The difference between a tough interview and a puffball interview
is whether or not the questioner confronts the interviewee with the
words of his worst critics, or just sits back and lets them tell
their own story. When CBS’s Dan Rather recently profiled trial
lawyer Dickie Skruggs on 60 Minutes II, it was definitely not
a tough interview.
Scruggs is the lawyer who targetted the tobacco industry with a
big class-action lawsuit in the 1990s; his law firm alone pocketed
approximately $900 million as part of the settlement. Now, Scruggs
is taking aim at health maintenance organizations (HMOs). MRC News
Analyst Brian Boyd caught the action when the February 29 edition of
60 Minutes II gave him a platform to lambaste the
[HMOs] practice just garden-variety consumer fraud," Scruggs told
Rather. "They promise to deliver quality health care, and they just
don’t deliver. They never have any intention of delivering. They
jack around their patients, they make them go through, jump through
all sorts of hoops before they pay the bill. Hopefully, they can
drive the patient out of their system if he’s sick and into somebody
"That’s one," Rather interjected.
"That’s one," Scruggs continued. "The other is that they’re
practicing medicine. They, they hire doctors. They put doctors on
their payroll. And then they tell doctors what they can and cannot
treat. And third, they’ve, they’ve corrupted the practice of
medicine by using financial incentives to force doctors to
undertreat their patients."
Scruggs’s rant against HMOs was interspersed with shots of him
flying with Rather in his private jet, motoring with Rather in his
$200,000 Bentley, and relaxing with Rather in his huge house, which
the anchorman reported was used as a location for The Insider,
a film that Rather’s colleagues at the original 60 Minutes
didn’t particularly like because it portrayed them as reluctant
soldiers in the war against Big Tobacco.
"Scruggs auditioned to play himself in the film, but didn’t make
the cut," Rather told the audience.
The Scruggs profile lasted more than twelve minutes, and it was
featured at the top of the highly-rated news magazine. Yet nowhere
in the story was Scruggs’s indictment of HMOs countered by the
notion that trial lawyers such as Scruggs have forced many doctors
and HMOs to practice "defensive medicine," or overtreating patients
to avoid potential malpractice suits.
The only substantive criticism of Scruggs came from Karen Ignagni,
who Rather identified as the head of "the country’s largest HMO
lobbying group." Ignagni got 35 seconds to rebut Scruggs:
"If you listen to Mr. Scruggs’ prescription," Ignagni told
Rather, "what he says is ‘Let’s take the incentives away from the
health plans and the way they do it now in the system, and let’s put
the patients in charge. What he doesn’t say is in doing that, he
puts the patients at risk because suddenly the patients bear the
cost of rising costs. They bear the responsibility. No longer does
the health plan act as a shield for that. I think consumers are
going to be horrified when they hear that as the prescription."
Scruggs was also criticized by Rep. Charles Norwood (R-Ga.), who
told Rather that "[Scruggs is] a trial lawyer trying to get into
another big suit. I mean, he’s made $300 million in asbestos and
tobacco, and now he doesn’t have anything to do, so he wants to
supplant Congress. Well, we don’t need any help, and thank you very
much, Mr. Scruggs. We’ll take care of business right up here."
Norwood’s sound bite lasted just 15 seconds; besides the 50 seconds
allotted to Ignagni and Norwood, the rest of the story was dominated
by Scruggs and his anti-HMO point of view.
Mississippi Attorney General Mike Moore, identified by Rather as
a "Dickie Scruggs’ friend for 20 years," was shown asserting that,
in spite of Scruggs’ multi-million dollar paychecks, his motivation
was to use civil lawsuits as a means to change society.
"In HMOs, he really thinks the endgame here is going to be to
change the health-care system in our country for the better," Moore
told Rather. "And he really doesn’t care if he ever makes a single
penny. I mean, nobody would ever believe that, but this is not about
money. This is about, at this point in his life, making a
Scruggs attempted to link his efforts with those of crusading
journalists. "There’s an old saying, I think, from Inherit the
Wind about reporters: ‘They’re here to afflict the comfortable
and comfort the afflicted.’ And I love that line, because I sort of
see that as my role as well, and the role of lawyers."
A contrary argument would be that journalists’ job is to find and
uncover facts, not to slant them against either the comfortable or
the afflicted, and that a lawyer’s job is to serve justice above all
else. But that wasn’t the story that Scruggs was selling, or Rather
buying, on 60 Minutes II.