The Island of Doubt

The similarities between the campaign against mitigating the consequences of climate change and the campaign against health insurance reform go far beyond the use of distortion and fiction. The parallels are everywhere.

For example, those with vested (monied) interests in the status quo are turning to the same lobbying and public relations outfits to carry out the campaigns. The latest firm to be identified is Bonner & Associates, which, according to the Virginia Daily Progress,

was founded in 1984 by Jack Bonner and is considered a pioneer in the field of “strategic grassroots,” in which the firm manages grassroots campaigns on behalf of its clients, which have included Fortune 500 companies and national associations in all 50 states.

Bonner & Associates has been working against change for much of its history, apparently. It has been hired to fight workplace smoking bans and lower prescription drug plans. It has also be caught defrauding the U.S. government in contracts. None of that prevented the coal industry from using the firm to carry out the recent forged grassroots letter campaign against the American Clean Energy and Security Act (a.k.a. Waxman-Markey) now before the Senate.

The use of falsehoods in political battles is nothing new. But it’s hard, as a journalist trained to respect the need to ground all communications in facts, not to get frustrated with an entire industry that sees nothing wrong with lying.

The health insurance debate, for example, is hobbled by this kind of ad (the link is to an NPR story rather than the ad itself). The “Shona Holmes” ad directly challenges the fundamental operating principles of the Canadian health insurance system. It describes a place that’s completely foreign to someone like me, who spent almost all of the first 40 years of his life in Canada. It is, to quote a Canadian health economist, “absolute nonsense.”

I am reminded of the arguments of climate change deniers, who have invented an entirely fictional version of history to counter the mountains of scientific evidence that links fossil-fuel combustion to gobal warming trends. (No, the “hockey stick” wasn’t discredited; in fact, it’s been independently verified a dozen different times.)

It doesn’t seem to matter how many times the facts (e.g., the health care in Canada is private, only the insurance is provided by the government) are presented. Those opposed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions or reducing health-care costs just keep on making the same false claims.

A recent Bloomberg News article addresses the problem:

That Shona Holmes’s claims are disputed by government officials and independent analysts as misleading is almost beside the point. What matters to outside interests spending millions of dollars on such ads is whether they will work in shaping or scuttling Obama’s push for a $1 trillion overhaul.

“There’s this irresistible impulse to go over the cliff and make claims that sound more dramatic but actually aren’t based in reality,” said Brooks Jackson, director of the Philadelphia-based University of Pennsylvania Annenberg Public Policy Center’s Political Fact Check.

So how do we reign in that irresistible impulse? Railing against it in the blogosphere doesn’t seem to be doing the trick. I suppose one could argue that the lies might be even more egregious if bloggers weren’t ready to pounce on each and every one, but I doubt it.

It occurs to me however, that there might be a bright spot in all this. If we can connect the dots between the climate change deniers and the health-insurance fraudsters, perhaps those citizens who understand the truth of one group might become more skeptical of the claims of the other.

Most Canadians recognize the fictitious nature of the attacks on their health insurance system. If it can be brought to their attention that the same people are behind some of the climate change denial campaigns, then might they start to see the light there, too?

And those Americans who already have a good grasp of the science behind global warming but are afraid of the prospect of “socialized” health care might be more willing to entertain the notion of a system delivered by private physicians, but paid through government coffers.

Or maybe I’m just trying not to get too depressed as I watch both the health insurance and climate change bills wallow in Congress as the summer slips by.


  1. #1 BruceH
    August 10, 2009

    The problem with your analysis is that the two groups are largely one and the same. The same people who deny good climate science are usually the very same who buy into the lies about health care reform.

  2. #2 Mystyk
    August 10, 2009


    While the two groups are largely one and the same when referring to individuals, they are completely one and the same when referring to the organizers and marketing firms trumpeting the misinformation.

    The idea is that by exposing the link at the “fake grassroots” organizational level you can swing individuals who are only currently in one camp. Additionally, individuals who are in both camps may challenge their beliefs in one or both if they know how deep the organizational ties run.

  3. #3 BAllanJ
    August 10, 2009

    I think the campaign for health care in the US focus on that it’s a government run health insurance, not health care. The tag line argument could go something like:
    “Ever been screwed by your HMO? Ever wish you could vote those bastards out of that job?”…
    cleaned up, of course.

  4. #4 mediajackal
    August 10, 2009

    Icky interlink department:

    The Americans for Prosperity Foundation is pushing a “Hands Off My Healthcare” bus tour, to urge the public reject the gummint’s health care reforms.

    APF also ran a “Hot Air Tour” in 2008, claiming climate change was a myth. See this link to Sourcewatch
    for more information.
    The APF’s press release was issued by Hamilton Strategies, LLC. APF claims it’s got the public’s health interests are heart — but has opposed smoking bans. Hamilton Strategies advertises itself as specializing in publicity for groups “whose goals are to point America toward traditional, biblical foundations.”

