The conflict over health care reform, with all of the theatrics of mob
scenes at town hall meetings, is certainly the biggest story in the news
today. (At least, that is, until we determine who really is the father(s)
of Michael Jackson’s children.) But even though this may be the biggest
story, we all have to remember that it’s an old story.
This is the same story of intentional deception, misinformation, and
downright lying that we have seen from the far right over and over again since
the beginning of the Bush administration. Whether we’re talking about health
care reform, a political candidate, or sexuality education, opponents to
progressive reform continually use the same strategy. Instead of
initiating an honest debate over policy and issues, members of the extreme
right wing point to one person, one group, or one set of beliefs and yell
"don’t trust them."
Today, it’s Conservatives for Patients Rights, supposedly a simple group of
concerned citizens who want to warn you that you can’t trust Congress to reform
healthcare and you can’t trust some bureaucrat to make your healthcare
decisions for you. Last year, the trustbusters were Parents for Truth, a
group of average moms and dads who were outraged by what comprehensive
sexuality education "really" wanted to teach their children.
And who can forget the group of Vietnam Veterans who came together as Swift
Boat Veterans for Truth to warn the American public about Senator John Kerry?
Unsurprisingly, all of these campaigns have something in common: Creative
Response Concepts (CRC) Public Relations. CRC, headed by a former senior
aid to Pat Buchanan, is spearheading the anti-health care reform crusade, was
the group behind the "swiftboating" of Senator John Kerry’s
presidential campaign, and was hired by the National Abstinence Education
Association last year to manage its Parents For Truth campaign.
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A closer look at the advertisements and videos produced by these groups
while working with CRC reveal that attacks on the trustworthiness of a
person or institution are the common and most powerful thread. In the
opening vignette on the Parents for
Truth website, a mother listens is shock as a concerned teacher explains
the true content of the sex education class taught in school that day.
Both are horrified by the "graphic details" about sex that are
included in the program with the teacher at one point saying she was
embarrassed to even talk about it. According to the women, the school
promised the class would be focus on abstinence with a little bit of
information about contraception, but, the teacher assures her friend,
abstinence was barely even mentioned. This isn’t what "they"
promised, thus, the teacher and mother conclude, "they can’t be
If you watch the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, you’ll notice that most of
them end with some variation of, "We couldn’t trust John Kerry then.
How could we possibly trust him now?" In many of the ads,
words and phrases like "BETRAYED HIS COUNTRY" or "TRUST?"
appear over a black and white image of Kerry.
As much as I hate to admit it, this tactic is ingenious. By
preemptively turning any public policy matter into a question about trust and
honesty, not only do these right-wing groups avoid any serious policy debate,
they also damage their victims’ credibility early in the campaign, thereby
seriously hindering their opponent’s ability to respond. After all,
who would ever listen to John Kerry try set the record straight? Didn’t
you see the grainy black and white photo of him on the TV? He’s a
LIAR! After this fundamental shift in trust, the damage is done and it
may be too late to get back in the game.
Fighting for health care reform, this is where we find ourselves once again:
trying to get back in the game. The failure of comprehensive healthcare reform
is, by no means, a fait accompli, but it should be clear to everyone
that negative messages targeting the credibility and motivations of those
favoring reform have, to some degree, already worked. They have affected
the process enough that, at the very least, we will see these same strategies
again in the future.
We in the reproductive health and rights world must prepare ourselves for
these same tactics to be used against us. SIECUS, like many other
organizations, has a "rapid response" initiative designed to counter
attacks just like these, and while I believe this is vitally important, I also
recognize that to effectively defend our positions, we can’t wait until we’ve
been put on the defensive.
Collectively, we have to evaluate the upcoming threats, slanders, and
misinformation that our opponents are going to use to against us and
preemptively counter it with our own truth telling. That starts with
exposing the financial and organizational ties of our opponents so that the
public can make a more accurate assessment of who is right on the issues.
If we can succeed, even to a moderate degree, in mitigating the damage
caused by the character- and credibility-based attacks from groups like CRC, we
may be able to break the cycle so that the next time, when we’re working on
something important to us, the big story will be somewhere else.