When longtime Cigna public relations executive Wendell Potter decided to go from industry insider to heavily scrutinized whistleblower, he looked to Madison’s Center for Media and Democracy to help him make the transition. “I sought them out,” Potter says. “I have really admired the work they have done because it is of such high quality and meets a great need.”
Potter left Cigna in 2008 and became the sixteen-year-old PR watchdog organization’s senior fellow on health care in May. Then in June, as the debate on health care reform was reaching the boiling point, he testified before the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee that companies like Cigna “confuse their customers and dump the sick” to cut the number of claims they pay.
Since his testimony, Potter has done hundreds of interviews with the nation’s largest news outlets and was the subject of an hourlong episode of “Bill Moyers Journal.” This intense activity Potter is generating comes at a time of much change for the Center for Media and Democracy itself. John Stauber, who created the center in 1993 and ran it with Sheldon Rampton out of the basement of Stauber’s home on Madison’s near-west side for its first several years, stepped down as executive director and handed the reins over to former American Civil Liberties Union lobbyist and U.S. Justice Department attorney Lisa Graves. Mary Bottari, former press secretary for U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, now leads the Real Economy Project to track money and policy related to the world financial crisis.
Potter says he came to the center hoping for this kind of action. At one point he had been interviewed for sixty-eight days straight without a break.
“I’ll talk to anybody,” Potter says.
Dustin Beilke is a Madison-based freelance writer.