but acknowledged to Potter that “I think we both know this is much larger than what was done to me or in the movie.” Moore said that the industry was willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to “stop a movie” because they were afraid it “could trigger a populist uprising against” what he called a “sick system that will allow companies to profit off of us when we fall ill.” [includes rush transcript]

Confidential AHIP docs on Sicko [Download PDF 1 || PDF 2]

Related Story

StoryNov 17, 2010“Push Michael Moore Off a Cliff”: Health Insurance Whistleblower Wendell Potter Details How the Industry Attacked Michael Moore’s Film Sicko
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today with an update on a story that’s gotten a lot of attention since Democracy Now! first covered it last week. The former healthcare industry spokesperson Wendell Potter has apologized to filmmaker Michael Moore for his role in the insurance industry’s attack on Moore’s documentary Sicko.

In his book, Deadly Spin: An Insurance Company Insider Speaks Out on How Corporate PR is Killing Health Care and Deceiving Americans, Wendell Potter reveals the insurance industry funded a public relations campaign to discredit Moore and the film.

Wendell Potter discussed the campaign on Democracy Now! last week. Then MSNBC host Keith Olbermann picked up our interview on his show Countdown.

KEITH OLBERMANN: Potter telling Democracy Now! and Amy Goodman that his company contacted — contracted, rather, a PR firm to, quote, “defame” Michael Moore, to discredit him, to figuratively, quote, “push Michael Moore off a cliff.”

AMY GOODMAN: But they were doing an investigation into him personally?

WENDELL POTTER: Well, absolutely. We knew as much about him probably as he knows about himself.

AMY GOODMAN: About his wife, about his kid, about —

WENDELL POTTER: Oh, yeah. You know, it’s important to know everything that you might be able to use in some kind of a campaign against someone, to discredit them professionally and often personally.

AMY GOODMAN: And did you use that?

WENDELL POTTER: You use it if necessary.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Wendell Potter was the head of corporate communications for the insurance giant CIGNA and, before that, Humana. But he was the chief spokesperson for CIGNA when Sicko was released. He left CIGNA in 2008, has since become the insurance industry’s most prominent whistleblower.

On Monday, Potter wrote on his blog, quote, “I need to apologize to Michael Moore for the role I played in the insurance industry’s public relations attack campaign against him and Sicko, which was about the increasingly unfair and dysfunctional U.S. health care system,” said Potter.

Last night, Keith Olbermann had Wendell Potter and Michael Moore on in their first joint interview.

MICHAEL MOORE: It’s the first time we’ve had a chance to talk. And I just — I mean, Wendell, I just want to say, first of all, you — I mean, you’re the Daniel Ellsberg of corporate America.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, today on Democracy Now! we’re continuing the conversation. Michael Moore is on the phone with us. He’s the Academy Award-winning filmmaker, the director behind Sicko and many other films, including Capitalism: A Love Story. He’s joining us on the telephone from Florida. And Wendell Potter is joining us from Philadelphia, now a senior fellow on healthcare for the Center for Media and Democracy.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now!

You’ve issued that public letter, Wendell Potter, to Michael Moore, but I was wondering if you could talk about this apology here, if you could talk directly to Michael.

WENDELL POTTER: Well, I will. And I really —- it’s a very sincere apology. I’m getting some feedback here, but the -—

AMY GOODMAN: It’s OK. We don’t hear it, so you can just talk.

WENDELL POTTER: OK, the apology was sincere, because I wanted to make sure that Michael understood that what I was doing was not what I really now feel was the appropriate thing to do. I was acting on behalf of the insurance industry to — as I told Keith Olbermann and Michael last night, I even flew to Bellaire, Michigan, to be there for the premiere, the official premiere, of the film Sicko, taking notes in the back of the theater and even posing for a photograph without telling Michael who I was and who worked for.

