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Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The Electric Kool-Aid PhRMA Quest

I didn't know where I was going when I got on board Big PhRMA's Big Orange Bus, and I didn't care. It was the story that mattered, not the final destination. I knew it the moment I first saw the sign above the bus's windshield--the place where the destination is usually displayed. It said simply, "No Further."

That's what this trip along America's health care highways was really about. Our hosts were drawing a line in the sand, saying we'll give you a good show, a happy show, an uplifting show, but you'll never get more than that show.

None of my traveling companions questioned our host's motives. To do so was unthinkable. It would mean banishment from the bus and being on the bus was the best of gigs.

And the same was true of the journalists we met along the way. They cared nothing about our host's agenda. They wanted to meet the carny barker, the man who served as the smiling face of our corporate sponsors, Montel Williams.

They wanted to write stories about Montel, because he was a celebrity. He was a television star who earned the love of millions by exhibiting siamese twins, troubled teens, and the most ignorant, violence-prone, denizens of the underclass like so many strange and dangerous zoological specimens. Star power like his bumped ratings and sold newspapers.

They would gather around him at every stop, drinking the special focus-group-tested Kool-Aid he served in complementary PhRMA promotional thermoses fashioned from the most durable-appearing brushed aluminum. It was the kind of swag that seem to scream, "you are such an important reporter, PhRMA sent Montel Williams here to give you the best promotional thermos money can buy.

In return, they offered up softball questions taken directly from PhRMA's media packet. Montel was a good interview for them. He gave great sound byte, and why shouldn't he? After all, he had practiced every line in his talking points thousands of times. He never missed a single scripted word or coached inflection. He was everything the reporters and PhRMA wanted him to be.

That is until the bus stopped in Savannah, Georgia. There, Montel was met by an intern, a high school student, the local television station sent out to do happy stories, stories like how a big orange PhRMA bus came into town bearing celebrities.

Her name was Courtney Scott, and being a teenage intern, she was not yet learned in the ways of celebrity journalism. That is why she committed the mistake of asking a serious question.

"Do you think" she inquired, "Pharmaceutical companies would be discouraged from doing research and development if their profits were restricted?

Montel didn't seem to know how to respond to such a question. It wasn't in the media packet. It wasn't addressed in his talking points. An answer would require improvisation and he wasn't prepared for that, so he reached for another thermos and said, "this interview is done."

He gave a lot of thought to the incident over the next few hours, and the more he thought about it, the angrier he became. If he had answered the question wrongly, he'd have been put off the bus. She had jeopardized his gig.

He spied her later that day at a hotel where she was reporting on a story about cats. Seeing her fueled his anger even more and grabbing his bodyguard by the arm, he hurried over to chastise the impudent teenage intern.

"Don't look at me like that," he cried. "Do you know who I am? I'm a big star and I can look you up, find you, and blow you up."

Unfortunately, that was not one of his talking points either, and now his future on the bus is unclear. He's apologized, but I'm starting to wonder if Chuck Norris might be off somewhere rehearsing sound bytes and admiring the box of durable-appearing brushed aluminum thermoses PhRMA set him.

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We'll try dumping haloscan and see how it works.