BOB GARFIELD: In the midst of unprecedented deficit spending, the Bush campaign has been unable to attack John Kerry as a free-spending Democrat, but the Republican candidates are frequently playing another golden oldie. [TAPE PLAYS] [APPLAUSE]
GEORGE W. BUSH: We need to stop junk lawsuits, if we want to keep this economy growing. [CHEERS, WHISTLES]
DICK CHENEY: We will reform medical liability so the system serves patients and good doctors -- not personal injury lawyers. [APPLAUSE, CHEERS]
GEORGE W. BUSH: See, I don't think you can pro-doctor and pro-patient and pro-hospital and pro-trial lawyer at the same time. [CHEERS] [END TAPE]
BOB GARFIELD: The crusade against trial lawyers has its champions on the Hill too. Last week the House of Representatives approved a measure that would penalize attorneys who filed, quote, "frivolous" lawsuits. Whether tort reform is a good social and economic policy is a legitimate political issue. But it is also a serious journalistic issue. Investigative reporter Morton Mintz, who broke the Thalidomide story during his many decades at the Washington Post, says court records from civil litigation are critical to shedding light on major problems otherwise hidden from public view. He joins me now. Morton, welcome to On the Media.
MORTON MINTZ: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, before we get to the journalistic issues, tell me what it is about tort reform that makes it such a mainstay of Republican platforms going back almost as long as I can remember.
MORTON MINTZ: I think it's a very simple question. It's because they get their money from industries that benefit. They get huge amounts of money from the insurance industry, from manufacturers, many of them who have improperly concealed dangers to the public and don't want to be sued.
BOB GARFIELD: Over the years, you have spent a good number of hours, probably cumulatively months, poring over court records. Would you ever have been able to do the work that you've done absent product liability litigation and the like?
MORTON MINTZ: Absolutely not. I'll give one example. In the case of one tobacco case I covered in 1988, this was a case called Cipollone in Newark, New Jersey. The only way that we could get to see what the tobacco companies knew and when they knew it was to be in the courtroom when these documents were put into evidence -- depositions and so forth. And without trial lawyers, whatever abuses some of them commit, how would these documents have come out? They are a check and balance on corporate power -- an opportunity for the public to learn via the press, when the press does its job, of the abuses that corporations so often perpetrate.
BOB GARFIELD: You did some important reporting. I guess it was in the early '70s, about the Dalkon shield intrauterine device. Tell me about that, please.
MORTON MINTZ: The Dalkon shield was used by millions of women. The company knew that it was not as effective as they claimed, and they had evidence it was not safe. Tens of thousands of women suffered pelvic infections. A great many became sterilized. Many died. The story came out in litigation.
BOB GARFIELD: The Dalkon shield is not the only example you can invoke here. There's the Ford Pinto, the exploding gas tank; the flammable pajamas, and tell me about the Bic lighter.
MORTON MINTZ: The bic lighter would explode in people's hands and cause fires. It turns out that Bic was aware of 55 cases, from 1980 through 1983, where fires had started in left front shirt pockets alone. The company knew this, but didn't disclose it until lawsuits were filed. And that essentially is the story in so many of these things. You either get the information from court documents, or you get them from congressional hearings, and as far as congressional hearings are concerned, over a period of 30 years, approximately, I covered oversight hearings of the FDA performance. Bad drug got on the market; killed people unnecessarily. Was ineffective. Congressmen would hold a hearing, and when the press covered those hearings, the public learned about this. The moment -- this is fact, not political opinion -- the moment the Republicans took control of the House in January of 1995, that kind of oversight came to a dead halt.
BOB GARFIELD: It seems to me that you have been enormously prolific over a very long period of time --decades, [LAUGHTER] in calling these issues to the attention of the readers of the Washington Post. But I'm going to take a wild guess and speculate that it wasn't always an easy task for you to get the space and the display in the Post. How hard is it to get people's attention for a problem that doesn't begin with, you know, at least an explosion?
MORTON MINTZ: Well, I can't speak about the Post today. I left in 1988. The Post did give me substantial support. A lot of these things take huge amounts of time, and if the paper isn't willing to spend money and support you, then you're in trouble. It was often difficult, but I think really it should have been difficult, because the kind of reporting that I did had, as our lawyers correctly saw it, a huge potential for libel actions.
BOB GARFIELD: Could you ever even get them in the paper if you didn't have the sheaf of court documents to back up the central assertion of the plaintiffs?
MORTON MINTZ: No. If you don't have hard evidence that a company or a person has done something wrong, you should not be able to get in the paper with it. Corporations are entitled to fairness too. The whole thing depends upon basically knowing what you're talking about. And court documents, generated by product liability lawsuits, provide that opportunity.
BOB GARFIELD: Morton, thank you very much.
MORTON MINTZ: You're welcome. Glad to be here.
BOB GARFIELD: Morton Mintz, former Washington Post reporter, is an author and advocate against tort reform.