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Full Court Press: Vermont's Health Care Reformers Spend Half a Million Dollars Wooing Reporters

Fair Game


Published October 16, 2013 at 12:02 p.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.

In the Orwellian world of high-paid communications consultants, journalists who raise questions about Vermont’s gargantuan health care reforms aren’t playing it straight. Those who report on its cost and affordability are deemed “critical,” “negative” and “cutting.”

This was one of the troubling revelations in a series of documents unearthed last week by the Vermont Press Bureau’s Peter Hirschfeld as he investigated how the state is pitching health care reform to the media.

But far more scandalous is the fact that the Department of Vermont Health Access agreed to fork over half a million dollars to a Washington, D.C., consulting firm for rudimentary public relations tips and other material that is just plain bad.

“An intern and a Google search would’ve been a lot cheaper,” says The Commons news editor Randolph Holhut, whose Windham County weekly was cited by the state’s consultants for publishing stories “on more negative topics” — such as how the currently uninsured would fare under the new system.

Hirschfeld’s story in Sunday’s Rutland Herald and Barre-Montpelier Times Argus honed in on a small portion of the $6 million the state has budgeted to spread the word about Vermont Health Connect. That’s the recently launched, federally mandated website through which the state expects 100,000 Vermonters to purchase their health insurance next year. You might know it as Obamacare.

From that larger budget, the state awarded a $1.8 million contract to GMMB, a D.C.-based political consulting firm that produced ads for Barack Obama’s two presidential campaigns. While much of that contract covered the scripting of television and radio ads to promote Vermont Health Connect, $453,000 of it went toward the state’s “earned media” strategy.

For those unfamiliar with communications jargon, “earned media” is what marketing hacks and political flacks call it when journalists write about what they’re selling — for free! It’s like manna from heaven for those with limited advertising budgets.

“What we know is, the media is one important source of information for Vermonters about this really important change to our health system and the health insurance market in Vermont,” explains DVHA commissioner Mark Larson, who oversees Vermont Health Connect and signed the contract with GMMB.

So what’d the state get for all that green? Not much.

For $8600, GMMB promised to deliver a spreadsheet of reporters’ email addresses and phone numbers. For $12,600, it pledged to schedule meetings with the state’s half dozen newspaper editorial boards. And for $18,045 it agreed to assemble briefing materials for those meetings, replete with “reporter or editorial staff backgrounds where possible, and likely questions from their board,” according to the contract.

What gems of wisdom were included in these gold-plated background briefs?

The version GMMB assembled for a meeting with the Herald’s and Times Argus’ editorial board includes a five-sentence “synopsis of coverage” noting that while the board “is very informed” about health care reform, its members “have been critical” of its potential impact on small businesses and low-income Vermonters. It also includes short bios of editorial board members lifted verbatim from the papers’ websites. The remaining 85 pages consist entirely of news stories copied and pasted into a Microsoft Word document.

Lest you worry the state is being overcharged for a whole lotta nothing-burgers like that, Vermont Health Connect spokeswoman Emily Yahr says it doesn’t plan to pay for three particularly expensive line items listed in the contract: $79,725 to plan a single press conference, $16,425 to develop a “communication plan” for the presser and $31,797 to help pitch it to reporters.

No doubt the pièce de résistance of GMMB’s half-million-dollar propaganda campaign is its March 2013 analysis of Vermont’s “earned media landscape.” For $18,235, the document analyzes six months’ worth of press coverage of Vermont Health Connect and rates each story as “generally positive,” “generally negative” or “generally neutral.”

“While the coverage has generally remained fair and accurate, many pieces do address some of the harsher challenges and uncertainties Vermont Health Connect may face in the coming months,” the report concludes.

Wait a second. Is it unfair or inaccurate to report on challenges and uncertainties facing a new government program? Quick! Call the politburo!

Most eerie or entertaining, depending on your level of cynicism, is the document’s curt assessments of specific Vermont reporters and newspapers.

The Times Argus, it says, “has been particularly critical around the financial components of Vermont Health Connect,” while “Vermont Public Radio’s Bob Kinzel has written more cutting pieces addressing penalties expected to negatively affect small businesses.”

VTDigger’s Andrew Stein, meanwhile, is praised as “an active reporter sharing factual information regarding the progress of Vermont Health Connect and health care reform in the state, apart from a few tough articles addressing the potential for higher premiums.”

Does Larson agree with his D.C. consultants’ characterizations of Vermont reporters?

“I would say we received the information and it is obviously OK for Vermonters to ask challenging questions,” the DVHA chief says. “That doesn’t always mean we feel like there aren’t parts of the story that are missing from the way it’s been reported.”

Vermont’s critical and cutting reporters don’t appear to be losing too much sleep over it. Kinzel’s boss, VPR news director John Dillon, says the station is “proud that he always asks the hard questions,” while Hirschfeld calls it “gratifying” to see his work outed for being, well, journalism.

“Any time that news outlets are spotlighted for pointing out potentially uncomfortable truths about large government undertakings, it’s viewed as a point of pride by folks who are in the industry,” Hirschfeld says.

As for Stein, he says he found the report “a bit laughable.”

