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ABC Touts Insurance Industry 'Whistleblower,' Fails to Note Left-Wing Affiliation

ABC's Good Morning America on Sunday ran a sympathetic piece on former insurance executive Wendell Potter's "personal journey from health industry insider to outsider." Correspondent Ron Claiborne trumpeted how after a "crisis of conscience" Potter has become an "outspoken critic of the industry in which he worked for 20 years." While Claiborne allowed Potter to paint insurance companies as heartless and greedy, the ABC reporter did not tell viewers that Potter is now working with a far-left advocacy group, the Center for Media and Democracy.

In contrast, over on CNN the previous day, House Call host Dr. Sanjay Gupta (who flirted with joining the Obama administration as Surgeon General) did identify Potter as a "senior fellow at the Center for Media and Democracy" and noted that the former Cigna spokesman was now an advocate for the "public option," although Gupta did not explicitly label Potter's organization or position as leftist or even liberal.

During his Saturday morning interview, Gupta introduced Potter as "a former insurance company executive...once the chief spokesman for the Cigna Insurance Company. He's now a senior fellow at the Center for Media and Democracy." Despite not labeling the political leanings of this organization, the CNN anchor gave a hint of Potter's views in his first question to the fellow: "Now, in the name of transparency, I should point out that you are pro-health reform and pro- a public insurance option as well. Is that fair?" Potter confirmed that this was the case, called the so-called public option a "vital part of health insurance reform."

Gupta followed up by stating that the public option "maybe gasping its last breath. Some of the blue dog Democrats are coming out and saying it just doesn't look this is going to happen. What is your reaction to that?" The former Cigna spokesman turned left-wing industry critic repeated his earlier point: "I think that they need to take another look at it because I think it's vitally important, and I think...they may be saying that because they're just not realizing the importance of having a public option."

Later in the interview, the CNN anchor asked a seemingly leading question about the health care industry's supposed backing of the campaign against ObamaCare:

GUPTA: ...I have these patients at Grady who can't get their operations and I hear about these insurance executives like you used to be flying around in private jets and living in these towers that are huge and making millions and millions of dollars. It really- I've got to tell you- it breaks my heart. It really- it really is hard to think about. But what is the biggest secret that you think health insurance companies don't want us to know?

POTTER: That they are really behind the efforts to kill reform and to gut it. They are really behind the effort to make sure we don't have a public option.

CNN omitted Potter's new position at the Center for Media and Democracy during its previous two reports- one on July 2 and the second on August 12.

The next morning on Sunday's GMA, Claiborne's report on Potter echoed CNN's August 12 report. Anchor Bill Weir introduced the report and gave the former Cigna spokesman the same "whistleblower" label that CNN used.

BILL WEIR: Let's turn to a man who was, until recently, a top executive at one of the biggest health insurance companies in the nation who has now turned whistleblower, and is one of the industry's most outspoken critics. And Ron [Claiborne] actually went to visit with this man- see how it's changed his life.

RON CLAIBORNE: Well, that's right Bill. For years, Wendell Potter worked his way to the top of one of the largest health insurance companies in the world- as you said, this was Cigna. He was Cigna's media strategist- its advocate and defender until he underwent a crisis of conscience. I spoke to Potter about his personal journey from health industry insider to outsider.

CLAIBORNE (voice-over): Wendell Potter spends most of his time at home these days. The big office, the big salary, the big job- they're gone. He used to be the top public relations executive at one of the leading health insurance companies. Now, he's an outspoken critic of the industry in which he worked for 20 years.

WENDELL POTTER: If I can do anything about it, I'm going to speak out.

CLAIBORNE: The transformation of Wendell Potter began two years ago during a visit to his hometown in rural east Tennessee.

POTTER: I went to what I'd read in the newspaper about- some kind of a health care expedition that was being held across the state line in Wise [County], Virginia. And out of curiosity, I went there.

CLAIBORNE: What he saw shocked him. Hundreds of people lined up at a fairgrounds, waiting to see doctors in an annual free clinic. Many waited outside in the rain to be treated in animal stalls.

POTTER: To see it in the way I saw it was just a sudden realization of what really happens to so many people in this country because they don't have insurance. And it was just like, something rushed at me. I just felt that I had been hit by lightning or something.

CLAIBORNE: Then in late 2007, seventeen-year-old Nataline Sarkisyan needed a liver transplant. But Cigna declined to pay for it. Potter was the company's frontman as the controversy raged. Eventually, the company relented, but it was too late to save Nataline.

CLAIBORNE (on-camera): How did that affect you personally?

POTTER: It was just- just awful.

ALEX POTTER, SON OF HEALTH INSURANCE WHISTLE BLOWER:He said to me, Alex- you know, I'm not very proud of what I'm doing.

CLAIBORNE (voice-over): Soon after, Potter quit Cigna. He was 56 years old and did not have another job lined up. Potter's wife Louella worried about how they would get by.

A. POTTER: She was nervous. You know, she was-

CLAIBORNE (off-camera): She was worried about it.

A. POTTER: Of course, of course- yeah. You know, she supports my Dad- you know. But she was worried- yeah.

CLAIBORNE: For a year, Potter said nothing publicly that was critical of the health care industry until the Obama health care reform plan, and what Potter perceived as the health care industry working furiously to stop it. Last month, he testified before Congress.

W. POTTER (from June 24, 2009 Senate testimony): And I saw how they confused their customers and dumped the sick. So all they- so also, they can satisfy their Wall Street investors.

CLAIBORNE: Potter says his friends have stood by him. But he's paid a price- loss of income, status, position and colleagues.

W. POTTER: The price is high. It's- it's hard to do this. I'm glad I did it. I have no regrets at all.

CLAIBORNE: And we asked Cigna for a response to Potter said. We got a written reply from an insurance industry trade group which told us that it supports health care reform, but not a government plan that would, it said, dismantle employer coverage, bankrupt hospitals, and increase the federal budget. And I should point out that Cigna manages ABC's health care plan.

-Matthew Balan is a news analyst at the Media Research Center.