Media

Why a Philly Whistle-Blower Is Launching a Journalism Start-Up

Wendell Potter had it all — a plum job as a health insurance exec and a posh Main Line existence. Then he saw something he couldn’t unsee. Ten years ago, he turned whistle-blower. This year, he declares war.

Wendell Potter | Photograph by Emily Assiran

Even by the biblical standards of come-to-Jesus moments, the day Wendell Potter got woke was nothing short of miraculous, in the old-school, divine-intervention meaning of the word.

The year was 2007, and Potter was the vice president of corporate communications for Cigna, the global health insurance behemoth then headquartered in Center City. As such, he was, in essence, a handsomely paid apologist in a for-profit health insurance system that — in the dark age that preceded the signing into law of the Affordable Care Act — routinely left more than 40 million Americans without coverage, resulting in nearly 45,000 premature deaths annually.

Among Potter’s duties were writing official-sounding white papers meant to minimize the problem and shift blame to the uninsured, and crafting reform-killing talking points for the health-care lobby’s congressional stooges to repeat into the cameras of Fox News and CNN. He was part of the effort to smear Michael Moore and discredit Sicko, the filmmaker’s 2007 gloves-off exposé of the iniquities of the health-care industrial complex. Yet every day, he left the plush confines of his Main Line home, took the R5 into the city, and rode the elevator to the richly appointed executive suites of Cigna’s corporate headquarters on the 16th floor of Two Liberty Place with the firm conviction that he was going to bat for the angels — healing the sick, mending the broken, resurrecting the dying. So it came as quite a shock to learn that he had been playing for the other team all along.

In July of that year, Potter flew south to visit his parents in Kingsport, Tennessee. It was there that an article on the front page of the Kingsport Times-News jumped out at him: An organization called Remote Area Medical — essentially a U.S.-based Doctors Without Borders that brings pop-up medical clinics to the health-care deserts of rural America — was staging its annual Health Expedition at the nearby Wise County Fairgrounds, just across the state line where Virginia jigsaws into Tennessee and Kentucky. Every year, the article said, thousands of uninsured working poor ventured out of the hollows of Appalachia to receive free medical and dental care. They came from hundreds of miles away, camping in the middle of the night to get a good spot in line to be treated for ailments — in makeshift triage units set up in repurposed livestock stalls — that had been left to fester for upwards of a year. Potter, who theretofore didn’t personally know anyone who didn’t have health insurance, found it hard to believe something like this was necessary in the richest country in the world.

This he had to see.

He borrowed his father’s car and drove the 54 miles to Wise County. For the lion’s share of the trip he drove U.S. Route 23, but he was, for all intents and purposes, on the Road to Damascus. The scene that greeted him at the Wise County Fairgrounds was staggering: hundreds and hundreds of sick and ragged waiting in line for one of the animal stalls to come open so they could get badly needed medical attention for ailments that prayer and faith healers couldn’t fix. It was like a giant MASH unit pitched in the middle of Appalachia, one front in America’s ongoing civil war between the have-everythings and the have-nothings. There were dozens of men and women and children lying on gurneys on the ground in various states of undress, undergoing intimate procedures in the open air, partly veiled by makeshift walls made of bedsheets. Surrendering all dignity was the price of admission. It was a shattering experience for Potter. Tears streamed down his face as he wandered through the carnage. He had no earthly idea it had come to this, that it had gotten this bad. And, as a health insurance executive, he was undeniably complicit.

“It was almost as if I was supposed to be there to see it,” says Potter on a mild afternoon in early November, seated on a bench in Washington Square, just a short walk from the Queen Village townhouse where he and his wife now reside. “It just felt like an electrical shock or something. I have never before and haven’t since experienced something quite like it. It was a sudden realization of what was really going on. Like Paul on the road to Damascus, the scales fell from my eyes.”

