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Emmy-winner Michael Rey ’93 is producing some of the most important investigative journalism.
By Doug Daniels
t’s around 1 p.m. on a Wednesday in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan, and Michael Rey ’93 is giving me a tour of his offices in the CBS building on West 57th street. Rey is an Emmy-winning producer for the newsmagazine program 60 Minutes, which has been the most watched and revered public affairs show on TV for half a century. A segment he produced earlier in the year, about pro cyclists using hidden motors in their bikes, is reairing in a few weeks, and Rey wants to check on the correspondent, Bill Whitaker, who’s in a tiny sound booth recording some updated narration.
“Bill’s the hardest-working man in the business,” Rey tells me, as we head back to his office to talk about how he found his way onto one of the most iconic shows in television history.
His path wasn’t an obvious one.
After college, Rey traveled to Europe seeking adventure (and a job), and ended up writing for an English language business paper. Reflecting on his time at Conn, he says it’s where he first caught the journalism bug, despite having initially planned on studying human ecology.
“I realized I just wasn’t a strong science student, so I took a religion course … and I loved it so much I decided to major in comparative religious studies,” he says.
“It turned out to be the best major for journalism. It taught me how to write, how to think critically, and since it forced me to question religion and explore other cultures in ways I never had before, I also learned how to examine complicated issues from different angles.”
After he returned to the U.S., Rey’s first job at CBS was working as an assistant on 60 MinutesII, a spinoff that aired midweek as a companion series to the flagship show. After it was cancelled in 2005, Rey spent a year at 48 Hours, CBS’s Saturday-night murder mystery show, before joining the new investigative unit for The CBS Evening News when Katie Couric took over the anchor chair in 2006.
It was a story Rey did for the The CBS Evening News that he initially worried might be too obscure that would go on to win him an Emmy Award—a story about copy machines.
Rey and his team caught wind of a dirty little secret in the copy machine industry. Unbeknownst to many of the corporations, government agencies and medical organizations that leased digital copy machines for two or three years before trading them in for newer models, every copy made was stored on an internal hard drive that could then be accessed by whoever got ahold of the copier next. For organizations that create confidential documents or use private information such as health records, this revelation raised enormous privacy and legal liability concerns.
“This was one of those stories that seemed like it could be nothing at first, but as we dug deeper, we struck journalistic gold,” Rey says. “We found a place in New Jersey that was selling used copiers, so we wore hidden cameras and posed as customers. The place was a massive warehouse … with huge shelves filled with maybe ten thousand of these machines.”
CBSgave Rey enough money to buy three copiers, which he selected randomly and brought back to the office where he had a digital security expert remove the hard drives and examine the content. What they found confirmed Rey’s worst suspicions.
“One of the copiers had belonged to the Buffalo, New York, police department, and was used by their sex crimes unit and their anti-drug task force, and we could view thousands of documents from each,” Rey explains. “We had names of sex offenders in Buffalo, confidential plans for joint drug raids with the DEA and even victim reports.”
Another copier that Rey had purchased, previously leased by a large insurance company, had thousands of private medical records stored on it. When Rey contacted the company to let them know what he’d discovered, they were shocked to even learn of the existence of a hard drive on the copy machine, especially since, as it turns out, they had a responsibility to wipe the memory clean. In 1996, Congress enacted the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), which has evolved over the years to include strict requirements for insurance companies to keep their customers’ medical records private.
“Here was this company that hadn’t knowingly done anything wrong, but they ended up having to pay five or six million dollars in fines because of these HIPAA violations we uncovered,” Rey says. “And as a result of the story, the copy machine industry implemented new processes for erasing hard drives, but there’s still a question about how effective they are.”
It’s almost time for Whitaker to shoot an updated on-camera intro for Rey’s cycling story, so we head across the street to the CBS Broadcast Center where TV and radio programming of virtually every description is produced, including The CBS Evening News, CBS Sports, late-night comedies, soap operas and more.
