Co-authored with Alex Brant-Zawadzki and Bill Schmalfeldt. Research assistance by Melissa Brewer.
Ali Akbar, now President of the National Bloggers Club, is one of the conservative blogosphere's most infamous characters. He began his campaign of notoriety with a crime spree in 2006, blazing a six-year trail of fraud. That's him up there, in the mug shots. Akbar's story is as improbable as the Tea Party movement itself, and a lesson on the privileges of power in the age of Citizens United. How did a petty crook rise to these heights in such a short time? Why does he enjoy such influential connections today?
We ask these questions because we see an emerging bipartisan consensus that Akbar's National Bloggers Club (NBC) is entirely notional. Akbar has never applied to the IRS for 501(c)3 status -- despite having claimed as much on the NBC Facebook page. While the NBC requires an unusual amount of personal information from donors, they do not offer those donors an EIN (Employer ID Number) to make their contributions tax deductible.
(Disclosure: I'm working with Brave New Films on their Sick For Profit campaign, exposing insurance industry practices. Check us out on Facebook.)
The New York Times published a very nice press release from the desk of Humana, one of the nation's largest health insurance companies. The reporter interviewed a bunch of employees at Humana, all of whom were horrified to see themselves depicted as "villains" in the health care debate. I agree with Yves Smith, this is an absurd angle for a story, an extreme example of selection bias. The people who work at Humana probably have a sense that their employer, um, pays their salary, and thusly, what's good for the employer is probably good for them. Similarly, most people hold a favorable opinion of themselves just as a matter of getting through the day. Not to mention the fact that their understanding of the functioning of Humana is limited to their job description. It is not possible to gain much of a perspective on the health care debate or industry practices by asking a midlevel manager "Do you think you're the worst person alive?"
Since when is it legitimate, much the less newsworthy, to get a company's perception on its embattled status, at least without introducing either some contrary opinion or better yet, facts, to counter the views of people who will inevitably see what they are doing as right? I hate to draw an extreme comparison to make the point, but staff in Nazi concentration camps also thought they were good people. It is well documented that for all save the depressed, people's assessments of their own behavior is biased in their favor.
There is some revelatory stuff in the article, however. David Sirota flags one employee saying that Humana believes in keeping down costs by "controlling utilization":
Now, I know we're supposed to think that private for-profit health care companies don't ration care, while government-run programs like Medicare do - but as the insurance industry admits right here for all to see, that's just not the case. The obvious truth is that the health insurance industry works hard to "control utilization" - that is, it works hard to make sure that when you need a costly medical service, you are "controlled" (read: prevented) from getting it.
Sure, we're all against excessive testing - and there are good ways to deal with those inefficiencies. But that's not what the insurance industry is talking about. It is talking about its practice of rationing care - and now that reality is right there in black and white for all to see.
The truth of the matter is that many of the charges that insurance companies like WellPoint level at the public option and regulatory changes sought in the health reform bill mirror accepted industry practices. WellPoint, which emailed its own customers yesterday attacking the Democratic plan, claimed that health reform will “increase the premiums of those with private coverage.” Yet WellPoint routinely hikes their own premium prices by close to double digits annually, leading to ever-increasing profits. The email stated that millions of Americans would lose their private coverage and be forced onto a government-run option if the Democratic bill passed (nothing could be further from the truth); yet WellPoint routinely uses the practice of rescission to drop their own customers from coverage if they ever try to use it, and they've admitted they would continue doing so unless forced to stop by law.
The email is an example of the astroturf practices from the industry, including, no doubt, pitching to the New York Times a story putting the human face on insurers. Many of these astroturf efforts spring from the same sources as the corporate lobby groups activating the tea party protests at town hall meetings throughout the country this August. They're trying to change the subject, away from facts, like how they're spending less of their premium revenue on medical care over the years, from 90% in the early 1990s to around 80% today. Or how they use rescission and pre-existing condition to make profits off cherry-picking the healthy and denying everyone else care. House and Senate leaders have requested more and more information about insurance company practices; Dennis Kucinich has joined that effort. But the insurance industry, while nominally siding with reform, wants to keep the focus on efforts against it, in service to de-fanging it.
Can you believe it? I'm actually looking forward to this morning's shows. No, not George Snufflupagus on This Week or William the Bloody on Fox News Sunday, but our very own Rachel Maddow is subbing for David Gregory is on the panel opposite Dick Armey on Meet the Press. Rachel has been relentless in the last couple of weeks on the astroturfing of FreedomWorks, so this promises to be a lot of fun. Around the dial, it's all about the health care reform bill, with HHS Sec. Kathleen Sebelius on This Week and State of the Union, Robert Gibbs on Face the Nation and executives from the AMA and AARP on Fox News Sunday. Arlen Specter will be on This Week, to share his take on the recent Town Hall shout fests. Fareed Zakaria will continue his interview Sec of State Hillary Clinton and you can bet her defensive responses in Africa will definitely be brought up.
ABC's "This Week" - Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius; Sens. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.
CBS' "Face the Nation" - White House press secretary Robert Gibbs; former Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb.; former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind.
NBC's "Meet the Press" - FreedomWorks chairman and former Rep. Dick Armey, R-Texas; Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.; former Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D.; R. Bruce Josten, executive vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce; Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y.; Gov. Bill Ritter, D-Colo.
