CNN deliberately exaggerated the death rate of infants undergoing heart surgery at St. Mary’s Medical Center, purposefully painting a renowned surgeon as an incompetent doctor who butchers babies for profit, the physician’s lawyer told a judge on Friday.
Dr. Michael Black is suing CNN for libel and defamation for its story on June 1, 2015, about St. Mary’s pediatric cardiac surgery program. The hospital closed the program a few months later and its CEO resigned.
“CNN intentionally manipulated statistical data to support its false narrative that Dr. Black was unfit to perform operations on these very sick children,” said his attorney, Libby Locke, after a hearing on whether to dismiss her client’s lawsuit.
“Through their defamatory articles and videos, CNN has deprived Palm Beach of an incredibly valuable pediatric cardiac surgery program.”
She urged Circuit Judge Richard Oftedal to reject the motion to dismiss and to allow a jury to decide what Black’s reputation is worth. She noted how the news network took a quote from one grieving parent that Black was offering up babies as sacrificial lambs,” and juxtaposed it with a photograph of the doctor.
Black contends in the defamation and libel lawsuit that CNN;’s story unfairly disparaged him and forever damaged his reputation. He still is employed at St. Mary’s, but has not done any surgery since the program was closed in August 2015.
The doctor is also facing several malpractice suits filed by parents of babies who died after heart surgery at St. Mary’s, but Friday’s hearing was about Black’s defamation claims against the cable news giant. CNN is trying to get Oftedal to dismiss the lawsuit.
Locke, his attorney, told the judge CNN went so far as to manipulate the calculations to report St. Mary’s death rate as three times the national average for pediatric heart surgery programs. She said CNN ignored data from the Society of Thoracic Surgeons that found St. Mary’s death rate for infant cardiac surgeries fell within the norm.
Instead, the news network compared raw data of open and closed heart surgeries with just open heart surgeries. It also compared raw death rate figures with those adjusted for the complexity of the surgery and illness of the patient, Locke said.
The Palm Beach Post reported in several articles about troubles with CNN’s data. The network eventually posted on its website a story explaining its methodology. Florida’s Agency for Health Care Administration got into the fray, calling CNN’s reporting sensationalistic.
Friday was the first time the two sides really squared off in front of the judge since Black filed his suit in February as judge entertained argument over CNN’s motion to dismiss Black’s suit.
The cable news network told Oftedal that CNN’s reporting is protected because Black as a prominent surgeon of a major pediatric heart surgery program was a public figure.
The network’s attorney, Charles Tobin, also argued that the doctor couldn’t prove malice by the network.
Tobin added that Black or St. Mary’s can’t dictate the methodology of a news organization and that reporters asked the hospital for its own figures but never received them. CNN anchor Anderson Cooper is one CNN talent named by Black in the lawsuit.
Locke said St. Mary’s was under no obligation to cooperate with CNN and that the methodology used by the cable news network is not a matter for debate or interpretation. “These are statistics. This is math,” she said.
One of Tobin’s best moments on Friday was when he told Oftedal that Black claims he is not a public figure but was somehow defamed by criticism of St. Mary’s as a whole. Tobin said that was because Black was the public face, and thus a public figure.indeed The Post wrote a feature on him when the hospital started up the program.
And indeed, The Post wrote a feature on Dr. Black when the hospital started up the program.
Locke says CNN bears the burden of proving Dr. Black was essentially a public figure.
“There is no dispute Dr. Black had a pristine solid reputation before CNN defamed him, but that does not make him a public figure,” she said in court.
If Oftedal — who asked plenty of questions throughout the hearing — finds Black a public figure, the doctor will have to prove CNN had malice to defame him personally.
Also, present in the courtroom was defendant Kelly Robinson, the heart mom who was used as an unnamed source by CNN in the investigation.
Black claims she made disparaging remarks about him and was trying to drive business to Nickalus Children’s Hospital in Miami where her son had heart surgery.
Robinson’s attorney, Deanna Shullman, said her client is a minor player in the lawsuit, yet faces the same liability as a major cable news network.
She has asked the lawsuit to be dismissed because her client’s comments are protected speech.
A story about Robinson’s role in the CNN story was explored by The Post. Click here to read the story.