“It was so easy for me to get my way”
A former health insurance insider turned whistleblower says that he was not only surprised at how “easy” it was to manipulate members of the news media over the years, but also reveals that he routinely “wined and dined” reporters from major news outlets – including the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal – in return for favorable coverage.
In his new book Deadly Spin, Wendell Potter describes how his chief function as a senior public relations officer at two of the largest for-profit health insurance companies in the United States – Humana and Cigna – was to “perpetuate myths that had no other purpose but to sustain those companies’ extraordinary high profitability.”
But in an extended interview with Raw Story last week, Potter went further, revealing that he lunched with reporters at major media outlets for years – including journalists at the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal – as well as those from local and regional media, in most cases picking up the tab, which he says directly resulted in positive coverage of the companies he represented.
In an email to Raw Story Sunday night, New York Times spokeswoman Danielle Rhoades Ha responded, "The claims are unsubstantiated and absurd since no names of reporters, examples of stories or other pertinent facts are provided to support these claims."
Wall Street Journal spokeswoman Ashley Huston declined comment.
In a follow-up call Sunday night, Potter reiterated to Raw Story that he would not name reporters from the Times or the Journal who embraced such relationships with him because he did not want to single them out for embarrassment. He said that he engaged in this practice with many different major media outlets for years, but cited the Times and Journal to underscore that even the most venerable news sources took part.
Potter also said that he did not cite specific articles because it would have the same effect of outing those reporters.
He noted as well that these meetings with reporters were "a process that developed over time" and didn't just result in influencing a handful of articles, but "many articles over the years," even including ones which were generously spiked after such interactions.
“Just like lobbyists do for lawmakers”
“What you do, at least if you’re successful -- and I was at Cigna for almost 15 years -- you work to develop good relationships with reporters who are important to your company and to your industry,” he explained. “You give them special attention.”
“We would go to lunch whenever we could,” continued Potter, who, at the age of twenty-four, was covering the White House, Congress and the Supreme Court for Scripps Howard news service before going into public relations in the late 1970s.
He said that sitting across the table from someone helped to develop a better rapport than if they were always just “a voice at the end of a telephone line.”
“It was important for me I’ve always found to have a personal relationship with someone that’s based on going to lunch,” Potter said. “It was just part of what I did to try to make sure that my company’s point of view was included in their stories.”
He added, though, “I would essentially wine and dine them, just like lobbyists do for lawmakers.”
When Raw Story asked Potter if he meant that he literally picked up the tab for reporters, which, in turn, led to favorable coverage, he averred that was the case.
As an example of how he was also involved in this practice with some of the nation’s most well-respected news outlets, he noted that even reporters from the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal had taken part in such lunches.
He said that while some reporters over the years did decline to have their meals paid for, most of them agreed. And even those who would not let Potter pick up the tab still had no qualms about sharing lunch with him and allowing him to ingratiate himself, he said.
As for the reporters who agreed to have him pay for their meals, Potter said he was “absolutely” aware of the ethical issues involved for the journalists and their news outlets in agreeing to such a transaction.
Potter, who is currently the senior fellow on health care at the Center for Media and Democracy, said he has less of a problem with reporters who met him for lunch but made sure they paid for themselves.
“I see really nothing wrong with that,” he said.
But he then noted that whether he paid for their meals or not, many of the reporters whom he engaged with in such settings over the years didn’t seem to fully grasp the degree to which he was using them.
“Reporters should be mindful of what’s really going on,” Potter said. “They should be more aware of the game that’s being played. And I don’t think a lot of them really are.”
He added that they often confused responsiveness and attention with cooperation, but, in reality, he was only going “through the motions of being cooperative” and “was always certainly mindful of not disclosing anything the company didn’t want to be disclosed.”
Spent years planting stories in the media
Potter has pointed out his involvement in planting stories in the media as part of the health insurance industry’s campaign to de-legitimize Academy Award-winning filmmaker Michael Moore’s documentary “Sicko.”
He’s also cited CNN’s chief medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta and USA Today for treating the front group Health Care America as a viable source critical of “Sicko” rather than what it was – a sole creation of America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), the insurers' biggest trade group, and APCO Worldwide, a Washington-based PR firm that specializes in propping up front groups for major corporations and industries, such as for Phillip Morris and the tobacco industry during the 1990s.
But during the interview with Raw Story, Potter also acknowledged having planted stories in the media for years.
“Well, it’s just part of what you do,” he said. “Over time you’re always involved working with your colleagues in other companies to try to get the media to cover the industry more favorably.”
Potter, the self-described “gatekeeper” at Cigna to the CEO and other top executives for 15 years, also noted his surprise at the ease with which he was able to manipulate most reporters.
“You’d think that a PR guy for a big insurance company would get beaten up every now and then,” he said. “But it was so easy for me to get my way.”
Potter explained, for example, that if he really wanted to avoid a conversation with a reporter, he would simply issue a statement and usually send it by email.
“I wouldn’t even have to have a conversation,” he said. “I would essentially be saying, ‘Take it or leave it, this is what we’re saying about this.’ And they would just acquiesce.”
He said that it was “almost unheard of” for a reporter to ever push back, noting that “only a few reporters in my whole career really did all that significantly in terms of trying to get beyond the statement.”
Still regularly spots industry’s influence on news media
Potter said that industry spin may be nuanced but he often notices it in articles on health insurance, even in the country’s paper of record.
Citing the Times again, he said, “I’m not going to name names [of reporters], but even the New York Times has seen their reporting out of Washington being less than what you would think” regarding health insurance coverage.
“Probably most readers wouldn’t, but I can see how the stories that come together have been influenced by the industry in ways that I can spot,” Potter continued. “They’ve got the industry spin in it. And it’s not tough or hard-hitting, it doesn’t get into areas that really are important.”
One reason for this, he pointed out, might have to do with his surprise by the number of reporters covering the health insurance industry who not only lack expertise on the details of insurance policies and legislation but also the companies’ stealthy PR tactics.
Potter said that “most of the reporters” he encountered who covered health insurance and the industry “really didn’t have much of an understanding how it really works.”
He also noted that still seems to be the case today.
“So it was really easy for us to work with the media in ways that were very advantageous to us and to the insurance industry,” he said.
Brad Jacobson is a contributing investigative reporter for Raw Story. You can follow his Twitter feed at twitter.com/bradpjacobson.