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Doctor Says NY Times Defamed Him in Story

NEW ORLEANS (CN) - A doctor says The New York Times Magazine defamed him in a sensationalized "Katrina Crimes" story about supposed euthanasia of hospital patients after Hurricane Katrina. Dr. William Armington also sued ProPublica, which assisted the Times in the story, and Dr. Sheri Fink, whom he says "holds herself out as a humanitarian physician and an investigative journalist."

Armington claims the defendants "misled" its readers for their own "commercial goals, profits and notoriety" in the story, "Strained by Katrina, a Hospital Faces Deadly Choices," published in the Aug. 25 online version of the magazine.

In his federal complaint, Armington says that rather than "truthfully and accurately presenting [him] as a physician who voluntarily placed himself in harm's way to aid and, if needed, rescue patients," the defendants "have intentionally woven him (and potentially others) with physicians who allegedly knew of and committed euthanasia."

Fink's story in the Times retold the widely scrutinized Memorial Medical Center incident, in which 45 bodies were found in the chapel of the low-lying New Orleans hospital. Autopsies revealed the presence of morphine and other sedatives, which spurred the Louisiana Attorney General to investigate. A Louisiana grand jury refused to issue an indictment.

Armington complains that "But for the defendants' sensational and scandalous article, which has been buttressed by a massive and strategically timed media campaign designed to promote book proposals and to attract critical acclaim, there would be little further interest in criticizing the conduct of physicians at Memorial Medical Center, as these issues have already been investigated fully by prosecutors, coroners, scholars, authors and reporters."

The Times Magazine printed the story for fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. The title was later changed to "The Deadly Choices at Memorial."

Armington says that while ProPublica claims to focus on "truly important stories, stories with moral force" in a nonpartisan, nonideological manner, by "adhering to the strictest standards of journalistic impartiality," the manner in which "ProPublica carried out this story - by generating a controversy about Armington through false 'uncovering' of a thoroughly-examined event - is the epitome of partisan, ideological and partial journalism."

After the bodies were found at the Memorial Medical Center, three doctors were temporarily placed under arrest, among them Dr. Anna Pou.

Fink's article claims that her investigation, "interviews and documents cast the story of Pou and her colleagues in a new light. It is now evident that more medical professionals were involved in the decision to inject patients - and far more patients were injected - than was previously understood," the complaint cites, quoting from the Times story.

Armington says that when Fink approached him for an interview in December 2008, she claimed her article was about physicians in crisis and was meant, in part, to help doctors in crisis situations. But Armington says Fink's "true focus, to create a story about death, euthanasia and 'Reporting on Katrina Crimes,' was never conveyed in any fashion to Dr. Armington. Indeed, such focus was intentionally withheld from Dr. Armington."

He claims that Fink defamed him by writing that he could have, but did not, "intervene directly" in the alleged euthanasia, conveying the impression that he was a knowing and willing accomplice to euthanasia.

Three days before the story ran, a New York Times fact checker called Armington to verify Fink's story. Armington says he made it clear that he did not know of euthanasia at Memorial, and would have intervened to stop it had he known it was happening.

Armington says that after the story ran, he demanded a retraction, but the defendants "specifically refused to provide any correction or retraction, in spite of the clear request and identification of the defamatory components of the article."

In an Aug. 27 Editor's Letter, Magazine editor Gerald Marzorati wrote that funding for the 13,000-word article came not from the Times but from the Kaiser Family Foundation.

"The article has been shaped not only by ProPublica but by Times editors; it passed through the magazine's normal editing process; and it was read and read again by the paper's top management as well as that of ProPublica," according to Marzorati's "Editor's Letter."

Armington disputes that the article "passed through the magazine's normal editing process." He says it "took two years and $400,000 to produce, ten times that of the average 'The New York Times Magazine' cover story."

Marzorati's Letter concluded: "And finally, why now? Why return in such detail to something that happened four years ago? For one thing, we found the story inherently fascinating. Beyond that, ours is a world not immune to pandemics and terrorist attacks or natural disasters. The issues surrounding medical care in such dire situations require a public conversation our country has yet to really have. It's with a mind to helping start that conversation that we are publishing 'The Deadly Choices at Memorial.'"

Marzorati declined to comment on Armington's lawsuit Thursday, saying attorneys for the Times asked him not to.

Sheri Fink did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

Armington says he "has been damaged by the article and the trust that others have in him has been compromised."

He seeks damages for defamation and false light. He is represented by Allan Kanner with Kanner & Whiteley New Orleans.

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