Books » Book Features


A PR flack turns whistle-blower.



ObamaCare was not designed to improve medical care; it was designed to install socialism ... ."

That's according to Daniel Weber, founder of the Association of Mature American Citizens, and an e-mail proposing an interview with Weber recently wound up, for some reason, in my in-box — an interview, during which, in addition to further commenting on the 2010 health-care bill, Weber is prepared to "elaborate on" the country's Tea Party "vibe."

But then there's this from Barney DuBois, a former editor at what was the city's afternoon daily, the Memphis Press-Scimitar:

"As an old newshound, I'm a little cynical about anything I read. And you should be, too. I ask myself, who's telling me this and why?"

It's a question DuBois asks in his foreword to a book by another former staff member of the Press-Scimitar, reporter Wendell Potter, and it's a question Potter these days would want each of us to ask. But back in the day, he would've rather we didn't ask. Easier on everybody to take his word for it, because such a question could have jeopardized Potter's position at health giant CIGNA. Job title: head of corporate communications. Better described: spinmeister. But this was spin that came with consequences — deadly consequences — Potter finally realized. He quit CIGNA in 2008.

Today, Potter is an outspoken expert on health care at the Center for Media and Democracy, and he's now the author of Deadly Spin: An Insurance Company Insider Speaks Out On How Corporate PR Is Killing Health Care and Deceiving Americans (Bloomsbury Press).

Weber may be against the health-care bill, but Wendell Potter is not, because, as Potter sees it, it's a start to putting the breaks on the deceptive practices of the insurance industry, and no one knows health insurers and their practices better than Potter. He was in charge of putting a positive spin on those business habits for years, and at the close of Deadly Spin he offers readers a guide to spotting spin and the companies that excel at it. (Big Oil, Big Banks, but for some reason not Big Pharma.) He also offers us abundant evidence that the welfare of you and your family is not uppermost in the boardrooms of the big insurers. Profits, shareholders, and (no surprise) Wall Street are. How did this happen, though — that a significant number of Americans have been hoodwinked into voting against their own interests when it comes to their insurance and that a young reporter, fresh out of the University of Tennessee with a major in communications, could graduate into becoming chief flack for the health insurance industry? Here's how: the lure of big gains, Potter's own. (CIGNA, Potter doesn't deny it, treats its big-wigs real well.)

After 20 years in the public-relations departments of Humana and then CIGNA, however, Potter had had enough. He'd seen enough:

Seen the long lines of the uninsured and underinsured at the free health screenings in rural Virginia, not far from Potter's native East Tennessee; seen CIGNA deny a life-saving organ transplant to a teenager (then backpedal into honoring the claim after a nationwide PR debacle); seen Sicko, the documentary by Michael Moore, whose indictment of the health insurance industry Potter could not deny; seen Karen Ignani of America's Health Insurance Plans (a front group for insurers) grandly tell Obama that he had her organization's full backing, which, behind doors, he certainly did not; and seen Republican representative Zach Wamp from Tennessee complaining in 2009 about Obama's "socialism" and condemning those who "choose" not to have health insurance. (One thing about Wamp: He's a quick study. His talking points, Potter writes, could have come straight from Potter himself.)

But here's another thing: Potter has lived to see a redemption of sorts, both personally and professionally. He's stopped downing a six-pack after work to deaden his conscience. He's testified before Congress on the duplicitous practices of the health insurance industry. He's become a go-to guy for members of the press trying to disentangle fact from fiction when it comes to the substandard state of citizens' health coverage. And he's heard his president quote his very words when Obama borrowed from Potter in a speech before a joint session of Congress.

That joint session was the first time Potter had been in the House gallery since his days as a Washington correspondent for Scripps Howard, after his early days as an investigative reporter for the Press-Scimitar.

And as for last year's health bill debate? "I can say without doubt that I was more proud of what I had done over those several months than of anything I had ever done in my long career as a PR executive," Potter concludes.

"Telling the truth is very cathartic. I highly recommend it."

And I highly recommend Deadly Spin.

Wendell Potter discusses and signs copies of Deadly Spin at Davis-Kidd Booksellers on Thursday, January 13th, at 6 p.m.

Keep the Flyer Free!

Always independent, always free (never a paywall),
the Memphis Flyer is your source for the best in local news and information.

Now we want to expand and enhance our work.
That's why we're asking you to join us as a Frequent Flyer member.

You'll get membership perks (find out more about those here) and help us continue to deliver the independent journalism you've come to expect.

Add a comment