We’ve met here to discuss the impending launch of Tarbell, the crowd-funded public interest journalism digital start-up he’s founded, named after pioneering muckraker and Titusville, Pennsylvania, resident Ida Minerva Tarbell, whose hard-hitting exposé of Standard Oil in the pages of McClure’s Magazine in the early 1900s led to the breakup of the oil giant’s monopoly. As of press time, Potter had raised some $500K of a $1 million fund-raising goal that will, upon Tarbell’s official launch at the beginning of January (at tarbell.org), underwrite a physical office here in Philadelphia with a staff of a dozen-plus editors, reporters and support staff, as well as a nationwide network of crack investigative journalists. Tarbell’s unspoken motto: Sunlight is the best disinfectant.

In addition to reporting from the trenches of the forever war on health care, Tarbell will shine its disinfecting sunlight on Big Pharma’s rapacious price-gouging and influence peddling in the deadly opioid crisis of its own making; the predatory lending, onerous student loan debt and fraudulent practices of for-profit colleges; Big Soda’s ongoing $100 million campaign to defeat municipal soda taxes across the land; and the dirty deeds of deep-pocketed dark money and legalized graft that corrupt the nation’s campaign finance system and render government unresponsive to the needs of average Americans. The venture will mark a return to Potter’s journalistic roots — he was a daily newspaper reporter for the Memphis Press-Scimitar and later covered Congress for Scripps Howard before transitioning into the health insurance sector. It won’t be easy; he faces mighty headwinds. A betting man would question the wisdom of setting sail on the darkening, storm-tossed seas of journalism at this late date. So the literally million-dollar question is: Can a well-intentioned, high-toned public interest journalistic start-up helmed by a 66-year-old ex-insurance executive survive, let alone make a difference, in a mediascape beset and bedeviled by fake news, troll farms, Russian botnets, meme armies, social media silo-ing, savage partisan warfare, doomsday economics, and plummeting public trust in the Fourth Estate?

After his gut-punch epiphany at the Wise County Fairgrounds, Potter tamped down his disillusionment and trekked back to Philadelphia, where duty called. “A couple of weeks after I got back to work, I had to fly to Connecticut on the company plane, and I was just paying attention to things I had never really noticed before,” he says. “I was flying on a plane that cost about $5,000 an hour to operate. I was being served lunch on gold-rim china by a flight attendant who worked for the company. Those people have to stand in line to get health care in animal stalls because of what I’m doing this very minute with my CEO on a corporate jet. When you’re at that level, you can go through your day-to-day without realizing the consequences of what you’re doing.”

Those consequences became readily apparent in December of 2007. Cigna had denied coverage of a transplant for Nataline Sarkisyan after the 17-year-old’s successful treatment for recurrent leukemia had caused her liver to begin to fail. Cigna’s decision not to cover the risky procedure cast the company in a villainous light in the eyes of Sarkisyan’s family and friends — and the Los Angeles media standing vigil outside the hospital where she lay dying. Soon the situation metastasized into a national story, then an international story, and it fell to Potter to come up with a good answer to the media wolfpack’s unanswerable question: Why?

The procedure came with a hefty price tag — upwards of $250,000. Potter was burdened with knowledge of the fact that $250K was roughly the same amount Cigna spent for travel, catering and hotel rooms for its annual Investor’s Day meeting in New York City. It was a sum he was intimately acquainted with, since he worked with the department that managed the budget and logistics of those meetings. As the story reached a fever pitch, the media’s demand for answers was relentless.

“My phone was ringing off the hook, it was just snowballing, and there was so much at stake for the company from a PR perspective,” says Potter. “We had a meeting early in the day on December 20th, and later that day the Sarkisyan family held a protest in front of Cigna’s regional offices in Glendale, California. CNN was there, and all the local media, televising it live. Within an hour or so, the decision was made that we needed to make this go away. The company had decided to go ahead and cover the transplant.”

But by then, it was too late. During the delay, Nataline had gone into organ failure; she died shortly thereafter. Potter was devastated. His own daughter, Emily, was only a few years older than Nataline.

