False Satisfactions in the Food Lion Case

January 01, 1997  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  Media

Oh joy, oh joy, oh joy! ABC News got its face rubbed in the snow! Yellow snow, at that!

A court has awarded $5.5 million in punitive damages from the network to the Food Lion chain, which ABC’s PrimeTime Live had accused of selling old meat and cheese that had been taste-tested by rodents. The big, arrogant media finally got what they had coming, right?

Perhaps, but there is something about the decision that should make us all worry more than a little bit.

Don’t get me wrong; nobody enjoys seeing the media’s eyes blackened more than I. All that stuff you’ve heard about media bias, media disinformation, and media arrogance — it’s all true.

For example, in my article "Gulf Lore Syndrome" in the March issue of Reason, I write about a recent segment of CBS 60 Minutes concerning the demolition of an Iraqi bunker complex that later proved to contain nerve gas weapons. Ed Bradley — the man who kicked off the Alar scare back in 1989 — told his viewers that the soldiers blowing the bunker did not put on their protective gear. Indeed, he said, they’d been ordered not to.

Damning stuff. False stuff.

Of the six soldiers who appeared in that segment and belonged to the unit that blew the bunker, five told me they had donned their gear and several said they had specifically told Bradley that. The battalion second-in-command said Bradley’s assertion was "a total farce."

When I tried to confront Bradley on this, he simply refused my calls. The show’s producer consented to an interview but hung up on me as soon as she caught wind that I was going to ask about Bradley’s little "discrepancy."

I also caught Pulitzer-prize winning Gannett News Service reporter John Hanchette in a whopper concerning what he wrote about a vet’s alleged illness. Hanchette also refused to return my calls. Like Bradley’s editor, Hanchette’s originally consented to talk and then hung up on me.

Such deceptions in the name of ratings and crusades are all too common. To the extent ABC made false claims, as it may well have done according to a damning article in the February 10 National Review, it’s hard not to enjoy seeing Food Lion rip a chunk of flesh out of the network’s shoulder.

Alas, here’s the rub. ABC didn’t get punished for false reporting, but for the manner of its reporting. Specifically, the punishment was for using hidden cameras and using fake references to get two ABC employees jobs at Food Lion to work undercover.

John Stossel

I was recently involved in an ABC 20/20 hosted by John Stossel in which he sent two people as undercover "patients" to a doctor who claimed to treat a disease which doesn’t even exist, known as multiple chemical sensitivity. The doctor charged each almost $1,000 just for the initial consultation. She then told one she should never get pregnant again and the other that she needed to move out of New York City. Both, of course, were actually perfectly healthy.

Earlier in his career, Stossel exposed abortion clinics that falsely told women they were pregnant in order to perform sham abortions on them. Two clinics analyzed urine a Stossel co-worker had provided them, claiming it showed she was pregnant. In fact, the urine was Stossel’s own. (He assures me he was not actually pregnant.)

I’m glad there are people out there exposing such frauds, and I don’t want to see it end.

My frustration isn’t with reporters who use deceptive techniques when necessary to expose the truth; it’s with reporters who believe they’re so high and mighty that it’s okay to lie to their own audiences. They think this wonderful thing called the First Amendment allows it.

The temptation the media must avoid, says cultural critic David Murray, is to say, "We’re not accountable to anyone because we work for the public good, but if we screw up, we can wrap ourselves in the flag." He warns they must not "become judge, jury, and executioner."

"The point I consistently try to make is there is a danger that our freedoms will be lost if you, with the power, abuse it," he says.

In theory, the First Amendment does not protect defamatory assertions which are knowingly false, and sometimes it doesn’t even protect innocent falsehoods. That’s why a huge company like Food Lion, with money to hire the best lawyers, should have pursued ABC on libel grounds.

But for littler guys, libel suits are expensive. Further, just because you were intentionally defamed, it doesn’t mean you’ll win. Libel suits are a weapon; but hardly a sure one.

A better solution is a media that pay a bit less attention to ratings and a bit more to telling the truth. I know what you’re thinking: "Dream on!"

But the reaction to the Food Lion case shows that if the media don’t want to see an increasingly frustrated public clamor for scaling back the First Amendment, it better start exposing, disgracing, and firing reporters who lie — rather than rewarding them with million-dollar salaries and Pulitzer Prizes.