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 ABCs 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.
Dont get me wrong; nobody enjoys seeing the medias eyes blackened more than I. All that stuff youve heard about media bias, media disinformation, and media arrogance — its 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, theyd 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 Bradleys assertion was "a total farce."
When I tried to confront Bradley on this, he simply refused my calls. The shows producer consented to an interview but hung up on me as soon as she caught wind that I was going to ask about Bradleys little "discrepancy."
I also caught Pulitzer-prize winning Gannett News Service reporter John Hanchette in a whopper concerning what he wrote about a vets alleged illness. Hanchette also refused to return my calls. Like Bradleys editor, Hanchettes 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, its hard not to enjoy seeing Food Lion rip a chunk of flesh out of the networks shoulder.
Alas, heres the rub. ABC didnt 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.
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 Stossels own. (He assures me he was not actually pregnant.)
Im glad there are people out there exposing such frauds, and I dont want to see it end.
My frustration isnt with reporters who use deceptive techniques when necessary to expose the truth; its with reporters who believe theyre so high and mighty that its 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, "Were 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 doesnt even protect innocent falsehoods. Thats 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 doesnt mean youll 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 youre thinking: "Dream on!"
But the reaction to the Food Lion case shows that if the media dont 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.