“I think it’s interesting that in their media guide, they essentially conflate factual information with positive information,” he says.

Truly laughable are the article-by-article reviews.

A February 2013 Stowe Reporter story is deemed “generally negative” because it “addresses uncertainty for how the new health care laws will affect seasonal employers.” A January 2013 VPR piece is also red flagged as “generally negative” because it “brings to light that the benefit package offered through the exchange is not as comprehensive” as current programs.

Worse yet, the report’s author appears not to know the difference between a news story, an op-ed and an editorial. All are treated as if they’re the same thing. GMMB calls out the Commons for publishing stories “on more negative topics,” but of the two pieces it reviewed, one was an op-ed written by a West Brattleboro activist.

For half a million dollars, is it too much to ask for a little media literacy?

Helpfully, GMMB also provided an “earned media plan” (price tag: $15,345) that includes recommendations to “proactively engage reporters” who it believes “have often been uninformed about the exact steps the State is taking to ensure Vermont Health Connect is a success.”

Tell us, GMMB! Tell us how Vermont will ensure it’s a success! We’ll parrot every word!

Among the pro tips they offer: “Developing relationships” with reporters who cover health care reform “will be an essential part of the earned media effort.” Critical to that is setting up “off-the-record discussions” over coffee or lunch between Vermont Health Connect leaders and health care reporters.

“The discussion should review the background of each person and be light on health care policy if possible,” GMMB recommends, likely realizing how ignorant and incurious reporters are.

Alison Betty, a GMMB partner, declined to answer Seven Days’ questions, saying only that the firm was “proud” of its work with Vermont.

Stein, one of the 10 reporters the document names as essential to court, says he personally experienced all the “tactics” the report recommends. In his view, it’s “essentially a how-to guide to create very superficial relationships with members of the media.”

“One of the things this guide does not do,” Stein says, “is tell the administration what to do if the product they are essentially selling to the public … isn’t fully functioning, as [Vermont Health Connect] wasn’t by October 1.”

That the government spends a single dime of your money propagandizing you should be considered a great national scandal. In fact, it’s the reality of our modern political system.

More government staffers than you’d believe — from the governor’s office to Vermont’s congressional delegation — are essentially taxpayer-funded political consultants for the elected officials they serve.

I should know. I spent nearly two and a half years as a congressional staffer getting paid by you to spin reporters. Among my patriotic job responsibilities? Holding off-the-record conversations with Vermont journalists over coffee or lunch. And believe me, I reviewed the background of each reporter and went very light on policy.

No, there’s nothing novel or shocking about the state spending money to influence reporters’ coverage of Vermont Health Connect — and, by extension, convince you that it’s the swellest thing around.

What’s shocking is that the state spent so much and got so little out of the deal, which is precisely the charge Vermont Health Connect’s opponents are lodging against the entire project. Arguments like that are what GMMB’s top-notch media strategists are supposed to refute — not corroborate.

Media Notes

Speaking of propaganda, is Thread Magazine an “independent media” outlet, as it calls itself, or a de facto wing of the Democratic Party?

In recent months, Burlington’s alt-alt-quasi-quarterly has taken to using its email list to invite readers to political fundraisers.

“On behalf of the Burlington Democratic Party, you are cordially invited to attend our fundraiser on September 15th,” editor and publisher Ben Sarle wrote to Thread’s readers last month, referring to a shindig at the St. John’s Club featuring ex-govs Howard Dean and Madeleine Kunin.

This week, he was at it again, inviting Threadites to a Planned Parenthood of Northern New England fundraiser Tuesday at the Farmhouse Tap & Grill honoring Gov. Peter Shumlin.

Thread is no stranger to politics. During Burlington’s 2012 mayoral campaign, the magazine featured Democratic candidate Miro Weinberger on its cover and threw a campaign bash for him.

Last winter, it ran a photo spread of Democratic women, including Kunin, State Treasurer Beth Pearce and Burlington Reps. Kesha Ram and Jill Krowinski. When Democratic activist Emily Lee ran against Progressive stalwart Jane Knodell for a Burlington City Council seat this March, Sarle penned an endorsement of the Dem on Thread’s website.

What Sarle didn’t disclose in print or online is that he was paid by the Burlington Democratic Party to promote the St. John’s Club event and by the Vermont Democratic Party for his photography, according to spokesmen for both organizations. He says he also contributed pro bono “social media consulting” and photography to Lee’s and Weinberger’s campaigns.

Last month, Sarle was elected the Burlington Democratic Party’s Ward 2 chairman.

“The line between objective journalism and activism is thin, and I think we kind of walk that line a little bit on both sides,” he explains.

But given that the mag ostensibly covers politics as straight news, shouldn’t Sarle disclose his paid work for the party?

“That’s certainly something I need to think about in the future, because I don’t know if that has been much of a conflict or confluence of interests in the past,” he says. “Now that I actually have a small position in the party, maybe that’s a good idea.”

If Sarle does disclose it, you won’t find it in print. Thread announced last month it’s evolving into an online-only publication in order to focus its resources on providing more content.

The day after making that announcement, Sarle published Thread’s first big online scoop: a photo-heavy preview of a press conference held by a new organization devoted to electing … Democratic women.


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