He gave his notice a few weeks later.

Two years after that, with Dateline NBC’s cameras rolling, a penitent Potter went to the Sarkisyan home and bared his soul. Later that year, Potter was on Countdown With Keith Olbermann, offering Michael Moore a heartfelt apology. And that is how Wendell Potter, mild-mannered company man, became an inconvenient truth-teller of the industry’s dirty secrets. You may have seen him testifying before Congress, or talking about the ills of the health insurance industrial complex on CNN or MSNBC or PBS or in the pages of the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal or Time magazine. In 2010 he published Deadly Spin: An Insurance Company Insider Speaks Out on How Corporate PR Is Killing Health Care and Deceiving Americans (Bloomsbury), which is both a troubling exposé of the dark arts of modern corporate PR and an authoritative takedown of a sick and dangerous health-care system and the incredibly powerful and phenomenally profitable industry that games it for billions. But above all, it’s an impassioned call for substantive reform, basic mercy and common decency.

Potter had a lot of skin in the game when he blew up his life. He walked away from a golden goose of a gig when he turned whistle-blower: a Fortune 500 executive veep position, a salary well into six figures, a fat sheaf of stock options that have since tripled in value, not to mention 20 years of corporate sweat equity. But his only regret is that he didn’t do it sooner.

“I am often ashamed to admit what I was doing as a corporate flack,” he says. “And I honestly feel a need to try and make amends. There’s been a diminishment of the ranks of watchdog journalism. My God, look where we are: 90 percent of news media organizations are owned by just six companies. That’s a big part of why I started Tarbell. Sometimes I joke that during the 20 years I spent working for big insurance companies, I was actually a journalist working deep undercover.”

Potter has avoided blowback and recriminations from his former employers, specifically regarding the nondisclosure agreements he’s locked into for life, by avoiding singling out Cigna and instead training his fire on the system as a whole. Still, all these years later, he’s held onto a single share of Cigna stock, he says, “just in case I want to go to a shareholder meeting someday.”

“Journalism is printing what someone else doesn’t want printed; everything else is public relations,” according to a quote apocryphally attributed to George Orwell. While the authorship of those words may be in dispute, their benchmark sentiment isn’t — it remains the foundational refrain of modern journalism. Wendell Potter started his professional life as a journalist before transitioning into public relations, which up until recently was a point of no return. In the eyes of journalism’s gatekeepers, you permanently surrender all credibility when you cross over to the dark side. But in an era that has seen nearly 60 percent of all newspaper jobs evaporate into the digital ether since 1990, and in which corporate PR professionals outnumber journalists five to one, the industry can no longer afford such unforgiving standards. We are in the midst of an undeclared war on the truth, and journalism needs all the warm bodies it can find, especially if they’re able to underwrite their own care and feeding.

All of which set the stage for Wendell Potter’s return to the Fourth Estate in the autumn of his life. Potter isn’t a digital native. He came of age, journalistically speaking, back when reportage was the bawdy domain of an untucked, poker-faced fraternity of hard-drinking, chain-smoking, f-bombing, low-paid “ink-stained wretches.” For the most part, the cigarettes and alcohol and even the ink have gone the way of the dinosaurs, but the low-paid wretchedness remains, as does journalism’s prime directive: Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. This, Potter could do. He used to walk among the comfortable upon the faintly Olympian perches of executive suites and corporate jets. He knows their dark secrets and soft underbellies. But the game has changed since his days covering D.C., as have the ways that information now flows through the digital nooks and crannies of society.