And I know, after having seen that movie, actually more than once, that Michael Moore took very great care to make sure that it was an accurate portrayal of the U.S. healthcare system and also systems abroad that do a much better job of caring for their citizens, making sure that every person in the countries abroad, that are developed countries, have access to quality healthcare.

We now have more than 51 million people who don’t have care or access to care because they’re uninsured. But even almost a worse problem, to a large extent, is the fact that a lot of people do have insurance. They’re paying premiums to insurance companies every month, and they’re finding out, when it’s too late, that the insurance is often either inadequate, or they’re told by an insurance company bureaucrat that what they need is not going to be a covered benefit.

AMY GOODMAN: We have that photo here of you and your son Alex, Wendell, getting your picture taken with Michael Moore when Sicko came out. Where was this?

WENDELL POTTER: That was at the — I think the Bellaire Bar and Grill, which is across the street from the theater. It was just before the official first screening of the movie in the U.S., in a little town where Michael and his wife have a home, or had a home. And I had flown to Detroit, rented a car, and drove up there. Alex went with me. He has always been a movie buff and a big fan of Michael Moore’s, and I wanted him to go to experience this.

And I, frankly, had seen the movie a few days before in Sacramento. That was the unofficial first screening in the U.S. at an event sponsored, at least partly, by the California Nurses Association. So I knew what was in the movie. I really wanted to go back again to see if something might have changed, but I was affected by the movie the first time. There’s no doubt about it. And I wanted my son to come and experience the movie with me.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Michael Moore, do you remember that moment in Michigan when this man and his son came up to you, which I’m sure for you happens thousands of times, to get their picture taken, and Alex got the poster signed?

MICHAEL MOORE: Hi, Amy, and good morning, Wendell. And again, Wendell —

WENDELL POTTER: Good morning.

MICHAEL MOORE: — I really wanted to say just how much I appreciate your bravery in coming forward and the things you’ve said and done, this incredible, wonderful book that you’ve written. And I, of course, you know, accept your apology.

And I think we both know this is much larger than, you know, what was done to me or the movie, because, as you say in the first sentence of your book, there are 45,000 people in America every year that die for the simple fact that they don’t have health insurance, and that you were one of the people that helped to make those deaths happen. So it’s a very powerful opening of this incredible book.

But, Amy, to answer your question, I just saw this photo for the first time yesterday, when Wendell posted it. And remarkably enough, even though I’ve seen Wendell on television here over the last year and his testimony in front of Congress and the good work that he’s been doing, when I actually saw the photo yesterday, I did have a memory of it. And you’re right, I’ve had my picture taken a few times in the last three years, so normally that wouldn’t stand out.

But what struck me yesterday and what sort of triggered the memory was that you have to understand the screening that was taking place, I decided to have this very first screening of the film, after I got back from the Cannes Film Festival, in this little village. And it’s a very, very small, tiny — not even one stoplight, one blinking light — little, tiny town that has probably less than a thousand people in it. And so, everybody knows everybody. And we decided to have this little reception before the screening in this little bar across the street. And clearly, Wendell and his son were people that none of us knew, and I didn’t know and didn’t recognize, and didn’t really think probably anything of it at the time, because obviously it’s a free country and people do cross township lines to see movies in other towns and whatever, and probably just thought that at the time. But nonetheless, he did, and probably did stand out not only to myself, but to my friends and family who were there, and that’s primarily who was there — you know, this was a fairly small crowd of people — because he wasn’t from there, and he wasn’t from this little town.

And it just — the amount of effort it would take, when he says that he — when he flew into Detroit and got in a car, it’s at least a four-hour drive, if not longer, from Detroit. It’s way up in the woods of northern Michigan.

