CNN had the heartbreaking stories from parents who lost their children. It had damning statements by some of the state’s top cardiologists.
But in its zeal to shut down St. Mary’s Medical Center’s pediatric cardiac surgery program, did CNN purposefully fudge the death rate, reporting it was three times the national average?
Did the cable news giant intentionally defame the physician at the center of the program, Dr. Michael Black, whose photograph was splashed on television sets and websites with the headline: “Babies as sacrificial lambs”?
A Palm Beach County Circuit judge ruled Friday that a defamation lawsuit brought by Black against CNN could move forward, rejecting a motion by the network to dismiss it. Judge Richard Oftedal order 15-page order was built on a foundation of solid libel law that included a federal defamation action against CNN by St. Mary’s former CEO.
“We are pleased with the court’s decision. CNN intentionally misled its readers and intentionally manipulated statistical data to portray Dr. Black in a negative light,” said Libby Locke, the attorney for Black. “We have every confidence that a jury will reach the same conclusion when CNN’s reporting is scrutinized.”
CNN’s attorney, Charles Tobin, could not be reached for comment late Friday.
Oftedal’s ruling echoes another by a federal judge in Atlanta in February when it allowed the defamation case brought by St Mary’s former CEO, Davide Carbone, against CNN to also move forward. U.S. District Judge Orinda Evans found that Carbone’s allegations were sufficient to establish that CNN was acting “recklessly with regard to accuracy.”
Oftedal, in his order, repeatedly referenced the Carbone decision in denying CNN’s motion to dismiss.
The pediatric cardiac surgery program at St. Mary’s shut down and Carbone resigned following CNN’s June 1, 2015, story titled, “Secret Deaths: CNN Finds High Surgical Death Rate for Children at a Florida Hospital.”
As reported by The Palm Beach Post in several stories, the data used in CNN’s report that St. Mary’s sported a death rate of infants in the unit three times the national average was widely disputed by the hospital and the state’s Agency for Health Care Administration. St. Mary’s said at the time that CNN failed to use risk-adjusted data in determining the death rate.
St. Mary’s, owned by Tenet Healthcare, said CNN missed numerous operations and procedures in its analysis.
Black has gone further, saying in court CNN purposefully manipulated the data in order to justify its narrative.
After the criticism, CNN published a story on its methodology as the statistics took center stage, overshadowing the parents featured in the story and a report finding problems with the program by the state’s Cardiac Technical Advisory Panel. Black is the defendant in lawsuits brought against him by parents of his tiny patients who died or who ended up crippled.
Oftedal rejected CNN’s efforts to dismiss Black’s suit by arguing that the doctor was a public figure and that it was really criticizing St. Mary’s and not the physician. He didn’t buy CNN’s argument that the sensationalized headlines used in the story were just “rhetorical hyperbole” and protected free speech.
The judge noted CNN reported that Black made a “total mess of the babies,” juxtaposing the phrase with the doctor’s photograph.