Nataline Sarkisyan might be alive today had I not been such a team player when she was so sick.
Had I not been so focused on helping my company “win in the marketplace” and “enhance shareholder value,” had health insurance companies been held more accountable by lawmakers, the media and the public, Nataline, who died at the age of 17 nine years and 310 days ago, might have received the liver transplant she needed.
I know about Nataline because of the role I played in her struggle to live—I was writing talking points to try to justify a colleague’s decision to deny coverage for the surgery her doctors were pleading for—but there are an untold number of other Americans who are no longer with us because big corporations, in their unrelenting goal to meet Wall Street’s profit expectations, put profits before the needs of the rest of us.
Nothing I can ever do will bring Nataline back, but I can do something to help others who find out, often when it’s too late as it was in her case, just how powerless they’ve become. I can use my knowledge of how profit-obsessed special interests, whether in health care or any number of other big businesses, have rigged the system in their favor.
That’s why I’m starting Tarbell.org, a new reader-funded investigative journalism nonprofit with the mission of holding corporations and other moneyed interests more accountable. Our goal is to help average Americans take back their power and drive needed change. We want average Americans to own us and hold us accountable, which is why Tarbell.org will be reader-funded. We're seeking to raise awareness and support among thousands of Americans passionate about changing the state of journalism and the political status quo.
Tarbell.org will do more than investigate wrong-doing. We’ll explain how and why the wrong-doers get away with it, and we’ll connect the dots to show readers how political corruption financed by moneyed interests affects their lives. We’ll also go the additional and essential mile of spotlighting solutions and helping our community of readers figure out how they can make a difference. You can learn more about how we're different at Tarbell.org.
The problem with the media today is not fake news. The problem is that we don’t get enough of the news we really need.
I used to be a reporter in Washington and in Tennessee where I grew up. After my newspaper days, like a lot of reporters, I left journalism to go into PR. I rose up through the ranks to become head of corporate communications for two of the country’s biggest health insurance companies. I was their chief spokesman.
At first, reporters from all over the country called with challenging questions about my employers’ business practices. By the time I left after Nataline’s death—I didn’t have it in me to handle any more of what we called “high-profile cases”—the only reporters still calling were writing stories about whether my company and other big corporations were meeting investors’ profit expectations.
Many of the reporters who once called had lost their jobs. When I was a reporter, there were about as many journalists as PR people. Over the past few years, we’ve lost 60,000 journalism jobs. That has happened as media ownership has become concentrated in the hands of just six large investor-owned companies. One reason so many reporters have lost their jobs is that investigative reporting is expensive. The investors who own so much of today’s media don’t want to pay for it or risk offending advertisers.
So many former reporters have gone in to PR that there are now five PR people for every journalist, and many of those former reporters are now churning out propaganda for their companies and their lobbyists. And the reporters still on the job either don’t have the time or the interest to dig into how business practices put in place to ensure an expected profit margin affect the lives of everyday Americans.
When I quit my corporate job, I felt an obligation to try to make amends. I blew the whistle on my industry, in part because reporters were not covering the health care business like they once did.
Alex S. Jones, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and fellow Tennessee native, wrote a few years ago that we are losing the “iron core” of journalism. With diminished media scrutiny, the moneyed interests have taken over our government. They have systematically stolen our power to the point that they now call the shots, not just in Washington but in our towns and cities and our state capitals.
Yes, we still have some good reporting, and some of the best of it is being done by reporters at the Huffington Post. But we don’t have nearly enough of the pull-no-punches reporting that holds corporations and other moneyed interests to account. The watchdog press that once exposed corporate misbehavior, that investigated ongoing attempts by the rich and powerful to rig the system in their favor, has been neutered.
What has happened as the iron-core of journalism has weakened is the emergence of largely unchecked corporate power and a flood of special interest money to influence elections and public policy. The wealthy and connected spent more than $3 billion dollars on more than 10,000 lobbyists in Washington last year. That’s more than what it costs to run Congress.
Despite what they say, the people you vote for don’t care as much about you as they care about a handful of people who can write much bigger campaign checks than you can write. They can’t because of the way the system has been rigged by moneyed interests. The people politicians really serve these days run big corporations like the ones I used to work for or for the pharmaceutical industry, big hospital chains and organizations like the American Medical Association and the American Dental Association. And like the fossil fuel and chemical industries and the National Rifle Association. The list is long. Those companies and organizations have much deeper pockets than you or I do. With very few exceptions, whatever they want, they get, regardless of what’s best for you and our country.
It is not hyperbole to say that the weakening of the iron core of journalism has enabled a new age of robber barons to emerge. We are living in an age that is strikingly similar to the early 20th century, when our namesake, Ida Tarbell, set her sights on the biggest corporate monopoly of her day. Her reporting led to the breakup of that company and to important antitrust and campaign finance reforms.
Tarbell.org will pick up her mantle.
Tarbell.org will name names and show you who’s writing the big checks that make your life so damn hard these days. We’ll explain what’s in it for the check writers and reveal which politicians are on the take. We’ll show how this legalized corruption results in growing income inequality and a divided nation.
Tarbell.org is based in Philadelphia, where our republic began. We’re determined to help preserve what our nation’s founders risked their lives to create. They believed that government was for the common good, not for the “profit, honor or private interest of any one man, family, or class of man.” They understood that the greatest threat to the American experiment, the American dream, would be a drift toward oligarchy, which they knew could happen without a free, independent and bold Fourth Estate.
If you’re as convinced as I am that what we need is more fearless, iron-core accountability journalism, check us out at Tarbell.org. Thank you.