And, you know, I’m only talking to Wendell for the second time in my life here — actually, the third now, counting the photo that was taken there at the premiere. But I have to say, and just to be completely honest, Amy, when I watched your show last week, and Wendell, when you were on it, and when you got to this part that you just played, where you talked about the sort of spying that went on and the information gathering, and knowing, as you said, as much about myself as I know about myself, and when you asked him, Amy, about — you know, even about his wife and his child and all that, I actually had to stop watching it, because it — you know, I mean, I do what I do because I think it’s the right thing to do, and I spend — I’ve spent, you know, most of my adult life doing what I do. I’ve also seen the impact that this has had on my family and those close to me, because of the enormous amount of attack that I have gone through since Roger & Me, that started with an intense disinformation campaign by General Motors at that time, saying many of the same things that Wendell and his group said about me when Sicko came out. And while much of the language that’s used against me, both from the PR group that the insurance companies hired to the henchmen from General Motors 21 years ago, much of that language and much of that attack is focused around that this guy, Michael Moore, hates America, he hates your way of life, he wants to ruin your way of life, and if he gets his way, we’re all heading down the road toward socialism, communism and total ruin, and godlessness and everything else.

And for a goodly number people who are sitting in front of Fox Television or listening to Rush Limbaugh, taking those — who then take the talking points developed by the groups that were hired by the insurance companies and these other groups that I’ve done my — you know, made my films about, whether it’s the National Rifle Association or General Motors or Nike or the Bush White House, they don’t take kindly to this. And it’s not just because I’ve made the film, but it’s because so many people go to see these films, and it crosses over in a way that — they’re very used to those of us on the left having a — you know, talking amongst ourselves, essentially. We talk to the Church of the Left, and everything is fine and dandy. And we get all riled up, and that’s about where it stops. And it’s not often that one of us gets to reach a mainstream mass audience and gets our work published by mainstream publishing houses or carried on mainstream television networks or distributed by large Hollywood studios. Very, very rare. That’s what makes it dangerous.

And that is what then makes these groups, all the way from General Motors 20 years ago to Wendell’s group and then the insurance companies here just a couple of years ago, where they go on this kind of very vicious attack. And these attacks inspire people that are maybe not as stable as they are, if I can say that, and this has wreaked a lot of havoc and damage to both myself and those close to me. And as I said to you back in April, Amy, when I was there with you and Patti Smith at the opening of your studio, I don’t really like to talk about this very much publicly, and I’m not going to say anything more specifically about it at this point. But suffice it to say that this kind of spying on me — corporate spying that then leads to disinformation campaigns, smear campaigns, and revving up the hate machine on the hate networks — has not bode well for what I’ve — you know, for me or those around me, and has given me pause, often, to question whether or not I should really continue doing this, just for all the normal reasons that any human being, you know, would question themselves when faced with the kind of attack that happens when groups like the health insurance companies’ groups that got together and who, according to Wendell in his book, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to go after me personally and to go after this film.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to this discussion. On the line with us from Florida is Michael Moore, the Academy Award-winning filmmaker. What we’re talking about today is his film Sicko and how it was targeted by not only CIGNA, Wendell Potter’s former employer — he was the chief spokesperson for CIGNA, and before that, Humana, but this was a coordinated campaign, Wendell Potter says, he wasn’t just coordinating for CIGNA, but when Sicko began to get buzz, even before it came out, the insurance industry got together to figure out how to target the film and the filmmaker, Michael Moore.

This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. Wendell Potter, former spokesperson for CIGNA, now whistleblower, and Michael Moore are our guests. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: We’re speaking with two people. One had the other in his crosshairs for quite a while. Wendell Potter, former chief spokesperson for CIGNA, before that, Humana, now senior fellow on healthcare for the Center for Media and Democracy and author of a new book called Deadly Spin: An Insurance Company Insider Speaks Out on How Corporate PR is Killing Health Care and Deceiving Americans. And one of the chapters in that book, well, deals directly with the campaign against Sicko and Michael Moore, Academy Award-winning filmmaker, is joining us on the telephone.

