MRC Alert: Nets
Claim Food Lion Story True; CNN Hiring Liberals
1. A jury awards
punitive damages to ABC. The networks portray ABC's story as true and
the jury decision as an impediment to good reporting.
2. How true
was ABC's story. A New Republic article reports the outtakes don't
match Prime Time Live's claims.
3. The jury
demanded the Executive Producer, a Friend of Bill, personally pay damages.
And CNN wants to put him in charge.
has already picked up a liberal veteran of ABC and NBC.
5. The unaired tape tells quite a different story than the one
that Prime Time Live viewers saw. So argues a newspaper veteran in the January MediaNomics.
Having earlier found ABC News had committed fraud, on Wednesday a federal
jury in North Carolina awarded Food Lion $5.5 million in punitive damages
for an undercover story aired on Prime Time Live in 1992. Instead of
filing a very hard to win libel suit, which would have required Food Lion
to prove malice, Food Lion sued for fraud and trespass based upon how ABC
producers misrepresented themselves to get hired.
obtained video outtakes which showed how ABC misled viewers, but network
stories Wednesday night insisted the accuracy of ABC's story was beyond
argument and, therefore, the decision would have a chilling effect.
On the January 22
CBS Evening News Dan Rather announced:
jury in North Carolina ordered ABC television today to pay the Food Lion
supermarkets five and a half million dollars in punitive damages, that's
in connection with an undercover news investigation that proved to be
true. But ABC News producers covered their true identities to get jobs at
Food Lion and jurors decided that amounted to fraud."
from two jurors, Rather continued: "The ABC report accused Food Lion
of selling spoiled food and other unsanitary practices. Important to note
that the truth of the report was never at issue in the lawsuit, not even
challenged, only the journalistic techniques. ABC is appealing the verdict
and ABC News President Roone Arledge says, and I quote, 'If large
corporations were allowed to stop hard-hitting investigative journalism,
the American people would be the losers.'"
The network in
question, ABC, gave a fuller view of the issues involved. Reporter John
McKenzie began his story:
had already found ABC guilty of fraudulent job applications and
trespassing. Today's award, they said, was meant to send journalists a
message." Following two juror soundbites McKenzie allowed Chris
Ahearn of Food Lion to assert: "This case was about wrongdoing on the
part of ABC and the jury agreed with Food Lion that ABC broke laws and
today they agreed that ABC needed to be punished for that illegal
A bit later in
the piece ABC News President Roone Arledge expressed the widely held all
or nothing media view:
beginning, Food Lion has never been able to attack the story itself. They
have gone about attacking us because of the way we gathered it. The reason
that the award today is outrageous is that this is precisely the kind of
story for which investigative techniques like these are appropriate."
Arledge failed to
consider another spin: Undercover reporting that accurately and fairly
documents wrongdoing is fine, but the public doesn't approve of the media
abusing its power and then delivering a distorted story.
On NBC Nightly News Tom Brokaw declared:
"NBC News In
Depth tonight, Food Lion versus ABC -- punishing the messenger..."
But reporter Bob Faw proceeded to provide the only story of the night
which explored why the media have turned off the public.
"Insisting it had broadcast the truth, ABC said every American should
be troubled by the decision. One..."
ABC lawyer: "that vastly exceeds the actual damages incurred by Food
said jurors, misses the point."
"They're going to have to go about gathering the news in a different
way. You can't misrepresent yourself just to get the news."
we love on television, we condemn in the jury box."
Faw went on to
explain that the public believes the media violate people's privacy, have
a superior attitude and employ trickery. Faw ran a soundbite from Richard
Jewell and then let former Senator Alan Simpson assert that investigative
reports are not done to reveal the truth but "to draw blood."
"And, when like ABC, the press piously proclaims that the ends
justify the means, the public and jurors say no, it does not."
Chairman Brent Bozell: "There's a growing sense of alienation
between the public and the press."
public which ironically continues to say it wants the media to catch the
bad guys. Now, say investigative reporters, that will be harder."
Reporters' Committee for Freedom of the Press: "A decision like this
is going to have a great chilling effect on news organizations pursuing
stories like this."
decision where jurors said candid camera yes, sucker punch no."
Tom Brokaw then
interviewed Newsweek's Jonathan Alter, who insisted: "This is an
alarming case because what it suggests is that you can do a report that is
substantially accurate and still be penalized for it. And that can set a
chilling precedent for stories that news organizations want to do that
might cause a lot of opposition on the part of the subjects of the
considering whether ABC went too far, Brokaw asked: "Is there any
doubt in your mind that we have to work a little harder at getting the
public to understand just what we do and why we do it?"
