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What The Media Tell Americans About Free Enterprise

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January 1997


When Facts Get in the Way
Guest Editorial, by Jack Scism

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 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" story.

    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.


Rich Noyes


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