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Involuntary Affidavit I —

March 5, 2012

On February 2, I called Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta (CHOA), posing as Dr. Phil Monroe, a pediatrician from Southwest Missouri who wanted to bring Phase 1 of the Strong4Life ad campaign to my town in order to drive patients to the bariatric clinic I was forming. By deceiving Strong4Life, I was allowed to speak with three members of S4L’s leadership team, including Dr. Stephanie Walsh, Medical Director for CHOA; Tim Whitehead, Vice President of Marketing and Communications; and Ron Frieson, Chairman of Strong4Life.

Before anyone asks, I have verified that I have not broken any laws in doing so. Although I identified myself as a pediatrician, I did not practice medicine or offer medical advice while posing as Dr. Monroe. And both Missouri and Georgia are one party consent states, meaning that only one of the people in the conversation needs to be aware that the conversation is being recorded.

Although I have ensured the legality of my actions, there will always be a question as to the ethics of my actions. As someone with journalistic aspirations, I know that misrepresenting myself in order to acquire an “interview” with my targets is fraught with ethical issues and that this would not ordinarily pass the smell test for bona fide journalism. Oddly enough, last night I saw a piece by Chris Hanson (the “To Catch a Predator” guy) where he posed as a pharmaceutical drug manufacturer looking to have a Vioxx-like drug go through clinical testing in India, despite Vioxx having been pulled from the market. He used hidden cameras in his meeting with Indian representatives of contract research organizations that were willing to perform testing despite the history of Vioxx.

Likewise, I wanted to see how Strong4Life would respond to someone who was creating a weight loss clinic for kids and wanted to get CHOA’s support in creating the advertising for it.

Mostly, my attempts at baiting Stephanie, Tim and Ron fell flat, but I did manage to turn up some striking information. After listening back through these interviews, and sharing them with a handful of others, I have come to realize three things: first, the interviews do not all have startling revelations, although they each contain at least one juicy nugget. But as I (and others) have noticed, the interviews get progressively more astonishing as they go on.

My conversation with Stephanie is fairly innocuous, although there is one bit at the end that still boggles my mind. My conversation with Tim is what you would expect from a Marketing VP: detached, callous and a bit dickish, with a few juicy nuggets of revelation tucked in. And then there’s my conversation with Ron Frieson, which is about as bad as it comes. Frieson sounds like such a condescending, pompous jackass, and he makes no bones about his disdain for fat people.

The video I created with my conversation with Stephanie is 24 minutes long, but consider it a sort of Dateline-style exposé on Strong4Life: I couldn’t just post the most eye-popping bits. I wanted to give as much context as possible without overwhelming the listener with mundane details. At the same time, I used Stephanie’s comments to force the kind of dialogue with CHOA that they have refused to have with their critics.

With all of this in mind, I don’t think I can call what I’m doing journalism, but I do use many of the tools I’ve picked up in my sparse and sporadic journalism “career” to advance my activism. Therefore, I’ve decided to call what I’ve done here “journavism,” which I would define as activism using the tools of journalism.

I hope you enjoy this conversation and the way I’m presenting it. I hope to have my second conversation with Tim Whitehead available in one week, but the editing process is quite time intensive, and I don’t want to produce a mediocre video.

Trigger Warning: This discussion covers weight loss and weight loss surgery, so please use your discretion before listening.

19 Comments leave one →
  1. vesta44 permalink
    March 5, 2012 4:49 pm

    That’s the main problem with this whole campaign – it’s one of those “it takes money to make money” things and nothing makes more money than shaming/blaming/bullying fat people about their health and telling them that the only way they’re ever going to be “healthy” is to lose weight and get thin. After all, the diet industry alone makes over $60 BILLION a year – a $50 million ad campaign talking about childhood obesity is a drop in the bucket and will bring in much more income from fat people trying to improve their “health” in CHOA’s weight loss/bariatric clinics, so of course she’s going to say there’s plenty of business to go around.
    The really sad thing is that those billboards aren’t going to come down, and neither are the ads. Someone posted on Facebook that a new one just went up in Atlanta (don’t remember where, but it was a new billboard in an area where there hadn’t been any before). S4L is telling us what they think we want to hear in hopes that we’ll shut up, go away, and leave them alone to continue with their bullshit campaign. I know that sounds cynical, but believe me, I’ve seen it happen before, more times than I care to count. They will lie to us (and to whoever is contributing to CHOA) about those billboards and will continue to keep them up in the poorer neighborhoods in towns/cities in Georgia, figuring that we won’t know how many they have up or where they all are. They’ll continue with the whitewashing on their website and their Facebook page, and they’ll roll out Phase 2, but it won’t be enough to counteract those billboards as long as the billboards are still being seen. And CHOA/S4L doesn’t care because they still can’t (refuse to) see that shaming/blaming/bullying won’t accomplish the goal they’ve set for themselves.

