THE BLOG

Energy Firms, Health Insurers Deftly Use Others to Spread Propaganda

04/13/2015 05:53 pm ET | Updated Jun 13, 2015

I usually don't pay a lot of attention to the songs on a restaurant's playlist, but when "The Old Rugged Cross" came on at the Manassas, Virginia, Cracker Barrel as I was traveling to Tennessee recently, I put my fork down and listened.

Hearing the hymn took me back nearly half a century to my childhood in Kingsport, Tennessee. Every Sunday morning, we listened to the "hymn program" on WMCH, a Christian radio station, as we got ready for church.

I couldn't resist Googling WMCH to see if it was still around. I was happy to find that not only is it still on the air, but it now has much broader reach, thanks to the Internet.

But when I streamed it, instead of a gospel quartet, I heard a radio talk show host mock environmentalists who want more laws and regulations to address climate change. I was told that the Earth hasn't really been getting warmer and that, even if there is a little more CO2 in the atmosphere, it's God's way of helping restore the rainforests.

The hymns on WMCH are, unfortunately, now few and far between. Filling the big gaps between them is propaganda -- or "messaging," if you prefer the corporate PR term -- designed to get people to think, act and vote in certain ways.

Just days earlier I had participated in a discussion at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism on this very issue. We had just watched Merchants of Doubt, the new Robert Kenner documentary about how oil and gas industries, among many others, finance propaganda campaigns to influence public policy by creating doubt in the minds of American citizens and the people they elect to public office.

Almost all of us are completely oblivious to these campaigns. The special interests behind them go to great lengths to hide their involvement. During the healthcare reform debate, for example, America's Health Insurance Plans, a large Washington-based trade group I used to work with -- I was a member of its strategic communications committee -- funneled more than $100 million to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to fund the Chamber's anti-reform advertising campaign. Insurers knew that the TV ads would be more credible if people believed the Chamber of Commerce had paid for them.

Neither AHIP nor the Chamber was required to report this transfer of money or how it was spent -- even though the intent was to influence the outcome of the reform debate, and even though the $100 million was more than insurers spent in campaign contributions and to pay lobbyists. We probably would never have known about it at all had investigative reporters not been able to connect the dots after reviewing the groups' tax filings.

Just as health insurers spend far more money on covert activities than on expenditures they have to disclose, so too do a variety of other companies and special interests.

While we know how much insurers and oil and gas companies dole out to political campaigns and lobbyists, we don't have a clue how much of their cash is used to establish front groups or how much of it winds up in the pockets of either pundits for hire, like those depicted in Merchants of Doubt, or tax-exempt organizations that do their bidding.

One such tax-exempt group is the Lincoln Institute, a Pennsylvania-based nonprofit that "promotes the ideals of free market economics, individual liberty, and limited government." WMCH has become one of the vehicles it uses to promote those ideals.

Ron Gordon, one of WMCH's owners, told me his station plays less music than it did when I was a kid because he now has to pay much more in royalties for the songs he plays. Enter the Lincoln Institute, which has two broadcasting arms, American Radio Journal and Lincoln Radio Journal.

The Lincoln Institute helps hundreds of stations across the country fill airtime and save money by replacing music with talk. Gordon said Lincoln doesn't charge him a dime. It doesn't have to, thanks to its donors, which the organization doesn't name. Being a so-called 501(c)(3) nonprofit, the institute isn't required to tell us who its donors are.

While we don't know for sure that oil and gas companies provide funding for Lincoln, we do know they benefit whenever a radio listener starts believing that more regulation not only is unnecessary but also might lead to job losses and higher prices at the pump.

Special interests of all kinds with big pots of money are able to influence elections and shape public policy not only by funding disinformation campaigns but also by hiding their role in the deception. And the cash they spend to do it now far exceeds what they spend in ways that have to be disclosed. Does this make any sense? Not to me.

This was published initially by the Center for Public Integrity at www.publicintegrity.org.