CyberAlert -- 01/23/1997 -- Nets Claim Food Lion Story True
MRC Alert: Nets Claim Food Lion Story True; CNN Hiring Liberals
1. A jury awards punitive damages to ABC. The networks portray ABC's story as true and the jury decision as an impediment to good reporting.
2. How true was ABC's story. A New Republic article reports the outtakes don't match Prime Time Live's claims.
3. The jury demanded the Executive Producer, a Friend of Bill, personally pay damages. And CNN wants to put him in charge.
5. The unaired tape tells quite a different story than the one that Prime Time Live viewers saw. So argues a newspaper veteran in the January MediaNomics.
1) Having earlier found ABC News had committed fraud, on Wednesday a federal jury in North Carolina awarded Food Lion $5.5 million in punitive damages for an undercover story aired on Prime Time Live in 1992. Instead of filing a very hard to win libel suit, which would have required Food Lion to prove malice, Food Lion sued for fraud and trespass based upon how ABC producers misrepresented themselves to get hired.
Food Lion obtained video outtakes which showed how ABC misled viewers, but network stories Wednesday night insisted the accuracy of ABC's story was beyond argument and, therefore, the decision would have a chilling effect.
On the January 22 CBS Evening News Dan Rather announced:
"A federal jury in North Carolina ordered ABC television today to pay the Food Lion supermarkets five and a half million dollars in punitive damages, that's in connection with an undercover news investigation that proved to be true. But ABC News producers covered their true identities to get jobs at Food Lion and jurors decided that amounted to fraud."
After soundbites from two jurors, Rather continued: "The ABC report accused Food Lion of selling spoiled food and other unsanitary practices. Important to note that the truth of the report was never at issue in the lawsuit, not even challenged, only the journalistic techniques. ABC is appealing the verdict and ABC News President Roone Arledge says, and I quote, 'If large corporations were allowed to stop hard-hitting investigative journalism, the American people would be the losers.'"
The network in question, ABC, gave a fuller view of the issues involved. Reporter John McKenzie began his story:
"The jurors had already found ABC guilty of fraudulent job applications and trespassing. Today's award, they said, was meant to send journalists a message." Following two juror soundbites McKenzie allowed Chris Ahearn of Food Lion to assert: "This case was about wrongdoing on the part of ABC and the jury agreed with Food Lion that ABC broke laws and today they agreed that ABC needed to be punished for that illegal activity."
A bit later in the piece ABC News President Roone Arledge expressed the widely held all or nothing media view:
"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. The reason that the award today is outrageous is that this is precisely the kind of story for which investigative techniques like these are appropriate."
Arledge failed to consider another spin: Undercover reporting that accurately and fairly documents wrongdoing is fine, but the public doesn't approve of the media abusing its power and then delivering a distorted story.
"NBC News In Depth tonight, Food Lion versus ABC -- punishing the messenger..." But reporter Bob Faw proceeded to provide the only story of the night which explored why the media have turned off the public.
Faw began: "Insisting it had broadcast the truth, ABC said every American should be troubled by the decision. One..."
Bill Jeffries, ABC lawyer: "that vastly exceeds the actual damages incurred by Food Lion."
Faw: "That, said jurors, misses the point."
Juror: "They're going to have to go about gathering the news in a different way. You can't misrepresent yourself just to get the news."
Faw: "What we love on television, we condemn in the jury box."
Faw went on to explain that the public believes the media violate people's privacy, have a superior attitude and employ trickery. Faw ran a soundbite from Richard Jewell and then let former Senator Alan Simpson assert that investigative reports are not done to reveal the truth but "to draw blood."
Faw explained: "And, when like ABC, the press piously proclaims that the ends justify the means, the public and jurors say no, it does not."
MRC Chairman Brent Bozell: "There's a growing sense of alienation between the public and the press."
Faw: "A public which ironically continues to say it wants the media to catch the bad guys. Now, say investigative reporters, that will be harder."
Jane Kirtley: Reporters' Committee for Freedom of the Press: "A decision like this is going to have a great chilling effect on news organizations pursuing stories like this."
Faw: "A decision where jurors said candid camera yes, sucker punch no."