Rey shows me into the small studio where the 60 Minutes correspondents film their introductions to each segment, seated on a stool. The room is one big blue screen, both the back wall and the floor. The magazine background images are computer generated and added in later.
Whitaker shows up to shoot his on-camera intro, and we move across the hall to the control room where we can watch the process unfold. The front of the room is made up of a wall of screens and esoteric instruments that dance and blink and glow as we watch Whitaker on a computer screen working through a handful of takes before he lands one perfectly.
This is probably the easiest part of Rey’s job, and he seems relieved that the segment is in the can. But finding stories that can make it to this point is challenging, he says, and each producer has a quota of four stories per year. On the surface, this might not sound like much, but considering some stories can take months or even years to produce from start to finish, Rey and his colleagues need to be adept at jumping back and forth between multiple stories that can take unpredictable twists and turns. And while many stories offer a sense of satisfaction—exposing fraud, bringing attention to an unreported issue—there are also the pieces that take an emotional toll.
A few years ago, Scott Pelley, correspondent and former anchor of The CBS Evening News, asked Rey to start researching how America’s mental health system treats kids with severe psychiatric problems. The assignment led Rey down a nearly two-year path that still haunts him.
“Those were the toughest couple of years of reporting I’ve ever done,” he admits. “For one story, we spent a week at Yale New Haven Hospital in the pediatric psych unit, and interviewed parents of mentally ill kids who were desperate for help. They’d be speaking to us on camera, while their kids were tied to a bed screaming and suffering from psychotic episodes, explaining that this was a frequent occurrence, but that insurance wouldn’t cover the treatment they needed.”
Because of restrictive insurance review policies, the hospital usually had little choice but to medicate the kids and release them, reintroducing them into the same cycle that triggered the psychotic episodes to begin with.
“I talked to a lot of frustrated doctors and nurses at different hospitals, and one name kept coming up: Doctor Jack,” Rey says.
Dr. Timothy Jack was a practicing psychiatrist from California, also under contract with Anthem, one of the nation’s largest health insurance companies. Providers that Rey spoke to recounted numerous times Dr. Jack, working on behalf of Anthem, had denied coverage for mentally ill patients. In fact, during one six-month period, Rey found that Dr. Jack’s denial rate was over 92%.
“What I wanted to know was how this doctor was being compensated for rejecting legitimate claims,” Rey says. “The ethical questions surrounding a system like that are serious, and it’s clear that the process is about saving money, not saving lives.”
What Rey discovered was that Dr. Jack’s fee was $45 per patient, and he reviewed 550 cases per month, resulting in nearly $25,000 a month just to summarily reject mental health claims from his home.
Rey and his team flew to California and camped outside Dr. Jack’s palatial Beverly Hills home, hoping to corner him for some answers. When he didn’t come out, Rey decided to go up and buzz the intercom, but despite a brief back-and-forth, Dr. Jack wouldn’t discuss the matter.
The piece generated national outrage and aimed a bright spotlight on the mental health system with an intensity most of the public hadn’t seen before. That story, Rey says, was incredibly satisfying, because it led to the state of California overturning many of Dr. Jack’s denials, and Anthem is now facing lawsuits from customers who were denied coverage.
“That’s the key,” Rey says. “We don’t cover issues at 60 Minutes in a traditional way. We find an issue, and then find a specific person, or people who can put a human face to it. But it’s a balance, because you want to help victims tell their story, but you also want to make sure you’re never exploiting them,” he adds.
As Rey walks me out, I ask him how he thinks 60 Minutes has managed to remain so popular and relevant over the decades, seamlessly transitioning through the ever-shifting media and cultural climates, and the changing lineup of faces filling the correspondents’ seat.
“Because at the end of the day, we never stray far from the simple philosophy of the guy who created the show, Don Hewitt,” Rey says. “He would always say to his team, ‘Tell me a story.’ That’s what we still try to do.”