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What The Media Tell Americans About Free Enterprise

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February 1997


Issue Review: Food Lion vs. Prime Time Live
Muckraking -- or Muckfaking?

A North Carolina jury set off a media firestorm last month when it fined ABC News $5.5 million in punitive damages for its news gathering techniques in a 1992 under- cover Prime Time Live story about Food Lion. The case brought out into the open a long-simmering debate about the propriety of using hidden cameras and deception to get stories.

But this was only one aspect of the Food Lion/ABC News case. There were also serious questions about whether or not ABC News producers, working undercover at Food Lion grocery stores, had misused hidden cameras to create a sensational story rather than simply reporting the facts. In their frenzy to defend the use of hidden cameras, reporters didn't seem to care about these alleged inaccuracies. Reporters simply ignored them.

After the jury verdict, most in the media were quick to defend ABC. But they only wanted to talk about the issue of hidden cameras, not the accuracy of the report. CBS's Dan Rather said it was "important to note that the truth of the report was never at issue in the lawsuit, not even challenged, only the journalistic techniques." Newsweek's Jonathan Alter insisted that "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." The lesson NBC Nightly News Anchor Tom Brokaw drew from the whole affair was that reporters "have to work a little harder at getting the public to understand just what we do and why we do it."

Alter's Newsweek colleague, Evan Thomas, asserted: "It was pretty scary for the press because the story was basically right." National Public Radio's Nina Totenberg said hidden cameras were "a time-honored way of getting a story you can't get otherwise." And Time Managing Editor Walter Isaacson claimed that it was "a very valuable, important story that ABC did and the truth of the story was never contended in court."

These reporters were merely repeating what ABC News President Roone Arledge had established as the journalistic party line: "From the 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."

But was the story really entirely accurate? Despite the claims of the press, Food Lion did -- vehemently -- challenge the accuracy of the story, just not in court because, they said, proving libel is almost impossible. After viewing ABC's 45 hours of outtakes for the story, the grocery chain put together a video which showed some practices they don't teach in journalism school. It shows an ABC producer working in the meat department and 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. The outtakes also showed a producer, after filming a dirty meat slicer, muttering obscenities when a Food Lion employee cleaned up the slicer.

ABC's editing techniques were also called into question. While ABC aired video of a Food Lion employee complaining she had cooked chicken she thought might be spoiled, for instance, Food Lion's tape showed that in the rest of the conversation the employee said a manager had told her to throw the chicken out. This last part didn't make it into the Prime Time Live segment. ABC also aired footage of an employee working quickly and saying that he runs out of time each day. But the outtakes show that when the producer then asks whether "they" give him enough time to do his work, he replies, "Oh, yeah. We get enough time." Again, only the first part, without the employee's clarification, made it into the segment. And the outtakes show that ABC edited some footage to make an employee's horse play look like an example of unsafe working conditions.

These are serious charges. When ABC decided to devote both its February 12 Prime Time Live show and a special 90-minuteViewpoint show to the Food Lion case, many observers expected the network to answer these objections, point by point. They were disappointed. The entire Prime Time Live show -- with the exception of a brief response from Food Lion -- was about whether journalists should be able to use deception to get a story and whether hidden cameras themselves are ethical. ABC's Ted Koppel, host of the Viewpoint special, did his best to keep that show focused on the same issues. In two and a half hours of airtime devoted to the case, ABC never answered or even discussed Food Lion's criticisms specifically.

ABC didn't want anybody else talking about its accuracy, either. When the Fox News Channel aired Food Lion's video of ABC's original footage, the network was furious. ABC Television President David Westin said, "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 incident on CNN, Sam Donaldson told Larry King: "I think [Fox] was irresponsible." But at no point did ABC actually bother to discuss any of these alleged "gross distortions" in the Food Lion tape.

Others of have been more discerning. "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,'" argued William Powers, Senior Editor of the New Republic. "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," Powers asserted.

There's also another issue that neither ABC, nor its journalistic defenders addressed. If ABC thought they were truly exposing a health hazard, why did it wait six months, until a "sweeps" period, to air the Food Lion segment? Was ABC putting profits ahead of public safety, as it accused Food Lion of doing? This issue wasn't mentioned until near the end of the Viewpoint segment -- by Food Lion's Chris Ahearn -- and no one at ABC answered the criticism. None of ABC's defenders within journalism addressed the topic, either.

The ABC vs. Food Lion case has implications for the First Amendment, and it's legitimate for reporters to discuss and defend the use of hidden cameras. But this wasn't the only issue. The case also raises fundamental questions about the accuracy of television magazine reporting, questions which ABC News and much of the rest of the media have chosen to supress.


Rich Noyes


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