    • March 6, 2012 3:30 pm

      Vesta, to clarify, it’s a $3 million ad campaign. The $50 million includes all the additional things they’re doing in the neighborhoods. But $3 million is still a ton to spend on what is essentially a social experiment.

      Oh, and I mentioned the new billboard going up. I know it went up, what I’m trying to figure out is when and for how long. Still investigating.


  2. March 5, 2012 6:30 pm

    Wow! That is all I have to say. Thank you for putting it all together.

    • March 6, 2012 3:31 pm

      Thanks FA,
      The next two should be even better because the conversations are much more revealing. I’m working on Whitehead’s this afternoon and resisting the urge to make fun of his name.


  3. Jackie permalink
    March 6, 2012 1:19 am

    Man these people are something else. When this is all done, it’d be funny if you made a dance mix sampling choice quotes from these people. The way Stephanie said “There’s a lot of business out there.” would be a great dance mix sample. Unfortunately I don’t know anything about mixing music, otherwise I’d turn their statements into a dark Industrial/Rock kind of thing. Oh, like Wumpscut!

    Well your video was awesome, I’m looking forward to the next episode. This is just as much fun as watching Penn & Teller’s BS.

    • March 6, 2012 3:31 pm

      Great minds think alike. I was already plotting a “best of” clip for people who don’t have 24 minutes (or longer) to spend watching these. And thanks for comparing me to BS. What a compliment. 🙂


  4. Kala permalink
    March 6, 2012 2:40 am

    I don’t get all the weird inconsistency. It seems pretty obvious that at least from the marketing standpoint, they’re considering weight loss to be a primary objective. But Dr. Walsh continues to deny it.

    I mean, I wonder what it’s really like in her head. So for example, perhaps some of the doctors do understand that prescribed weight loss plans have a high probability of failure, but they use weight loss as the carrot on the stick to get people in to the clinics? I can see how that mode of operation would be tempting, I know for a lot of health practitioners, it’s such a struggle just to get people to come in for basic diagnostic care. It’s undeniable that weight loss is a goal for a lot of people, I’m sure many wouldn’t bother coming if their primary goals weren’t being addressed.

    But at the same time, how effective will that be, if people come in hoping for weight loss, see some improvement in their health and maybe also their weight, but don’t in the long run reach their weight loss goals? If that disappointment causes them to shirk the improvements that they made to their lifestyles that increased positive health outcomes, but maybe not weight loss, can we claim this as some sort of public health victory? I saw this sort of thing from a woman my mother knew who got bariatric surgery; she gave up when she didn’t get to where she wanted to be. Although I don’t think she got as large as she was again (although to be honest I was astonished that she was considered large enough to qualify for the treatment, but perhaps it was because she was also diabetic and thus considered higher risk). I am fairly certain she won’t live as long or as full of a life because she’s not addressing the particular nutritional needs of a person who has undergone bariatric surgery.

    I dislike all this opinion-based and often moralistic and sort of political discourse on health. I’m reminded of the reason balking at making it compulsory to including birth control on insurance plans. The government’s responsibility is to ensure the general welfare of the people, and a significant part of that is public health. Regardless of how one thinks personally about sexual morality, it is undeniable that affordable/free, effective, birth control among other reproductive health care services is indispensable to the general welfare of the people. Regardless of how strongly society feels about people of size, the goal on the part of medical professionals must always be evidence-based public health recommendations that increase positive health outcomes. I don’t see how anything other than a HAES or a similar approach is going to achieve that on the large scale in this country.

    It’s such a large and nuanced problem, I’m always in awe of how complex just about everything winds up being in practice. There are so many open questions, but not enough funding to really dig into them. It could be decades until this gets sorted out. This country obviously has a problem, especially when it comes to cardiovascular and metabolic health. Is being fat, or certain kinds of fat, or certain levels of fat, causative of these problems? Is the fat itself a symptom? Is it neither? If we find that fat or certain types or levels of being fat is causative of something or other, but we have no effective ways at reducing fat, then what do we do? How can the medical community education people on health and wellness when the media is telling everyone differently? What effects on mental health does all of this have?

