It started on June 15, 2015. CNN did an expose on St Mary’s Medical Center in West Palm Beach, Florida. The segment aired on Anderson Cooper’s 360 Degrees; reporting was done by medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen.
The story centered around the infant heart surgery program. It said the infant mortality rate was stunning, three times the national average as compiled by the Society of Thoracic Surgeons (STS). CNN interviewed several families who have lost children or have had unsuccessful operations with long-term effects, and featured heart-wrenching stories of families that were devastated by the alleged malpractice.
According to former CEO Davide Carbone, that just was not true. He has filed a 200-page $30 million defamation lawsuit against the network. He said the network aired a “series of false and defamatory news reports,” and “intentionally” manipulated the statistics. In particular, he claimed, the “three times the national average,” statement was a straight out lie.
The statistic, the Washington Post reports, was derived by only studying open heart surgeries, while the national mortality rate includes both open and closed heart surgeries. Further, CNN’s figures only focused on the work of the chief surgeon Michael Black. Then they compared those numbers to the national average comprised of the complete work of a full pediatric staff.
“By knowingly comparing a mortality rate for Dr. Black based only on open-heart surgeries to a mortality rate based on both open-heart and closed-heart surgeries, the CNN Defendants knowingly and artificially inflated Dr. Black’s mortality rate vis-à-vis the STS national average,” reads the complaint. “A true and fair comparison would require an apples-to-apples comparison of Dr. Black’s mortality rate for both open- and closed-heart surgeries to the STS national average.”
Further, the CNN report only includes a raw death number. But the STS keeps a “risk-adjusted” figure which takes into account the health of a patient when they enter. Hospitals that treat higher risk patients, have higher mortality rates. This is part because of the condition itself and that it’s going more expensive and more complex to treat them.
Carbone also claims the network purposely ignored information that would make the story two-sided, or favorable, in order to add more glitz to the piece. The lawsuit complains that Carbone wasn’t given an adequate chance to respond. The camera shows the reporter ambushing Carbone outside his house and blankly asking for the death rate, a statistic that the hospital typically does not publish. Carbone was unprepared to comment and therefore declined. That was his only chance to defend himself. The lawsuit reads:
“The CNN Defendants did not intend to obtain information for their story from Mr. Carbone when [reporter Elizabeth Cohen] and a CNN camera crew ambushed him and his wife at their home. Rather, the CNN Defendants intended to obtain footage for their story that would falsely portray Mr. Carbone and, by implication, St. Mary’s and Dr. Black, as unwilling to provide information about the Program.”
The result was devastating to the hospital. The hospital closed the pediatric heart surgery program, claiming that “inaccurate media reports” would make it difficult to “build sustainable volume.” Carbone resigned in August and claimed he has been unable to find work in hospital administration.
CNN still claims innocence. CNN’s legal team e-mailed St. Mary’s lawyer stating, “Arguing that we should use a set of figures more favorable to your client may be a basis for criticism, which CNN has been transparent about, but it does not render CNN’s reporting false nor in any way irresponsible or malicious.”
CNN filed in an Atlanta court to have the case dismissed, as a SLAPP (Strategic lawsuit against public participation)suit. However, on February 15, the case was heard by federal judge Orinda Evans in Atlanta, Georgia. Judge Evans overruled the network, allowing the case to proceed. She said that Carbone had presented enough evidence that suggest that the network, “was acting recklessly with regard to the accuracy of its reporting.” She ruled that the personal interviews with parents were fine, but that the statistics they presented were in fact, subject to libel claim.
Carbone’s lawyer, Lin Wood said in a statement, “False and defamatory accusations against real people have serious consequences. Neither St. Mary’s or Mr. Carbone did anything to deserve being the objects of the heinous accusation that they harmed or put babies and young children at risk for profit.”
It is important to note that this early in the game win, the ruling is only that the suit has merit. The final ruling will be up to the jury. But, Wood said, it is a great victory against unfair media coverage.
“The ruling,” he said, “serves as a well-reasoned reminder that the media, its defense lawyers and its lobbyists do not have a corner on the market of correct interpretation and application of the First Amendment.”
With the liberal bias in the media constantly underscoring the political climate, a victory against the nation’s premier journalist may remind other journalists, and so called “fake news” outlets, to be more responsible with their reporting.