Ex-Cigna flack turned activist Wendell Potter starts Tarbell.org, investigative site

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Wendell Potter speaks at the Free Library of Philadelphia about efforts to derail a health-care overhaul.

After seven years in Washington arguing for expanded health insurance, Wendell Potter, an ex-Cigna Inc. spokesman who quit and switched sides (his book: Deadly Spin) to become a prominent critic of for-profit health insurers, is back in Philadelphia, preparing an investigative Web site, Tarbell.org, to focus on how insurers, medical-industry investors and other corporate interests' cash and lobbying shapes U.S. healthcare policy. 

Potter's goal: "to explain how decisions made by large corporations and other special interests affect your life," he told me, over sandwiches and beer at McGillin's Ale House.

He pledges to be "independent, nonpartisan and pull no punches." He won't advocate policy; he says he'll explain who's behind the Washington agendas restricting Medicare, Medicaid and other programs.

Potter's advisers include Temple media-school dean David Boardman, Ethan Zuckerman of MIT and half a dozen other heavy thinkers (see list at Nieman link below). 

Tarbell is named for Ida Tarbell, the early 1900s crusading journalist whose History of the Standard Oil Co. exposed John D. Rockefeller's collusion with the Pennsylvania Railroad to crush independent producers (like Tarbell's father) and establish monopoly control over key U.S. business sectors. Potter plans to "crowdfund" Tarbell with small donations.

Like some other crusaders with a brand to sell, Potter has at times been dismissive of established journalism. I encouraged him to expand his platform with work from the many reporters who continue to detail and expose healthcare and insurer spending, including some of the reporting by our team at the Inquirer.

More on Tarbell at NiemanLab and Poynter.org