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What The Media Tell Americans About Free Enterprise

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Friday, March 10, 2000

Volume 8, Number 5

CBS Lauds Anti-Corporate Trial Lawyer

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 managed-care industry.

"Many [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 else’s plan."

"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 difference."

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.

Rich Noyes


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