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Chasing Farrah too far

The tabloids go over the line when they scheme to violate medical privacy.

June 09, 2008|Craig J. Nevius | Craig J. Nevius is producing "A Wing and a Prayer," a documentary chronicling Farrah Fawcett's battle with cancer and her efforts to protect her privacy.

The National Enquirer proudly proclaimed a worldwide exclusive on its website on May 16, 2007: "Farrah's Cancer Is Back!" (Please note the excitement and enthusiasm indicated by the exclamation point.) Adjacent to this attention-grabbing headline was an advertisement offering this inducement in bold, colorful type: "GOT GOSSIP? WE'LL PAY BIG BUCKS."

Just 48 hours earlier, actress Farrah Fawcett had received the devastating diagnosis from her doctors at UCLA Medical Center. The Enquirer's story ran before she was able to tell her son or her closest friends about the recurrence. This was, in fact, the second such "scoop" the Enquirer published while Farrah was still in shock from a diagnosis; it had done something similar in October 2006.

I'd worked with Farrah in 2005 when I produced "Chasing Farrah," a reality TV series about her life. But the title took on new meaning when I heard how tabloid reporters and paparazzi were stalking her as she faced this life-threatening illness. In 2007, the paparazzi even ran Farrah's car off the road after she left a doctor's office, as I listened helplessly by cellphone. So I once again began following her everywhere she went -- with my camera -- to capture this invasion of her privacy.

Three tabloid photographers who ambushed Farrah at LAX last Thanksgiving as she departed for Germany to receive alternative cancer treatments didn't seem to think that this turnabout was fair play. They scuttled away like cockroaches under a bright light when I aimed my video camera at them.

Reporter Alan Smith, however, came across as more aggressive -- like a rat going after whatever morsel it believes it can make into a meal. The star reporter of the Enquirer (whose byline appeared on dozens of stories about Farrah's medical condition) was so confident that he allowed me to record a telephone conversation we had about the coverage.

I expressed my belief that he and his newspaper took one confirmed truth (such as Farrah's cancer diagnosis) and then used it as the foundation to build numerous lies, such as Farrah having a hysterectomy, suffering from shingles and losing her eyesight and her hair -- just to name a few.

Smith's response was no ringing endorsement of his or the Enquirer's journalistic integrity: "I'm not responsible for everything that's in the paper" was followed by "other reporters do have input" and that old, reliable standby, "I'm only as good as my sources."

Marc Rupp, general counsel for Enquirer parent American Media Inc., defended the tabloid's coverage of Farrah's illness much more vigorously when he replied to a demand for a retraction from her lawyers, who outlined the tabloid's inaccuracies, some of which I mentioned above. Rupp cited "exceptional sources directly in a position to know the information reported."

As it turns out, one exceptional source may have been Lawanda Jackson, an administrative specialist at UCLA Medical Center who has since been indicted by a federal grand jury for allegedly violating medical privacy laws. According to the indictment, Jackson accessed Farrah's medical records and sold information from them to an unnamed media outlet (which the Los Angeles Times later reported was, indeed, the National Enquirer) for $4,600 or more.

What makes this revelation all the more disturbing is the fact that, if the tabloid truly was in possession of Farrah's medical records, wouldn't it have known that much of what it was reporting were lies?

The Enquirer and the Globe, another American Media tabloid, refused to print an apology or retraction for their false stories -- which was all Farrah asked for at the time. Cameron Stracher, senior media counsel for American Media, replied with a letter stating that even if the tabloids were incorrect in their reporting of "some details" of Farrah's condition, the "gist" of their reporting was accurate. I suppose that what Stracher means is that cancer is the "gist" -- and "details" about hysterectomies, shingles, blindness and baldness are not really worth confirming, let alone retracting.

With UCLA Medical Center under intense scrutiny for the breach of at least 61 patients' medical records, and Jackson facing arraignment today, perhaps it is time to take a closer look at the role tabloids may play in such crimes. In a letter to U.S. Atty. Thomas P. O'Brien on April 30, Farrah put it this way: "It is my personal belief that what Lawanda Jackson is most guilty of is being a pawn. She worked in a hospital system that did not provide strong enough deterrents to stop their employees from breaching their patients' medical records -- which made it all the easier for the tabloids to financially induce her to invade my privacy as well as the privacy of others."

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