WisBusiness.com Media Watch: Madison-based media watchdog group scores via health care debate

By Erik Gunn

For WisBusiness.com

A Madison-based national media watchdog group is getting a boost out of this year’s long-running health care debate — a much higher national profile that saw a flurry of September scores.

The Center for Media and Democracy(http://www.prwatch.org) has been getting unprecedented national exposure, thanks to an unlikely spokesman: a retired health insurance executive turned harsh critic of his former industry.

Since early summer Wendell Potter, a former public relations executive for the health insurer CIGNA, has testified before Congress, given speeches and granted interviews aimed at boosting the cause of health care reform and especially a strong public alternative to private industry. He’s done it with the backing of CMD, a progressive-leaning watchdog that seeks to expose and counteract business and government PR campaigns

Since CMD appointed him “Senior Fellow on Health Care” earlier this year, Potter has been busy. Time magazine profiled him in September — and President Obama alluded to some of his comments (though not naming him) in his televised national health care speech to Congress Sept. 9.

Potter also spoke Sept. 12 at “Fighting Bob Fest” organized by liberal lawyer and former U.S. Senate candidate Ed Garvey of Madison. In one mid-September weekend Potter turned up on shows with MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann, CNN’s Anderson Cooper, HBO’s Bill Maher—even Fox Business News. He shows little sign of letting up.

“I have never ever seen somebody get the sort of media attention that Wendell has,” says CMD founder John Stauber.

Potter’s story is probably the biggest reason. Time called him “the ideal whistleblower.”

Potter retired from CIGNA and turned critic because “I could not in good conscience continue serving as an industry mouthpiece,” he wrote in a commentary for CNN. “And I did not want to be part of yet another industry effort to kill meaningful reform.”

Over the summer he testified before Congress on what he called insurance industry tactics: dumping sick people to boost profits and reward Wall Street investors. He asserts insurance industry PR people—like he used to be—are the real authors of the populist talking points against health reform.

“People don’t have nearly enough of an idea of how they are being manipulated by big corporations and their PR people,” Potter tells MediaWatch.

Asked for a comment on Potter, a Cigna spokesman says: “We strongly support comprehensive health care reform with the goal of expanding access, controlling costs, and improving the quality of care. Although we respect that there are different opinions on the solutions, we strongly disagree with the suggestion that, motivated by profits, the insurance industry has deliberately attempted to confuse or unfairly treat covered individuals.”

Potter’s apostasy has gotten him ink in columns by Richard Cohen at the Washington Post and Nicholas Kristof at the New York Times, on network and cable news shows and repeat interviews with Olbermann and Rachel Maddow on MSNBC. Bill Moyers devoted a whole show to him on PBS.

For the Madison-based CMD, Potter’s arrival was timely.  The group changed leaders this summer and also has been ramping up its activities with the Potter campaign and another one focused on the economy and financial institutions.

Stauber founded CMD in 1993 after working to organize farmers and consumers in Wisconsin who wanted to keep bovine growth hormone (BGH) out of milk. Through Freedom of Information Act requests to federal regulators Stauber obtained thousands of documents that showed “how these companies were using very sophisticated public relations strategies to manage the media” on the BGH issue.  Stauber claims he was spied upon by a PR firm employee working for Monsanto who posed as a fictional anti-BGH activist to get inside an anti-BGH strategy session.

“I realized that one reason citizen reformers were often unsuccessful is we were up against, not just lobbyists, and not just politicians being given large campaign contributions by industry, but very sophisticated PR management strategies,” Stauber says. “There was no watchdog group looking at the seamy side of public affairs and public relations. I decided to start an organization to do that.”

Stauber spent $5,000 to get CMD off the ground. After 16 years at the organization’s helm he decided to step back. This summer CMD recruited Lisa Graves, a Washington, D.C., lawyer, lobbyist and activist and UW-La Crosse graduate to succeed him.

Unlike other liberal media watchdog groups such as Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) or Media Matters for America, CMD’s focus is on PR as much or more than on media organizations. Sourcewatch (http://sourcewatch.org) is CMD’s wiki-based encyclopedia of individuals and organizations “engaged in managing and manipulating public perception, opinion and policy.” Entries provide background information on personnel, past campaigns and funding sources for groups and topics ranging from Americans for Prosperity to the controversial anti-schizophrenia drug Zyprexa.

But CMD also critiques the news media for cozying up to PR campaigns, reporting on the use of PR-firm-authored “video news releases” on local TV news. It has continued to spotlight the aftermath of  New York Times’ Pulitzer-prize winning story on how the Pentagon covertly cultivated retired military officers as media pundits on the Iraq war.

Stauber says CMD is clearly on the left, but it doesn’t take partisan donations or money from unions or corporations—only foundations and individuals, to help ensure its independence. That leaves it free to criticize Democrats as well as Republicans, he says.

Indeed, Stauber has called out Obama and Health Care for America Now (which mobilized voters for Obama in 2008 and now organizes support for the administration on health reform) because they ignore a Canadian-style single-payer health care plan.

With a budget of around $800,000 in 2008, CMD’s entire operation costs about half the salary of one health-insurance industry lobbyist (Karen Ignani, president of the America’s Health Insurance Plans, who gets $1.5 million a year).

So far, the attention Wendell Potter has drawn to the group hasn’t translated in new fundraising. Still, Stauber says, Potter’s high profile represents a milestone for the kind of counter-PR work that CMD focuses on. “It’s very heartening.”

— Racine-based freelance writer Erik Gunn covers the media for Milwaukee Magazine and reports on politics, business, education and other topics for several publications.