I’m looking at, Wendell, “Ensuring Accurate Perceptions of the Health Insurance Industry,” May 2007. It’s about two-dozen-page analysis of how the insurance companies should deal with Michael Moore, a total strategy. I’m looking at page three, “Situation Analysis: Media Coverage.” It shows the media coverage — New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Bloomberg, AP — that Sicko was getting, and it says, “Coverage has been largely 'cinematic.'” Then, “Political reporters are beginning to cover the fallout from the movie… The film’s vignettes are getting independent coverage… SiCKO is a hit with bloggers.” Can you talk about who CIGNA and other insurance companies hired? I know we did this last week, but because it’s so rarely talked about and because the rest of the media actually uses the front groups and acts like they’re consumer organizations and consumers who are concerned, I think it bears repeating again. Explain what APCO is and how you moved forward in targeting Michael.

WENDELL POTTER: I will. And as I explained in Deadly Spin, the insurance industry and other big industries have hired APCO, in particular, but also other PR firms, to do this kind of work to, as they put it, reframe the debate. And the insurance industry’s trade association, America’s Health Insurance Plans, that’s the entity that actually hired APCO. The way it works is that your premium dollars and mine, we pay them to our insurance company, they skim a significant portion of it off, not only for profits and to pay CEOs, but also for lobbying and for disinformation campaigns like we’re talking about here. That money goes as kind of a special offering, if you will, to AHIP, America’s Health Insurance Plans. They in turn hire APCO or another big PR firm to develop and begin to implement this kind of a campaign.

AMY GOODMAN: Wendell Potter —

WENDELL POTTER: A lot of it involves —

AMY GOODMAN: APCO — just for a minute, APCO is “AP.” That’s Arnold Porter, the big law firm in Washington?

WENDELL POTTER: AP is — the AP, A and P, is from Arnold & Porter, you’re right. That was a — yeah, it’s a big law firm that in years past has been one of the firms that has represented the tobacco industry. The industry felt that it needed to have some help in the court of public opinion as well as in the real courts, so APCO Worldwide was born. And it has done just that. It has served as a means for corporations that have legal issues or legislative issues to try to influence public opinion, to influence how legislation is written and how the courts and judges rule on cases involving them.

AMY GOODMAN: And the issue of people like [Sarah] Berk, whoever she is — you can explain — and others acting as their consumers, the organization called, what, American Health Care?

WENDELL POTTER: Yes, as I explain in Deadly Spin, the front group that was actually created was Health Care America. And it was — I have learned subsequently — in fact, it’s kind of ironic. I was called to task by an executive at APCO for saying that it was created solely to attack Sicko by the insurance industry, or for the insurance industry. I didn’t realize until after getting that information that it was actually created several months earlier by APCO for the big drug companies, which — they thought that they were going to be in the crosshairs of Sicko. So it was initially created for the big pharmaceutical — or by the — with money from the big pharmaceutical companies. It was repurposed after — as the movie was about to be screened for the insurance industry and for all big special interests, frankly, that have a stake or have a financial interest in the status quo of our financial — of our healthcare system. That’s really what’s going on here.

MICHAEL MOORE: Can I just clarify something here?

AMY GOODMAN: Yes, Michael Moore.

MICHAEL MOORE: Wendell, let me just clarify something here, just so that no one gets confused about APCO and Health Care America. While they may have been put together months earlier, initially by pharmaceutical company money, it was still — the intent of it was always, and still, about to attack me and to attack Sicko. And as soon as Sicko left the theaters and as soon as the Oscars were over — the film was — we were nominated for best documentary that year — and I’ve put this on my website, you can see where Health Care America’s website just essentially shuts down, and the so-called organization — remember, it’s a fake organization — just disappears.

The reason the pharmaceutical companies had jumped in before Wendell’s companies had jumped in was because they and everyone else thought Sicko was going to be about the pharmaceutical companies, which was not exactly a mistake, because while we were making the film — and we had announced in Cannes back in 2004, actually, that our next film would be about the health industry. And for some reason, the newspapers and the media started talking about it as a film about the pharmaceutical companies, which we found kind of funny, because most of our — we knew most of our attention was going to be directed toward health insurance companies, which we considered essentially to be a form of organized — legal organized crime, because these companies provide protection for you and stick you up in order to do that. And then, often when you need the protection, they aren’t there to help you, much like the mob. Actually, the mob probably does a better job, if you pay them for protection, than the health insurance companies do.

