ABC Too Arrogant
to Debate Food Lion; Sawyer's Battle?
1. ABC too
arrogant to debate accuracy of its Food Lion story, instead focusing
its special on the use of hidden cameras while claiming they don't always
stand by stories.
Hume reveals why ABC is so adamant in defending their Food Lion story and
planning to appeal the verdict.
"Most people support ABC News over Food Lion," USA Today's Peter
Johnson reported February 13 in relaying the result of a Roper Center poll
for the Media Studies Center. Of 1,001 people polled, "52 percent
sided with ABC, 21 percent with Food Lion. The remaining 27 percent had no
pick." Almost half of those surveyed, 49 percent, never heard of the
Food Lion case, "but 80 percent of those who had heard of the case
said they thought ABC didn't do anything wrong by using hidden cameras and
undercover reporters to get the story."
Of course, just
going undercover and using hidden cameras was not what got ABC in trouble.
It was how they got their jobs inside the stores. But the media's
reporting on the January 22 punitive verdict against ABC News for $5.5
million might have something to do with swaying the public's perception.
At the time many media reports falsely insisted that the accuracy of the
story was not in doubt. While true that the lawsuit dealt only with ABC's
deception and fraud in obtaining jobs at Food Lion for two producers, Food
Lion very much disputes the 1992 Prime Time Live (PTL) story. To read
about the media's take on the verdict, see two previous CyberAlerts:
(February 12) ABC devoted the entire Prime Time Live and special 90 minute
Viewpoint to what was promoted as a look at the Food Lion verdict.
Instead, they focused on the use of hidden cameras. But in so doing they
deliberately avoided exploring the accuracy of their story and only
occasionally touched on the fraud and deception issue decided by the jury.
opened Prime Time Live by portraying hidden cameras as American as
motherhood and apple pie. Intermixed with clips from previous shows,
Sawyer declared: "Our cameras showed a televangelist pretending to
heal people but, in fact, tricking his followers...The following year, we
pretended to be a health clinic to reveal that doctors were missing
cancers... Should we have used hidden cameras to track crooked car
repairmen?...Is it spying? Is it lying? Is it right or wrong? This is
footage of kids packing guns. Would you use hidden cameras this way? What
if you heard some fast food restaurants were unsanitary? What if the
mentally ill were being neglected, or children were being abused?"
Hard to imagine
how America survived before Prime Time Live.
Sawyer spent nine
minutes showing parts of the 1992 Food Lion piece, including segments
disputed by Food Lion, and then talked with some jurors. Referring to the
February 12 Court TV special, Sawyer asked the jurors: "Recently,
another news organization did show some of the jurors our original
broadcast. We wondered if it changed anyone's mind." Juror Greg Mack
replied: "If I could have considered the broadcast, it probably would
have changed my mind a bit in favor of ABC." But juror Betty Wicker
wondered "How do we know those tapes weren't put together? And a
piece of this and a piece of that."
ABC allowed Food
Lion's Chris Ahearn two minutes for rebuttal near the end of the show. She
insisted "The Prime Time Live show about Food Lion was not true, and
it wasn't good journalism. We know this because Food Lion has the 45 hours
of hidden camera footage ABC shot in our stores. This footage shows that
Prime Time Live staged scenes, violated our store policies and then
deceptively edited the tapes."
Sounds like an
opportunity for some fascinating TV. Here you have two jurors, one who
found ABC's story persuasive and one unconvinced. Plus, a video response
available from Food Lion. ABC had plenty of time to show the entire PTL
piece and the Food Lion response. Food Lion's video does show how ABC
distorted and inaccurately described several of the scenes shown on PTL.
But Food Lion did not counter some other clips. So do they concede those
scenes of food mishandling were accurate? How does ABC defend their
editing or do they believe Food Lion's tape employed misleading editing?
We'll never know.
ABC was either too afraid or too arrogant to consider that the PTL story
was anything less than perfect. Though Ted Koppel opened Viewpoint with a
piece explaining the anti-media attitude in Salisbury, NC, headquarters of
Food Lion, and even though the show came live from nearby Wake Forest
University, Koppel made clear he wanted to move beyond Food Lion. He
"Clearly, we are here because of the Food Lion case and I fully
expect that some of the issues raised by that case will be discussed here
tonight. But we are all of us here determined to move beyond the case and
talk about the hard choices raised by hidden cameras and by journalists
posing as something they are not."
In their refusal
to explore the PTL story, ABC made two bold assertions that don't hold up:
-- We Stand By
Our Story. When former Senator Alan Simpson noted that the media
"have an institutional, constitutional abhorrence of ever saying
anything more than that marvelous phrase, we stick by our story," ABC
News President Roone Arledge shot back: "Not true."
*** Reality Check: Minutes later Arledge confirmed Simpson's insight.
Talking about the Food Lion story Arledge insisted: "But the fact of
the matter is the broadcast was true." Earlier, on PTL, ABC News
President David Westin declared: "Tonight, as we did in 1992, we
stand by the truth and integrity of our Food Lion report."
-- If Journalists
are Watchdogs Who is Checking Them? Food Lion's Chris Ahearn asked
"who is watching journalists?" Koppel replied: "Journalists
are watching journalists." 60 Minutes Executive Producer Don Hewitt
chimed in: "That's why we're doing this program. That's why we're
*** Reality Check: First, the show's avoidance of any discussion of the
specifics of the Food Lion piece proves Koppel and Hewitt wrong. Second,
when another journalistic enterprise dared to give voice to Food Lion's
side of the story, ABC didn't celebrate their watchdog role. ABC condemned
them. On the day of the punitive verdict, January 22, Fox News Channel ran
Food Lion's video of clips from ABC's original footage. ABC Television
President David Westin was steamed: "I find it outrageously unfair
that a news organization would proceed that way. The tape that Food Lion
presented is a gross distortion of what actually occurred." Asked
about the Fox play, on CNN Sam Donaldson told Larry King: "I think
that was irresponsible."
It's Diane Sawyer who refuses to allow ABC to let go of the Food Lion
case, Brit Hume suggested in the "Inside Sources" segment on the
February 16 Fox News Sunday. Hume, ABC's White House reporter until a few
months ago, explained:
"There's been a lot of wondering in media circles about why ABC News
doesn't cut its losses, if that's what they are, in its fight with Food
Lion. ABC did two-and-a-half hours on the issue this week. It lost that
lawsuit. And the reason is not that anybody in the ABC hierarchy wants to
do it. Mr. Arledge, the President of ABC News doesn't want to keep this
thing going according to my sources -- that the person who wants to keep
this going is Diane Sawyer who feels under attack and wants to stay with
this until she feels she's vindicated."
He added: "She's hugely well paid and thought to be important to the
network. Contract is up. They're afraid she'll leave. And she's exercising
On January 22
Sawyer assured PTL viewers that "the truth of the broadcast was not
at issue in this decision and ABC stands behind the talented journalists
who brought this important story to your attention."
If Sawyer really
believes in her show's story then she should be willing to participate in
a real debate over its content, not just say the jury didn't deal with its
accuracy and then dedicate her whole program to the controversy but refuse
take on Food Lion's criticisms point by point. Indeed, all ABC has really
given viewers is the tired refrain of "we stand by our story."
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