But just how "true" and "accuate" was ABC's story? In
the January 20 New Republic William Powers reported that "as part of
the suit, Food Lion had obtained the full forty-five hours of
hidden-camera videotape shot by the Prime Time Live producers, of which
only about ten minutes wound up in the segment." Food Lion contended
that "ABC producers and editors used a combination of staged events
and selective editing to fit a pre-conceived story line and systematically
fabricate a story to deceive the public." Powers explained: "In
one case found in the outtakes shown by Food Lion in court, an ABC
employee sold a piece of moldy kielbasa sausage to two other ABC
employees, while both parties to the transaction filmed it with hidden
Food Lion could
not release this video while it was evidence, but AP reported that after
Wednesday's verdict they distributed a highlight tape to reporters.
why news magazines have an incentive to exaggerate what they discover:
"These hidden-camera investigations are costly, and it's hard for
producers to go back to the office and say the sorts of things newspaper
reporters tell their editors all the time: 'the story didn't really pan
out'....Unlike newspapers, the networks don't have subscribers who will be
back for the next edition no matter what, and they can't bury a less than
fab story on page B-19. They have to draw in a large audience for every
show, or risk losing ratings and advertisers. And they do so by painting
broad, sensational strokes."
For more on ABC's
manipulations, see item #5 below.
In addition to the $5.5 million, the jury demanded that Rick Kaplan,
Executive Producer of Prime Time Live at the time of the Food Lion story,
pay $35,000. Food Lion had argued that Prime Time producers had benefitted
personally from the story. As reported in the January 8 USA Today:
"Food Lion's Mike Mueller said Prime Time Live employees who worked
on the story got big raises. Producer Susan Barnett, he said, got a raise
from $49,400 to $70,000 the day after she was named in the suit in 1993.
Producer Lynne Dale's pay rose from $72,900 in 1992 to $100,000 in 1993.
Other salary figures, to which ABC did not object, showed that in 1993,
former Executive Producer Rick Kaplan made $700,000."
Kaplan may soon
take a top slot at CNN. Kaplan is now a special events producer for ABC
Television. He left Prime Time Live in 1994 to become Executive Producer
of World News Tonight where he remained until about a year ago.
Back on January 3
The Washington Post's John Carmody reported that Kaplan "is being
eagerly sought to take over a major job at the 24-hour channel,"
elaborating that "speculation in Atlanta has Kaplan being put in
charge of all CNN programs and program development."
As examined in
MediaWatch a few years ago, Kaplan is a Friend of Bill who advised Clinton
during the 1992 campaign -- a time when Kaplan was working for ABC News.
Here's an except from the front page story in the January 1994 MediaWatch:
Producer of Prime Time Live since 1989, advised Clinton in 1992. When the
Gennifer Flowers story broke in February, "Clinton called Kaplan for
advice," Los Angeles Times reporter Tom Rosenstiel recounted in his
campaign book Strange Bedfellows. On the way to the airport, Clinton made
another call to Kaplan and the "night ended for Kaplan at 4am, when
Clinton called one last time."
reported that Clinton "was considering doing 60 Minutes. If you do,
Kaplan said, it should be with Mike Wallace or Morley Safer or Ed Bradley.
Otherwise tell them forget it....[Voters] are going to remember that you
stood up to Mike Wallace."
Two months later
as Clinton's campaign floundered in New York, aides suggested an
appearance on the Don Imus show. "The appearance was clinched,"
CNN producer Matthew Saal recalled in the January 1993 Washington Monthly,
"when Rick Kaplan... called the radio show host to see if he could
get the pair together. The answer was yes."
closeness has impacted coverage. In a March 11 Prime Time Live story, Sam
Donaldson explained that he added a positive remark at the end of a
pre-election Clinton interview because Kaplan said "the overall
[interview] atmosphere was too tough." In the March 21 Washington
Post Magazine, David Finkel quoted Kaplan as he watched Donaldson's
interview: "I'd just like to do this one over again...I'm getting
angry watching this...You didn't treat Bush this way."
Kaplan kept up
his cozy relationship after the election. He "played golf with Bill
shortly before the inauguration and watched movies with both Clintons at
the Governor's mansion," Jacob Weisberg reported in the April 26 New
While Kaplan may soon join CNN's ranks, the cable network has just landed
another network liberal: Garrick Utley. The New York Post's Josef Adalian
reported that Utley, Chief Foreign Correspondent for ABC News since 1993,
will work out of CNN's New York bureau starting next month. Before ABC
Utley spent 30 years with NBC News as a reporter, anchor and for a little
while, host of Meet the Press.
