MSNBC: The Place for Publicists

Richard Wolffe used to be a Newsweek reporter, but now he's a strategist at PR firm Public Strategies. On Friday he guest-hosted MSNBC's Countdown. His first topic: how awesome healthcare reform is. Guess what his clients think of healthcare reform?

Glenn Greenwald, Talking Points Memo, and others have taken MSNBC to task for giving Wolffe a platform as a regular "analyst"—and on Friday as guest host—when his day job is as a paid shill for Public Strategies, a lobbying and public relations firm run by former Bush flack Dan Bartlett that "manages public perceptions" for corporate clients.

But the complaints are vague unless you can catch Wolffe talking about issues—and therefore managing perceptions—on MSNBC's air that Public Strategies' clients are actually invested in. And it looks to us like he did just that on Friday, when he opened his guest-host gig with a segment on healthcare reform that included a softball interview with White House senior adviser David Axelrod and a segment with the Washington Post's Eugene Robinson. Here's a sample question Wolffe lobbed at Robinson:

"[I]f more Americans understood that Medicare was government-run, government-sponsored, socialized, quote-unquote, "health care," could the whole debate look pretty different about now?

Wolffe's tenor during the whole segment was pro-reform. Which is fine, and to be expected from Countdown. We know Olbermann supports reform. Hell, we support reform. But nobody is paying us to support reform. Is anybody paying Wolffe?

Public Strategies doesn't disclose its clients. But it does have to disclose any clients that it's lobbied the Senate on behalf of, and a check with the Senate's lobbying disclosure database shows that a number of companies and organizations invested in healthcare reform have paid Public Strategies to lobby for them.

The Federation of American Hospitals, for instance, paid Public Strategies $20,000 to lobby the Senate in 2003. And lo and behold, the Federation of American Hospitals came out in support of the Senate Finance Committee's proposal last month [pdf]:

As a nation, we know we can and must do better. That's why we support today's agreement with Chairman Baucus and the Obama Administration to move comprehensive health reform forward.

More recently, a company called Health Integrated paid Public Strategies $40,000 last year to lobby on health care issues—mostly related to Veteran's Affairs and substance abuse funding. Health Integrated markets itself to health plans and insurers as a "cost-containment" firm that sells programs to identify unhealthy individuals and offer wellness services to keep their healthcare costs down. That idea is central to Obama's cost-cutting proposals, and Health Integrated could stand to benefit enormously from reforms mandating the sorts of services it provides. In this May radio interview, the company's president laid out the cost issues facing healthcare and said, "These are things we're going to have to deal with. I think these are powerful reasons why we'll get reform, but I'm somewhat sanguine that there are a lot of forces at play that aren't going to readily" agree.

Public Strategies has also been paid $280,000 by Christus Health, a network of hospitals in the South whose CEO is on record supporting "Obama's strategy."

Are these firms currently paying Public Strategies to send people like Richard Wolffe out there to advocate for health care reform? We don't know, but it's important to note that these are specific disclosures that apply only to Public Strategies' Senate lobbying—the company could have been, and could still, be doing all sorts of work for these companies on healthcare that we don't know about. We called Public Strategies to ask, but they haven't called back.

Wolffe opened his Countdown appearance by referencing a story about conservatives' concerted efforts to drum up opposition to reform, and offered this advice to legislators:

To all Democrats in Congress who are planning to spend their part of the August recess talking about health care reform at town hall-style meetings back home, we offer this friendly COUNTDOWN public service announcement in our fifth story: Those angry protestors who will disrupt your attempts to talk with your voters-and trust us they will-are being coordinated and coached by industry funded, right-wing operatives. Their stated goal will be to rattle you, not to have an intelligent debate.

Throughout the show, he brought up right-wing "front groups," the "step-by-step instructions to the right-wing rabble-rousers," and the "scare tactics and the fake protests" conservatives are unleashing across the nation to defeat reform.

Wolffe seems to have a problem with fake protests and ginned up "grassroots" campaigns. He should know: It's what Public Strategies does. In a "case study" on the company's web site, it laid out how Public Strategies helped a hospital chain get state approval to build a new hospital by generating a fake grassroots campaign:

Public Strategies...develop[ed] a set of messages that would resonate with the public, address common concerns, and make a compelling case for a new hospital.

The messages became the basis of a comprehensive strategy for a grassroots campaign that included an advocacy Web site, a petition drive and letter-writing campaign, advertising and direct mail campaigns, and a media outreach initiative. The media outreach included publishing op-ed articles and letters to the editor by respected community leaders in daily and weekly newspapers, as well as earned-media events to build momentum and create a sense of inevitability for the project.

So were Wolffe's complaints about the "fake protesters" genuine, or merely another attempt by Public Strategies to create a "sense of inevitability" for the outcome that its clients want? We e-mailed Wolffe but haven't heard back. An NBC News spokeswoman says, "We should have disclosed Richard's connection to Public Strategies and we will do so in the future."

When the Pentagon was revealed to have been coordinating its PR strategy with network military analysts and dangling military contracts with those analysts' employers as a sweetener, it was a scandal that earned the New York Times a Pulitzer Prize and lit up the left-wing blogosphere. Some even criticized Olbermann for not devoting enough attention to it. Now MSNBC, Wolffe, and Olbermann have handed the right-wing its own analogue—NBC News is putting on paid shills for Obamacare! Idiots.