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Suit to Bar '60 Minutes' Interview Rejected

December 25, 1987|JESS BRAVIN | Times Staff Writer

A federal judge Thursday rejected a Los Angeles-area dentist's suit to bar the scheduled Sunday broadcast of a "60 Minutes" interview he claims he was deceived into granting.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge Terry J. Hatter Jr. means that CBS can air the segment, titled "Drilling for Dollars," in which television reporter Diane Sawyer confronts Dr. Howard M. Stein with accusations of malpractice and fraudulent billing.

Attorneys for Stein said in court that the dentist had granted the interview only after repeated assurances by the segment's producer, Suzanne St. Pierre, that it would not be a "hatchet job" or an "ambush."

Attorney Forbes Maner said his client was told that the subject would be "the changing face of dentistry," whereby dentists such as Stein attract low-income patients through heavy advertising and walk-in service.

Instead, Maner said, the subject of the Nov. 13 interview was a series of allegations that he had engaged in shoddy dental work, overbilled patients and failed to supervise his staff, among other charges.

Maner said Sawyer's allegations were "scandalous untruths" and "scurrilous charges."

Because Stein had been "deceived" into granting the interview, Maner argued that CBS' actions constituted trespass.

CBS attorneys, however, argued that any injunction against the broadcast would constitute prior restraint of free speech.

"This case involves what perhaps is the most frightening and serious assault on a news organization: prior restraint," said CBS attorney Thomas P. Newell at the hearing.

The public's right to view the interview, Newell said, outweighs Stein's "private financial interest" in blocking a broadcast he fears may harm his professional reputation.

Despite Maner's insistence that "this is not a First Amendment case" and that "the Constitution is not a license for trespass or invasion of privacy," Hatter quickly denied Stein's petition.

"Clearly this is a prior restraint matter," Hatter said.

"There is a public interest in permitting speech about health and welfare issues that overrides an interest in individual rights," Hatter said.

Observing that Stein had watched "60 Minutes" and was aware of the program's confrontational interview techniques, Hatter said, "Clearly, he knew its reputation to be what he now fears.

"Knowing that, he did not have to let them in to begin with," the judge said. "He did."

Stein employs 50 dentists in his Bellflower and West Covina offices, Maner told the court, where costs are kept low through a high volume of patients brought in by advertising, no-appointment service and speed of treatment.

Describing his client as "no stranger to controversy," Maner said Stein's practices have not made him "very popular with many dentists."

These practices, Maner said in court, were a way of "bringing dentistry to the poor . . . (to) a kind of a patient who is not accustomed to dental care."

CBS said in a statment that "Drilling for Dollars" questions whether the wave of high volume dental clinics are "operating in the patients' best interests."

According to the California Board of Dental Examiners, Stein, 65, has been licensed to practice dentistry for 35 years.

A board spokeswoman, Laurie Hubble, said Stein's "record is clear and in good standing."

Maner said he did not know if Stein would attempt further action to stop the broadcast. He said the dentist, a Huntington Beach resident, was preparing to depart the country for his honeymoon, and would not be available for comment.

Stein's suit also seeks unspecified damages for trespass and emotional distress. Those claims will be heard in federal court next year.

Newell said CBS would "heavily dispute" all of Stein's contentions, and a statement issued at the network's New York headquarters said the dentist's petition "was entirely without merit."

In making his ruling, Hatter called Stein's claims "doubtful" and said he did not see a "likelihood of success" for the lawsuit.

The judge lamented that "the news media is so often looking to its commercial success" in its choice of reporting topics and techniques, but said "be that as it may, it's our society."

In its 20-year history, "60 Minutes" has been sued 37 times and never lost a case. According to a network spokesman, one lawsuit was settled out of court for $5,000 but the money was never claimed.

"60 Minutes" airs at 7 p.m. Sunday on CBS.

Times staff writers Jay Sharbutt in New York and Lanie Jones in Orange County contributed to this story.

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