Wendell Potter

Wendell Potter, Founder of Tarbell.org

“We’ve got to do something. The future of investigative reporting and accountability journalism has to be nonprofit. But we can’t expect foundations to sustain it forever. Tarbell.org can make a difference.”

Pronouns: He/His/Him

Meet Wendell Potter. Wendell is an author, speaker, and freshly-minted journalism entrepreneur. After toiling twenty plus years as a PR flack for the insurance industry he abruptly reversed course and became its worst nightmare: an outspoken whistleblower exposing its immoral practices. Wendell decided to launch Tarbell.org, a nonprofit investigative and solutions-based journalism platform, after publishing three books interrogating the corrupting influence of money in politics. Wendell can be followed on Twitter here.

What Does He Do?

For nearly a decade Wendell has been speaking out against the health insurance industry that he once spoke on behalf of.

Since 2016 he’s been focused on building out Tarbell.org, named for Ida Minerva Tarbell, a pioneer of investigative journalism. (Tarbell exposed the labor practices of Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company, defining the age of muckraking journalism.)

Tarbell.org aspires to be an independent, non-profit digital journalism platform that will be a blend of investigative reporting and solutions journalism launching in January 2018.

How Did He Get Into This Work?

At the suggestion of his high school English teacher in Mountain City, Tennessee, Wendell applied to be the school correspondent to the local newspaper. Once he saw his byline in The Kingsport Times-News, he was hooked.

As a University of Tennessee journalism student, he was a summer intern at the Memphis Press-Scimitar. There, he had his first brush with accountability journalism – breaking the news about the city’s inspectors passing cars without checking them for safety violations. “I wrote a heckuva story and created quite the stir in Memphis.”

Wendell would later cover local and state government before becoming a correspondent for Scripps, following Congress, the White House, and SCOTUS. While he might have been a budding Bernstein, his career took a turn.

As Wendell recalls, he was “enticed” by the money — and power — and joined the dark side. (Today, for the first time, PR flaks outnumber reporters.) For more than twenty years he ran communications for Humana and then Cigna and — by his own admission — wound up frequently defending the indefensible — the practices of the healthcare industry which routinely denied coverage to our most vulnerable.

Ten years ago this summer Wendell found himself at a crossroads. While home on a family visit he made the trip out to rural Virginia to spy on one of Stan Brock’s “Remote Area Medical” pop-up clinics. As a pioneer of ‘no-cost’ health care clinics RAM drew hundreds upon hundreds, some of whom had driven as far away as Georgia for an opportunity for free vision and oral care. They queued in long lines, some sleeping overnight in the rain. From that moment on, Wendell knew that the rest of his life would be spent atoning for his role in facilitating such human misery.

On June 24, 2009, Wendell began his journey as a patient advocate and a whistleblower, testifying before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation in support of a public option. The following year he published Deadly Spin, an expose of the insurance industry’s PR practices.

“The joke is that my twenty years inside the health insurance business was my way of doing “undercover journalism.’”

In addition to writing and speaking out in pursuit of a public option, Wendell circled back to the accountability journalism that he found so fulfilling decades ago. While a healthcare analyst for the Center for Public Integrity he collaborated with Nick Penniman — a Friend of Civic Hall and founder of “Issue One” — to publish “Nation on the Take: How Big Money Corrupts Our Democracy And What We Can Do About It.” 
“We have lost faith in almost every one of our institutions – government, the Press, even capitalism.”

With this decline in trust, Wendell went for a full pivot and decided to found Tarbell.org. “No one ever goes BACK to journalism. I did.”

How Did He Come to Civic Hall?

Last year Wendell and his co-author kicked off Nation on the Take’s national book tour at Civic Hall.

“I was amazed at the turnout and the quality of the questions. The evening set the tone for the book tour and the feedback we received led me to consider doing something more than just writing another book.”

What Project Is She Working On?

In 2015 Wendell found himself reading “Losing the News” by Alex Jones (no, not that Alex Jones). Jones spoke of us “losing the iron core of journalism,” sending a shiver down Wendell’s spine.

“We’ve got to do something. The future of investigative reporting and accountability journalism has to be nonprofit. But we can’t expect foundations to sustain it forever. Tarbell.org can make a difference.”

Part of Tarbell.org’s mission, offers Wendell, “is to produce work that seems credible and useful for where I grew up in Tennessee.” To that end, Tarbell.org is seeking partners for content. Wendell is talking to directors of regional and state press associations in an effort to have content in small dailies, as well as speaking with radio stations outside major markets.

Tarbell.org is hoping to raise enough money to be sustainable for its first few years and to launch this coming January 2018. While it will initially emphasize healthcare, it will also cover stories with a focus on accountability. It will have no advertising in any shape or form. And it is committed to paying contributors a decent wage, recognizing that “doing journalism is not cheap.”

What Is His Ask of Civic Hall?

“Don’t just support Tarbell – which of course we need! – but find your way into it. We hope that activists will be part of the community. We want to foster like-minded folks who understand the importance of civic engagement. Help us determine what stories to cover, what angles we might not know. We want members who are themselves potential subject matter experts – tapping into our readership and engaging with it.”

Tarbell.org wants to help pull the curtain back on big corporations and is launching its crowdfunding campaign today, October 23rd, through November 23rd.

This Tuesday Wendell will be the featured speaker at Progressive HackNight, and on Saturday he will give a Lightning Talk for the upcoming Action Blitz, which is convening with the purpose of building tools and creating compelling messaging for the ACA Open Enrollment period.