And the reason we chose to go after that instead of the pharmaceuticals is, in part — I mean, there needs to be, and have been, actually, great documentaries made about the pharmaceutical companies, but we actually do need medicine. I mean, medicine isn’t a bad idea. And somehow, we need to figure out a way to do that, where it’s not about the billions in profits that are being made.

But so, anyways, the pharmaceuticals started this whole thing before the insurance companies, thinking they were the target. We didn’t dissuade them of thinking that. It gave us great cover while we were doing our film on the insurance companies, to have them, you know, the insurance companies, not thinking at the beginning that it was about them. And the pharmaceutical companies — Wendell, I don’t know if you know this, but long before your groups got together to do the spying on me and do the research and do the disinformation, they were already very much at work. And whistleblowers in pharmaceutical companies would send me memos and reports and studies while we were making the film.

There was one pharmaceutical company hired a psychologist to do a psychological profile of me. And I don’t know how this information was obtained, I don’t know how he did this, but when I saw the secret memo, where it was essentially distributed to the top executives of this pharmaceutical companies, and it’s to prepare them for in case myself or my camera crew or whatever encountered them to ask them questions about the pharmaceutical companies, that the psychological profile of me was to help them essentially get me off the topic or distract me, to give them a few seconds or minutes to get out of the situation they were in, you know, finding themselves on camera with me. And so, this psychological profile, I went down this list of things, and the very first thing it said on the list was “To get him to stop talking about the pharmaceutical companies, compliment him on his weight loss, even if he hasn’t lost any.”

AMY GOODMAN: Michael, I —

WENDELL POTTER: Michael, I might want to tell you —

MICHAEL MOORE: Number two was, get him to talk about — yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Yes, Wendell?

WENDELL POTTER: Yeah, we had been hearing about some of these things that were being leaked to you by the pharmaceutical industry. And as a consequence, as I explained in Deadly Spin, we went to great care to make sure that when we wrote an email, that we would never use Sicko or your name in the subject line or in the body. We called you “Hollywood,” and we were prepared to, if we ever got ambushed, to say, “Aren’t you Michael Moore, the Hollywood entertainer? It’s a pleasure to meet you. Now, I’ve to go on to my next meeting.” But we wanted to make sure that if we wrote anything, that it was obscure enough. And we wrote it in code, so that if it were to get into your hands, it wouldn’t be anything that you could use, necessarily, against us.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, Michael, you recently wrote in a blog at Huffington Post, quote, “There was really one reason Sicko didn’t sell as many tickets as Fahrenheit, and that was because of a felony that was committed — a felony that I will discuss for the first time in the coming weeks or months ahead on my website. Stay tuned.” What are you talking about?

MICHAEL MOORE: Well, I can’t talk about that today, Amy, because I’m speaking to the authorities about this, because a crime was committed. And I’m not going to — really, I’m not allowed — I really can’t say anything else about it this morning. But I do plan to publicly speak about this in the coming weeks or months, as soon as this happens and as soon as, you know, those responsible for the actions that were taken and the things that were done are arrested.

AMY GOODMAN: One other question, and that is about the Republicans and the Republican Party working with the insurance industry. Wendell Potter and Michael, if you could conclude on that point, how you organized. Wendell?

WENDELL POTTER: Well, it was very important to keep investing in Republican candidates. The insurance industry has funneled a lot of money into Republican campaigns for many years, and they certainly did over the last few years, and leading up to the midterms. And they do that because they know that if they invest in these Republicans, they can count on them to vote the way they want them to do. And we saw that happening during the recent debate on the healthcare reform bill. They voted in lockstep with what the insurance industry wanted. Now, the bill that emerged included a lot the insurance industry wanted, but it also has some very good consumer protections in it.

