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
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
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
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.