Tom Brokaw then interviewed Newsweek's Jonathan Alter, who insisted: "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. And that can set a chilling precedent for stories that news organizations want to do that might cause a lot of opposition on the part of the subjects of the story."
Instead of considering whether ABC went too far, Brokaw asked: "Is there any doubt in your mind that we have to work a little harder at getting the public to understand just what we do and why we do it?"
Food Lion could not release this video while it was evidence, but AP reported that after Wednesday's verdict they distributed a highlight tape to reporters.
Powers suggested why news magazines have an incentive to exaggerate what they discover: "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'....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."
For more on ABC's manipulations, see item #5 below.
Kaplan may soon take a top slot at CNN. Kaplan is now a special events producer for ABC Television. He left Prime Time Live in 1994 to become Executive Producer of World News Tonight where he remained until about a year ago.
Back on January 3 The Washington Post's John Carmody reported that Kaplan "is being eagerly sought to take over a major job at the 24-hour channel," elaborating that "speculation in Atlanta has Kaplan being put in charge of all CNN programs and program development."
As examined in MediaWatch a few years ago, Kaplan is a Friend of Bill who advised Clinton during the 1992 campaign -- a time when Kaplan was working for ABC News. Here's an except from the front page story in the January 1994 MediaWatch:
Kaplan, Executive Producer of Prime Time Live since 1989, advised Clinton in 1992. When the Gennifer Flowers story broke in February, "Clinton called Kaplan for advice," Los Angeles Times reporter Tom Rosenstiel recounted in his campaign book Strange Bedfellows. On the way to the airport, Clinton made another call to Kaplan and the "night ended for Kaplan at 4am, when Clinton called one last time."
Rosenstiel reported that Clinton "was considering doing 60 Minutes. If you do, Kaplan said, it should be with Mike Wallace or Morley Safer or Ed Bradley. Otherwise tell them forget it....[Voters] are going to remember that you stood up to Mike Wallace."
Two months later as Clinton's campaign floundered in New York, aides suggested an appearance on the Don Imus show. "The appearance was clinched," CNN producer Matthew Saal recalled in the January 1993 Washington Monthly, "when Rick Kaplan... called the radio show host to see if he could get the pair together. The answer was yes."
Kaplan's closeness has impacted coverage. In a March 11 Prime Time Live story, Sam Donaldson explained that he added a positive remark at the end of a pre-election Clinton interview because Kaplan said "the overall [interview] atmosphere was too tough." In the March 21 Washington Post Magazine, David Finkel quoted Kaplan as he watched Donaldson's interview: "I'd just like to do this one over again...I'm getting angry watching this...You didn't treat Bush this way."
Kaplan kept up his cozy relationship after the election. He "played golf with Bill shortly before the inauguration and watched movies with both Clintons at the Governor's mansion," Jacob Weisberg reported in the April 26 New Republic.
What views does Utley hold? Well, some quotes run in past issues of Notable Quotables show he's not very conservative.
Utley anchoring the October 17, 1992 NBC Nightly News: "When I covered Bush's 1980 primary campaign against Ronald Reagan, he opposed Reagan's economic program. He called it 'voodoo economics' -- said it wouldn't work. But then of course, Bush agreed to be Reagan's running mate. For eight years, he supported policies which, it is now widely acknowledged, contributed mightily to our excesses then and our economic problems now; above all, America being held hostage by debt. George Bush went along to get ahead, and it worked. He became President. Now Ronald Reagan is in happy retirement in California, and President Bush is left to pay the price. The price for supporting something he did not believe in to begin with. He knows it -- knows it is now too late to do anything about that fateful bargain he entered into twelve years ago. Going along to get ahead made George Bush President. Now it may unmake him. The ancient Greeks wrote about this sort of thing. They called it tragedy."
Utley anchoring the January 25, 1992 NBC Nightly News: "Yes, times are tough because of mistakes we made in the past, including voodoo economics supported by George Bush, among others."
And to think that on Sunday's 60 Minutes Ted Turner complained about how Rupert Murdoch infected the Fox News Channel with a conservative tilt.
Guest Editorial, by Jack Scism. (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.)
When Facts Get in the Way
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
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.
-- Brent Baker