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
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
- An ABC producer, after filming a dirty meat
slicer, muttering obscenities when a Food Lion employee cleaned up
- Or consider what Prime Time Live showed
about an incident and then failed to show about the very same
- 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 basic obligation.
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"
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.