What views does
Utley hold? Well, some quotes run in past issues of Notable Quotables show
he's not very conservative.
the October 17, 1992 NBC Nightly News: "When I covered Bush's 1980
primary campaign against Ronald Reagan, he opposed Reagan's economic
program. He called it 'voodoo economics' -- said it wouldn't work. But
then of course, Bush agreed to be Reagan's running mate. For eight years,
he supported policies which, it is now widely acknowledged, contributed
mightily to our excesses then and our economic problems now; above all,
America being held hostage by debt. George Bush went along to get ahead,
and it worked. He became President. Now Ronald Reagan is in happy
retirement in California, and President Bush is left to pay the price. The
price for supporting something he did not believe in to begin with. He
knows it -- knows it is now too late to do anything about that fateful
bargain he entered into twelve years ago. Going along to get ahead made
George Bush President. Now it may unmake him. The ancient Greeks wrote
about this sort of thing. They called it tragedy."
the January 25, 1992 NBC Nightly News: "Yes, times are tough because
of mistakes we made in the past, including voodoo economics supported by
George Bush, among others."
And to think that
on Sunday's 60 Minutes Ted Turner complained about how Rupert Murdoch
infected the Fox News Channel with a conservative tilt.
From the January MediaNomics, below is the back page guest editorial which exposes the shoddy journalism in Prime Time
Live's hit on Food Lion. To get a copy of MediaNomics or to subscribe, e-mail MediaNomics Editor Tim Lamer:
Guest Editorial, by Jack Scism. (In a long career in North
Carolina journalism, Jack Scism worked as city editor and senior business correspondent for the Greensboro News and Record until
his retirement in 1996.)
When Facts Get in the Way
An old joke among journalists is "never let the facts get in the
way of a good story." Most often, the occasion is backhanded praise for journalists who did just the opposite -- killed an
interesting news story when they discovered it wasn't true. But sometimes the temptation to break the big story is
irresistible whatever the facts. TV "magazine" shows, whose ratings depend on sensation and scandal, are notably susceptible
to this urge. That seems to be what happened to ABC's Prime Time Live in 1992 when it went to North Carolina to investigate the
Food Lion grocery chain.
Moreover, ABC may have crossed an important line by collaborating
on the story with the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW), which has publicly vowed to put Food Lion out of business.
In May 1992, two ABC producers went "undercover," using fake resumes and phony references arranged by UFCW, to get jobs at Food
Lion and investigate the company's food handling practices. Six months later, Prime Time Live broadcast a report accusing Food
Lion of a wide range of unsanitary and dishonest food handling practices. The report, built around hidden camera video and
aggressively promoted by the network, attracted the largest audience of any Prime Time Live program to that date.
Food Lion sales dropped nearly ten percent and the company's stock
lost 20 percent of its value in response to the report. But evidence presented in a recent federal trial in Greensboro, N.C.,
strongly suggests that ABC doctored its story, staging events and ignoring evidence that contradicted its preconceived notion. Of 45
hours of video filmed by ABC, only ten minutes made it on the air.
The unaired tape tells quite a different story than the one that
Prime Time Live viewers saw. Over and over again, it shows Food Lion employees doing their job right, following the rules, and
unknowingly foiling ABC's efforts to get the goods on Food Lion. At trial, the jury was not asked to pass judgment on the accuracy
of the Prime Time Live broadcast -- Food Lion attorneys reluctantly determined that the need to prove malice as well as
inaccuracy made it difficult for Food Lion to win a libel suit. Rather, the jurors found ABC producers committed fraud for their
deception in obtaining jobs at Food Lion.
But unaired video the jury saw raised important questions about
television magazines' adherence to journalistic standards of sourcing and accuracy, and their willingness to air stories that a
newspaper editor would "spike" because the facts just don't hold up. In the Food Lion story, Prime Time Live chose to ignore a
large body of evidence that undercut its story line. Consider what ABC didn't show their viewers:
-- An ABC producer working in the meat department, speculating
that the "sell-by" date on some chicken had expired, then putting the chicken on sale anyway and telling a cameraman to film it.
-- An ABC producer, after filming a dirty meat slicer, muttering
obscenities when a Food Lion employee cleaned up the slicer. Or consider what Prime Time Live showed about an incident and then
failed to show about the very same incident: ABC aired film of spoiled rice pudding, implying it was being offered to customers.
It didn't show that the pudding had been removed from display to be thrown away.
-- ABC aired video of a Food Lion employee complaining she had
cooked chicken she thought might be spoiled. It didn't show the rest of the conversation in which the employee said a manager had
told her to throw out the chicken.
ABC also failed to report the "excellent" food store sanitation
evaluations federal and state inspectors have given to Food Lion over the years.
While selective editing is an inevitable part of any television
broadcast -- there's always more film than air time -- the public relies on news organizations for an honest condensation that
fairly reflects what the camera saw. The Food Lion outtakes strongly suggest that Prime Time Live failed to live up to this
We can only hope ABC's public embarrassment will encourage TV
magazine shows and, indeed, all journalists, to recommit to their obligation to go with the facts -- even when they kill a "good"
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