    Incestuous, ain’t it?

  5. #5 Michael Tobis
    August 10, 2009

    I made a similar argument in replying to Marc Morano this morning.

  6. #6 travc
    August 10, 2009

    I’ve been seeing horrendous ads on TV. Relatively low production value ads late night on TNT and CNN mostly. Completely full of easily disprovable ‘facts’ to the point that I’m flabbergasted the networks actually aired them (they obviously violate the standards quoted when they rejected other (progressive) ads.) The real stinger is that there are ads obviously made by the same company opposing both healtcare reform and carbon cap-and-trade.

    I should post them, or find where someone has posted them I suppose.

  7. #7 Brian D
    August 10, 2009

    Mediajackal: Oh, boy, is it ever. (Note that all of that was compiled pre-“townhall riots”, in which some reporters have discovered similar undercover PR on their own, when they actually engage in investigative journalism instead of ping-pong journalism).


    Michael Tobis found something similar approaching the problem from the other side. I’ve also seen one mainstream voice deliver similar connections (Rachel Maddow, but unfortunately as usual she’s practically alone in this level of discussion; she actually got an official from Americans for Prosperity on her show, but came into it as a journalist instead of being prepared for a PR onslaught).

    One can only hope for a critical mistake made here draws enough media attention to expose this approach for good – although after ACCCE’s forged-letters campaign, I wonder what the scale of such a mistake would have to be.

  8. #8 Eric L
    August 10, 2009

    What’s truly remarkable is the degree to which global warming denial and tobacco denial are linked, right down to a number of prominent scientists claiming expertise in both fields despite the lack of overlap in the subjects. People don’t trust tobacco companies, so why should they trust the Heartland Institute or CEI? Or Lindzhen, Avery, Seitz, and countless others? But this gets little play.

  9. #9 Shahid Insaf
    August 11, 2009

    The most fundamental issue here is that Democrats and Republicans think they represent completely different points of view. They do not. They are two sides of the same coin. The same charge that this author levels at the Republicans can equally apply to the Democrats as well. There have been countless scholarly articles comparing the angry fervor Democrats display towards anyone questioning the Global worming fraud, to the indignation that a religious person expresses to anyone questioning the existence of God. So called ‘arguments’ from both sides, amount merely to ad hominem attacks on the character of the opponents, instead of attempting to answer the main issues at hand. Democrats like to feign unearned morality from the social perspective of altruism and Republican pretend to be endowed with religiously morality. Both do it under the pretext of ‘representing the common man and enabling his salvation’ – either here or in heaven. The only time the bastards think about the common man is to see what it is they are stepping on. With every misguided administration, Democrat or Republican, this once great country takes another step into chaos.

    The absolute arrogance of both sides to attempt to shout down and ridicule opposition of any kind is mind-boggling. This country needs to wake up and vote both these petulant, self-serving parties out of existence.

  10. #10 sohbet sitesi
    August 11, 2009

    thnk you my admin

  11. #11 Sohpet
    August 11, 2009

    Thnaks .

  12. #12 crf
    August 12, 2009

    There have been countless scholarly articles comparing the angry fervor Democrats display towards anyone questioning the Global worming fraud to the indignation that a religious person expresses to anyone questioning the existence of God.

    Shahid Insaf should not question the Quizat Haderach. Global worming is no fraud.

  13. #13 MikeB
    August 12, 2009

    ‘Global worming?’ I’d hate to think of the vets bill….

  14. #14 Marcia Earth
    August 12, 2009

    Shahid Insaf has a point. Discussion of these topics has reached the point of religous fanatacism. For example, the global warming argument is reduced to “is it?” or “isn’t it”, rather than discussions about what percentage of global warming is manmade, the costs of global warming regulations on developing countries (funny how western countries discoverd that global warming was a bad thing after they were done with their industrial revolutions, the risks of not enforcing stricter reforms, etc.

    And these need to be discussed with the recogntion that there are no black and white answers. Lots of shades of grey and lots of compromises need to be made.

  15. #15 Mystyk
    August 12, 2009

    Anthropogenic global warming skepticism (I’ll be nice and call it that instead of “denial”) falls into three main categories: trend skeptics, attribution skeptics, and impact skeptics. You can think about it as a simple three-circle Venn diagram, where most fall into one category and a few cross the boundaries into multiple groups.

    As with other skepticism trends that were in direct contradiction to all of the established evidence (tobacco, anyone?), there is also a trend-line between the groups that shows the movement of beliefs as the evidence becomes increasingly strong. The first group gets abandoned as people shift from there to the second, and then finally to the third as the second becomes clearly refuted.