NBC's "The Chris Matthews Show" - Panel: Rick Stengel, Trish Regan, John Heilemann, Kathleen Parker. Topics: Has the domestic "change" President Obama promised stalled? How has Woodstock in 1969 impacted the politics of the past forty years? Meter Questions: Will outspoken fringe players dominate GOP for the rest of Obama's term? YES: 9 NO: 3; If unemployment is still high next year, will Obama revise his tax proposals? YES: 11 NO: 1.
CNN's "State of the Union" - Sebelius; Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo.; Reps. Mike Ross, D-Ark., Tom Price, R-Ga., and Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas.
CNN's "Fareed Zakaria GPS" - The first television interview with Michael Oren as Israel's new Ambassador to the United States. Plus, the Prime Minister of Kenya and an unusual event in Nairobi featuring Hillary Clinton and Fareed.
"Fox News Sunday" - Sens. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., and Richard Shelby, R-Ala.; J. James Rohack, president of the American Medical Association; John Rother, executive vice president for policy and strategy at AARP.
“When you look at the fervor of some of these people who are all being whipped up by the right-wing talking heads on Fox, to me, you’re crossing a line,’ Connolly said. ‘They’re inciting people to riot with just total distortions of facts. They think we’re going to euthanize Grandma and the government is going to take over.”
Frank Kratovil was hung in effigy. Chris Dodd was told to go kill himself. Gerry Connolly says that one Freshman was assaulted, and Brad Miller got death threats.
Nancy Pelosi is showing up to support Diane DeGette and Jared Polis at an event in Denver tomorrow, and the Malkinites are going to be out in force. If you're in Denver, please show up and support Democrats against the thuggery of the insurance industry-funded GOP astroturfers
Don't forget to send all videos or tips about town hall disruptions to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.
It didn't take long for the Villagers to fall in line, did it? Reality has no meaning. I'm not sure why Rush Limbaugh is getting nervous about the astroturfers. He's saying the teabagger protests are not bought and paid for: "It's not ginned up, it's genuine. It's real." Can't he see that they are falling right in line? Matthews certainly has.
And here's the way the overarching media narrative that supports it gets set:
Matthews: What do you make of this firestorm that's going on across the country. We've got pictures from Texas and Long Island and Philly. Every time a congressman calls a town meeting now, the people show up and it's like -- I don't know --- it's like Iran! It's like the streets of Tehran!
Michael Smerconish: People are hot. I sense it in the phone calls that I get every day. I think they're very nervous about what's going to come out of this debate about national health care, and Chris if I've heard once in the last couple of days, I've heard it 50 times: "if they can't get cash for clunkers straight, what in the world are they going to do with my national health insurance?"
Matthews: You mean they won't get the numbers right?
Smericonish: Yeah they won't get the numbers right and it smacks of bureaucratic ineptitude, that the federal government has blown through this money so quickly on a plan that seems so straighforward.
I also think that what going on is that many people don't understand the elements of this debate, so what do they know? They know that they have health insurance and they know that this enormous price tag is being assigned for the 45 million or so who don't have it. And frankly what they saying is, why can't we just write them a check and pay for it. It sounds like it could be less expensive.
Ok, neither Smericonish, a conservative, or Matthews, a Village dullard, mention that the "riots" are not exactly spontaneous uprisings, but are rather the result of well-financed astroturfing enterprises, much like the ones that were done to disrupt the Clinton rallies back in 1994. (In fact, the threat of violence was so great that they ended up cancelling them, which is something we may yet see this month.) Matthews who prides himself on being an historian of arcane political strategy throughout the ages seems to know nothing of what's happenening now or then.
Meanwhile, he lets Smerconish disseminate this summers "drill, baby, drill" --- that insipid "cash for clunkers" line that Jim Demint cloddishly threw out there on the Sabbath Gasbag shows --- with no explanation as to why it makes no sense at all. (After all, the program proved to be so popular that they need to extend it -- that's usually thought of as a success, not a failure. Everywhere but in the village, that is.)..read on
It goes on. Surely Jonathan Martin of the Politico will straighten all this out, right?
Here's Lawrence O'Donnell sitting in for Ed Schultz:
O'Donnell: AB, does it matter if these protests are organized or spontaneous? I mean, isn't it true that it's just the video that ends up on the local news that does the damage here?
AB Stoddard: It doesn't matter at all, and the fact is that the only goal for the Republicans right now is to scare people off this, to depress voter support for this so that when they come back in September it's even harder for the Democratic Party than the chaoes we just just witnessed on capitol Hill this month. All they have to do is just say, "this is going to be terrifying, this is a risky experiment." They don't have to be constructive right now. Remember who turns out in mid-term elections: the angry, ok? African Americans are not going to turn out at the rate they did last year and neither are young people. The people who carried marginal Democrats in in formerly Republican districts .. . It's going to be a very tough year for Democrats.
There you have it. The future is foretold. Journamalism isn't there to give the facts or tell the truth. It doesn't matter anyway, because "it's out there."
The only responsibility journos have is to to get it out there, dog.
(Please send me your videos of any town halls you go to at email@example.com)