But, you know, Anthony Weiner, the congressman from New York, said on the House floor at one point that the Republican Party was a wholly owned subsidiary of the insurance industry. And he wasn’t really off the mark all that much. They really have been almost bought and paid for. I’m not a partisan. Everybody in my family are Republicans, I think. But I’ve seen this happen. I know what’s going on. And I know that they can count on Republicans to do what they want and to say the things that they want them to say. That’s a big part of the strategy here, if you’ll see it. You can find a copy of this. Bill Moyers Journal was able to obtain a copy of the strategy you mentioned.

AMY GOODMAN: And we’ll link to it.

WENDELL POTTER: A big part of the — yeah, exactly, there’s a link to it. It describes how they were using both Blue Dog Democrats and Republicans to scare people away from Michael Moore and Sicko.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Michael, in his memoir Decision Points, former President Bush writes, quote, “In 2000, our October Suprise had come in the form of the DUI revelation. In 2004, it came from Osama bin Laden. On October 29, the al Qaeda leader released a videotape threatening Americans with 'another Manhattan' and mocking my response to 9/11 in the Florida classroom. It sounded like he was plagiarizing Michael Moore. 'Americans will not be intimidated or influenced by an enemy of our country,' I said.” Your final response, Michael?

MICHAEL MOORE: He is also — he is essentially referring to myself, too, as an enemy of the country, and that is the line that Karl Rove and all the people put out about me when Fahrenheit 9/11 came out. And someday there will be a Wendell Potter from the Bush administration who will come forward and talk about that campaign against that film and against me at that time.

My final words here, Amy, and to Wendell, are really, actually, to the people who are listening and watching right now. In this strategy report that you just referred to, the secret report that the insurance companies put together about the damage that Sicko could do, there’s a line in there — I don’t have it in front of me right now, but it essentially says that our worst-case scenario with this film, with Sicko, if this should happen, is that the film could trigger a populist uprising against us. The companies, as Wendell points out in his book, they already knew — and this was in ’06 and ’07 — they already knew from their own internal polling that the American public was fed up with these for-profit insurance companies, and they were so scared, as Wendell has said here, of a tipping point, of something happening. And they were afraid that this film might be that tipping point, and they had to pull out all the stops to stop it, to stop me.

Let me just say that that line in that report, in their strategy plan, is a compliment to everybody listening and watching this show, because that is really what they’re concerned about. Not about Michael Moore, not about some 90-minute movie. They’re concerned that you, the people listening right now, might do something. And they know that that could happen at any point. They know it because they know that there’s more of us than there are of them. They know the math of that. And if the people ever woke up, and if the people ever stood up, if the people ever got active, the people ever stood up and said, “That’s the end of this. This is a sick system, that we allow a company to profit off us when we fall ill” —- they’re so afraid of that happening. If they didn’t think that your listeners and the people who care about these issues, especially people on the left, were there, they wouldn’t bother with any of that. They wouldn’t spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to try and stop a little movie. They’re really concerned that the people do exist, the anger about this does exist, and that the people will eventually stop it. And -—

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to leave it right there, Michael. And I want to —

MICHAEL MOORE: Congratulations to everybody.

AMY GOODMAN: Thank you both for being on. In Wendell Potter’s words, on Deadly Spin, “If Moore’s movie attracted big audiences and generated a lot of buzz, it might embolden one or more Democratic candidates to join Representative Dennis Kucinich in endorsing the expansion of Medicare to cover everybody. The increasingly profitable insurance industry would find itself in a war for survival.” That’s quoting from Wendell Potter’s book, Deadly Spin, written by the former chief spokesperson for CIGNA, before that Humana, who is know the chief whistleblower in the insurance — outside of the insurance industry. I want to thank you, as well as Academy Award-winning filmmaker Michael Moore, for being with us today.

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