Media News

COLUMN-The beef against ABC, and Romney as a debater

Sept 18 (Reuters) - First, the beef against ABC.

Most of us remember seeing or hearing about the multiple ABC news broadcasts beginning last March about how meat packers were adulterating the meat we buy in grocery stores and restaurants with a filler called “pink slime.”

Other news outlets picked up on the controversy over the filler, which in fact had been reported on before, but which ABC took on as a crusade.

Leading with Diane Sawyer’s flagship evening newscast, on which she touted her team’s “startling investigation,” ABC did eleven separate broadcasts about “pink slime” over about four weeks. This culminated in cheerleading and self-congratulatory coverage of consumer groups responding to the ABC reports with campaigns to demand that the major grocery store chains boycott products containing “pink slime.” It was as if Upton Sinclair and his epic novel “The Jungle” that took readers inside the gruesome meat packing plants of the early twentieth century had been reborn in the person of Sawyer and lead on-air reporter Jim Avila.

These multiple reports - hyped by online and social media reports from ABC producers and on-air people, along with promotions on its local news outlets - and the resulting consumer boycott campaigns had such a broad impact that the companies that produce “pink slime” saw their business plummet within a few weeks.

Last week, the leading “pink slime” purveyor, Beef Products, Inc., whose primary operations are in South Dakota, sued ABC. According to its complaint Beef Products quickly lost 60% of its business as a result of the ABC broadcasts and had to lay off 700 of 1,300 employees.

Most of the modest press coverage of the filing of the suit acknowledged the huge hurdles any plaintiff has in a country where the First Amendment protects not only free expression, but those, like ABC, whose expression angers its targets and even causes them ruinous economic harm. That’s true.

Some of the coverage, like a Wall Street Journal report, also focused on Beef Products’ invocation of a South Dakota law “that gives agricultural companies the ability to sue when their products are criticized,” and noted that beef producers had tried unsuccessfully to sue Oprah Winfrey in Texas using the same type of argument that she had disparaged meat products. That’s true, too.

But I don’t think that’s the whole story. This case is not likely to go away quickly.

Sure, the meat disparagement claims obviously will not and should not survive First Amendment scrutiny, nor will Beef Products’ absurd claim that by cheering on a boycott of its products ABC was “tortuously interfering” with the company’s contracts with its customers. (Actually, Beef Products claims that ABC called for the boycotts, which is not true. But even if it had, its First Amendment right to do so would easily trump this interference with contracts claim.)

But - and this is a big but - there are 13 counts alleging defamation in this complaint, and they are compellingly persuasive. In fact, they make ABC look terrible.

To be sure, the great fun in writing about litigation is that if both sides have good lawyers (and Beef Products’ lawyer is heavyweight former Chicago federal prosecutor Dan Webb), one side’s arguments can look persuasive until challenged by the other side. So, maybe Beef Products’ case will evaporate when ABC answers.

But as an aficionado of these cases, I can report that this is the most detailed, persuasive complaint of its kind that I have ever read.

After reading it - and, in fact, reading and re-reading its painstaking explanation of how the plaintiff’s product is produced and used - and then looking back at some of the ABC reports, I began to believe that it was Beef Products that was slimed. I actually found myself believing that this may not be “The Jungle, Part Two”; that what the company produces really is the “lean, finally textured beef,” or “LFTB” that Beef Products’ complaint says it is; that it is real meat, not “filler” or “gelatin,” as it was described on ABC; and that it is safe and has been deemed so by federal inspectors and officials who were not paid off or unduly influenced by corporate politics and lobbying.

Moreover, I was especially intrigued by the claims that ABC had blown off all the evidence Beef Products presented to the network’s producers saying that their first reports were wrong, and that ABC not only did not correct them on air, but stepped up its campaign against “pink slime.”

If that’s true, it could establish the kind of “actual malice” or “reckless disregard” for the truth that would put ABC in real legal jeopardy. Indeed, for me this is the most compelling part of the complaint: Beef Products alleges that it provided ABC with all kinds of evidence - including research papers from respected independent agencies and even testimony from the head of the Consumer Federation of America’s Food Safety Institute - refuting ABC’s take on “pink slime.”

Given the alarm sounded against “pink slime” by ABC and then by so many other news outlets and consumer groups that piled on, my buying into the idea that what Beef Products puts on our grocery shelves is actually “lean, finally textured beef” probably makes it seem like some of the slime has gotten into my brain. But I’ve read the 256-page complaint - which is a good place for a reporter to start before digging in and seeing what ABC’s answers are, including whether and why it chose to ignore the countervailing evidence that Beef Products offered.

Whichever side is right, there is already enough beef here for a terrific story that pushes beyond the ABC PR department’s standard response so far; that the suit “is without merit” and “we will contest it vigorously.”

Second, Romney as debater:

As explained here in June, I’m still hoping for a good report on what exactly the rules are for the upcoming presidential debates and what the points of contention were when the two sides negotiated them. Who wanted the candidates seated versus standing at a podium? Who wanted more or less structure? Did both sides agree from the start that the second debate (on October 16) would be a town hall format?

Who wanted which debate subjects to come first, second, and third? (It seems to me that President Obama won that negotiation, if there was one; foreign policy, which seems to be his strong suit and underscores his status as President, is the third debate topic, on October 22. That means it will be the debate closest in viewers’ memories as they think about their votes 15 days later.)

I’d also like to see a report reviewing how Romney did in his other one-on-one debates: when he ran against Ted Kennedy for the senate in 1994 and when he ran for governor of Massachusetts in 2002. We know he generally handled himself well in the multi-candidate primary debates this year, but how does he do when the focus is solely on him and one other opponent?