    The lobbying groups can also be seen clearly following this progression, including most major energy companies reluctantly accepting the trends that they once denied and now several of them admitting that humans have had a direct effect. Those that reach that far are currently using the line that AGW would be beneficial or neutral.

    Of course, you can see similar strategic fallback positions in other talking points of the right. Healthcare debates go from denying it could have any benefit, to claiming it would be too expensive, to claiming the Government shouldn’t be interfering, to finally all-out screaming to silence the opposition. Hell, the last 50 years of evolution debates have been nothing but fallbacks: creationism became creation science, which became intelligent design, which became “teach the controversy,” and it is now at “academic freedom.”

    Learn these tactics well, for understanding the opponents is the only way you will be able to refute their nonsense.

  16. #16 bi -- IJI
    August 12, 2009

    Lots of shades of grey and lots of compromises need to be made.

    Marcia Earth, when climate inactivists start forging other people’s letterheads, what shade of grey do you consider that to be?

    Mediajackal: Oh, boy, is it ever.

    Brian D: Thanks for the plug. :) Well, my diagram doesn’t really (yet) try to link the anti-healthcare and anti-climate movements; it only focuses on the anti-climate movement and points out links between ‘independent’ climate inactivist groups.

    Also, alas the NBC26 video is taking ages to load…

  17. #17 Marcia Earth
    August 13, 2009

    Marcia Earth, when climate inactivists start forging other people’s letterheads –

    That’s the point – attacking the debating techniques of the other side rather than discussing the issue

  18. #18 bi -- IJI
    August 13, 2009

    Marcia Earth:

    attacking the debating techniques of the other side rather than discussing the issue

    Since when did forging letterheads become a “debating technique”?

    Why should anyone not be allowed to point out when someone is using dirty tricks, precisely in order to cloud the issue?


  19. #19 Dano
    August 13, 2009

    That’s the point – attacking the debating techniques of the other side rather than discussing the issue


    One side needs forgery to discuss their position.



  20. #20 paulm
    August 16, 2009

    B.C. Sockeye Salmon Migration Touches Record Low as Waters Warm

    On Aug. 10, the Fraser River temperature was 18.8 degrees Celsius (65.8 degrees Fahrenheit) at Qualark Creek, B.C., 1.1 degrees higher than the average for that date, the Pacific Salmon Commission said in an Aug. 11 statement on its Web site.

    “Water temperatures in this range may stress migrating sockeye and slow their upstream migration,” according to the commission, which is a joint Canada-U.S. body that manages salmon resources.

  21. #21 paulm
    August 18, 2009

    Season of dread returns as Haiti awaits devastating hurricane season

    Bill Clinton, who became the United Nations’ envoy to the country in May, joining a new effort to make sure that this year, at least, does not bring Haiti to the tipping point.

    There is however a bigger question: does Haiti offer a cautionary tale of what can happen to a country that does not adapt to climate change?

    It took until last year for the country’s elite to begin to see a connection between the devastation of the landscape, and natural disaster. “I have to admit that for the majority of the business society, managing water, managing soil, climate change, these are all things that they talk about on CNN and BBC, or that you hear Al Gore going on about,” said Gregory Brandt, a prominent businessman. “It’s not for us. I’d say the majority was aware but not concerned.”

    The international community was also slow to grasp the connection, said Anita Swarup, who has worked as a consultant on climate change for Oxfam, Unicef and other organisations. “As far as I can see, little or nothing has been done in terms of dealing with climate change,” she said. “The international community is not sufficiently focused on the impacts of climate change on a poor country like Haiti and considerably more needs to be done.”

    Now that reality is inescapable because of the increasing severity and frequency of storms. The Haitian government and the international community are now fully engaged, but those on the front line of efforts to repair the environmental degradation that has left Haiti so exposed to climate change now admit they feel overwhelmed.

  22. #22 TokyoTom
    August 26, 2009

    James, Michael, Frank …:

    It`s not simply that the arguments and the people are the same, but that they are largely targetting the same voters, with buy-on-get-one-free types of ad campaigns that lump both issues together:

  23. #23 bi -- IJI
    August 26, 2009

    TokyoTom: Holy cow.

  24. #24 TokyoTom
    August 26, 2009

    paulm: It`s absurd to lay the environmental devastation and risks in Haiti at the foot of international aid agencies, which have slowly come to the realization that their decades of handouts have come to naught, for the simply reason that most of the country is a government-“owned” commons (that is, unprotected), and the state of property rights protection of the rest of the land is extremely poor.

    What Haitians need more than anything else in the world is what everybody else takes for granted (and what Dominicans on the other half of the island have): property rights.

  25. #25 Anna Haynes
    August 26, 2009

    Whois for shows:

    Tech Organization:SMARTech Corp (of Chattanooga TN)

    It uses the same nameservers as and .com

    p.s. comment preview seems to be broken.

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