Potter is hardly a Luddite, but he knew he needed a digital native — a millennial who instinctively understood the ravenous data appetites and hyperlooping velocity of social media narratives — to help guide Tarbell’s entrée into the unknown of this brave new info-mad world. Enter Will Drabold, 23, degree in journalism, Ohio University, class of 2016. Interned at Time, covering politics for the millennial-centric Mic digital news vertical, painfully young, incredibly bright, with an honors thesis titled “Reviving Statehouse Reporting: A Startup Plan For An Ohio News Nonprofit Focused On Government Accountability Journalism And Audience Engagement.” Potter was impressed with Drabold’s reporting on predatory health-care industry practices and started tweeting it out. They bonded over grilled cheese near Farragut Square in D.C. two summers ago, and geeked out over the ADA-enforced predations of dentistry on Native American reservations. “He mentioned he was maybe going to start a nonprofit journalism thing,” says Drabold. “I said, ‘That’s really weird, because I just spent my entire senior year at college writing a thesis about how you start a nonprofit journalism newsroom.’”

Perfect.

Tarbell will cut out the middleman. They aren’t going after politicians; they’re going after their corporate paymasters. “Most Americans think the system is rigged, and that’s not conspiratorial — it’s demonstrably true,” says Drabold, who consulted with Potter on getting Tarbell off the ground. “There’s all this disinformation and fear that is used to preserve a profitable status quo. And Wendell used to do this in corporate America and has seen this and knows how to track it. We want to dig into that and reveal how that affects you, and show you what you can do about it, how you can change the status quo that so frustrates you.”

The first step for Tarbell, however, will be to find an audience and then grow it exponentially. “When Tarbell rolls out a story, the goal is going to be impact,” says Drabold, “from the second it goes on the website, to getting it out with partners, working with organizations that can help get it out to their members or readers, and making sure that the journalism is everywhere. We think there’s too much good journalism that begins and ends with fact-finding. There is a lot of great investigative journalism out there, but the problem we see is that there’s not enough from the reader point of view of ‘How does this affect me? Why should I care?’ — and being explicit about it. … Step one is pointing out and explaining the problem. Step two is explaining to the reader how they can play a direct role in solving the problem.”

Back in Washington Square, the hazy winter sun drops below the city skyline, the crowd thins, the squirrels look fat and happy. The bottle of pumpkin pie soda (“It was an impulse purchase,” he says with a shrug) that Potter has been nipping at for the past few hours is nearly empty. I notice he has the word “now” tattooed on the underside of his wrist, like an Auschwitz serial number. I ask him what it means. “A reminder of a number of things: to be present, in the now, if you will,” he says. “And also, now is the time. Don’t wait, don’t put things off. Who knows how much time I have left?”

I ask if he has any other tattoos. Just one other, he says, turning his other wrist over to reveal a quarter-sized tattoo of the state of Tennessee. “It’s where my wife and I grew up,” he volunteers. “Where our kids were born. And my daughter Emily had this tattoo. She was born there but had grown up largely in Connecticut and Philadelphia. She passed away a couple years ago, she was 27, so this tattoo is in honor of that. And also, a reminder of where I came from. I love this city and feel as if I am a part of it. But I grew up in a place that was very different from this, in rural Tennessee. Tarbell is based here, but I’ll be writing for those folks, too.”

I ask him how his daughter died so young. There is a sigh, followed by a long, slow exhalation. “Emily had an addiction problem,” he says wearily. “She suffered from depression and anxiety and was in treatment for that. She was athletic and hurt her knee, and she had had some surgery and was prescribed an opioid … ”

He doesn’t even need to finish his sentence. We both stare down at our feet. “I’m very sorry for your loss,” I say. “Is that something Tarbell will go after — Big Pharma’s complicity in the deaths of more Americans in 2016 than died in the Vietnam War?”

He nods grimly.

“I don’t think there’s enough awareness among the public about just how powerful pharmaceutical companies are,” he says. “One of our first stories will be about the pharmaceutical industry and how they spend money to buy everyone off. And opioids are so addictive — no one is safe, absolutely no one. I know a lot about the industry and its tactics. Drug companies assured doctors that this wasn’t addictive, and it’s become obvious that is simply not true, and yet they continue to make so much money … killing people.”

Published as “The Man Who Knew Too Much” in the January 2018 issue of Philadelphia magazine.