    But I digress, this is what I was thinking about while watching the video. I sympathize with her position as I’m sure she’s really seeing a lot of unhealthy kids in Georgia. Something certainly does need doing, but I think they’re barking up the wrong tree. Sometimes it’s a matter of the lesser of two evils. Do something that you can get funding for, but isn’t quite all there, or not have the ability to do anything at all. Not everyone can be an activist and some people are stuck on the front lines with little wiggle room. I’m not really too bothered by her business comment, because you yourself brought up the commercial angle, and she may be simply playing to that. If it came up with no mention of commercializing anything, I think I would have a bigger eyebrow raise.

    • Kala permalink
      March 6, 2012 2:40 am

      Sweet god that was really long, sorry!

      • pyctsi permalink
        March 6, 2012 10:05 am

        The length and quality of your statement shows you have thought about this and are not just throwing out the first thing that came to your brain, unlike the idiot a few months back who decided to tell me he was going to put me on the internet for people to gawk at…

        The more intelligent conversation we have on this subject (amongst people who agree, partially agree or disagree) the more information we have and the better we can tailor future discussions to get positive results.

        I think that the business comment was a throw away which shows how she has been influenced by a commercialised medical system and not something that reflects the totality of her attitude.

        If she really cares about these kids I hope she is steering as many as possible away from surgery and towards counselling that will help them normalise their relationship with food.

        • Kala permalink
          March 6, 2012 10:47 am

          I shudder to think that bariatric surgery is even considered an option for young people or children. It’s bad enough that so many adults get nutritionally stunted from it, I can’t imagine what potential for long term harm it has on people who are still growing.

          Even if being fat is shown to do some causative long term cardiovascular harm in the future, which it might not, I can’t imagine how screwing around with the digestive tract and putting a child at high risk for deficiencies among other problems, won’t kill them faster than being fat ever could.

        • March 6, 2012 3:36 pm

          I agree. I think it’s a cultural thing more than a character flaw. She does seem genuinely good hearted about her intentions, but I don’t think you can live in a cultural environment that views obesity as a Sampo. But that’s the problem. I think the information that is most important is having all three conversations together so you can see the culture, rather than focusing on any individual flaws (although they are there too, as they are in all of us).

          But I agree that this should be about having a more intelligent conversation on the subject, and since CHOA will not converse with us, then we have to make do with what we can get. 🙂


    • March 6, 2012 3:33 pm

      What needs to be done is environmental re-engineering, and our healthcare priorities shift to prevention of insulin resistance rather than treatment of obesity. I’m all for public health campaigns that promote, you know, health. And I agree that her comments are generally innocuous. The others, not so much.


      • Kala permalink
        March 6, 2012 3:42 pm

        Well from what I’ve seen of younger marketing types that I know, they see their trade as kind of a game. I don’t think many consider the real implications of what they do, nor think too hard about it. Frieson is business management. It’s clear from his resume that he’s at least partially compelled by public health topics, but at the same time he has no formal training in it. He also owns a restaurant, he’s a busy guy.

        It doesn’t surprise me in the least that the actual MD had some of the more reasonable things to say.

        • March 6, 2012 3:45 pm

          But that’s the problem… the Friesons and Whiteheads of the world have way too much influence on public health campaigns, when they have no formal training. I read somewhere that his winery/restaurant thing closed. He may have a second one.


  5. March 6, 2012 8:26 am

    Well, no-one will ever have to tell you to “grow a pair,” you’ve evidently got one! Kudos for going all out like this!

  6. Duckie Graham permalink
    March 6, 2012 1:57 pm

    No organization spends that much money on an ad campaign “to get people talking about the issue.” They spend the money to sell their product and make mad cash! Anyone saying otherwise is lying or an idiot. Fear and Loathing sells almost as well as sex (though the overlap here doesn’t escape me). Business is apparently booming.

    Even our billboard campaign is selling something – HAES and positive self regard – free to all!

    • Kala permalink
      March 6, 2012 2:21 pm

      “No organization spends that much money on an ad campaign “to get people talking about the issue.” They spend the money to sell their product and make mad cash! Anyone saying otherwise is lying or an idiot.”

      I don’t mean to offend you, but this statement is total BS. There are a lot of campaigns out there that are for good causes and they can easily spend the money that Strong for Life has, or more.

    • March 6, 2012 3:28 pm

      Just to clarify, the ad campaign itself is an estimated $3 million. The $50 million includes all of the other programs as well. But $3 million is nothing to sneeze at. And as I asked in the video, what did CHOA try before deciding that had to terrify the crap out of everyone to get their message across.


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