CyberAlert -- 02/17/1997 -- ABC Too Arrogant to Debate Food Lion

ABC Too Arrogant to Debate Food Lion; Sawyer's Battle?

1. ABC too arrogant to debate accuracy of its Food Lion story, instead focusing its special on the use of hidden cameras while claiming they don't always stand by stories.

2. Brit Hume reveals why ABC is so adamant in defending their Food Lion story and planning to appeal the verdict.

1) "Most people support ABC News over Food Lion," USA Today's Peter Johnson reported February 13 in relaying the result of a Roper Center poll for the Media Studies Center. Of 1,001 people polled, "52 percent sided with ABC, 21 percent with Food Lion. The remaining 27 percent had no pick." Almost half of those surveyed, 49 percent, never heard of the Food Lion case, "but 80 percent of those who had heard of the case said they thought ABC didn't do anything wrong by using hidden cameras and undercover reporters to get the story."

Of course, just going undercover and using hidden cameras was not what got ABC in trouble. It was how they got their jobs inside the stores. But the media's reporting on the January 22 punitive verdict against ABC News for $5.5 million might have something to do with swaying the public's perception. At the time many media reports falsely insisted that the accuracy of the story was not in doubt. While true that the lawsuit dealt only with ABC's deception and fraud in obtaining jobs at Food Lion for two producers, Food Lion very much disputes the 1992 Prime Time Live (PTL) story. To read about the media's take on the verdict, see two previous CyberAlerts:

Wednesday night (February 12) ABC devoted the entire Prime Time Live and special 90 minute Viewpoint to what was promoted as a look at the Food Lion verdict. Instead, they focused on the use of hidden cameras. But in so doing they deliberately avoided exploring the accuracy of their story and only occasionally touched on the fraud and deception issue decided by the jury.

Diane Sawyer opened Prime Time Live by portraying hidden cameras as American as motherhood and apple pie. Intermixed with clips from previous shows, Sawyer declared: "Our cameras showed a televangelist pretending to heal people but, in fact, tricking his followers...The following year, we pretended to be a health clinic to reveal that doctors were missing cancers... Should we have used hidden cameras to track crooked car repairmen?...Is it spying? Is it lying? Is it right or wrong? This is footage of kids packing guns. Would you use hidden cameras this way? What if you heard some fast food restaurants were unsanitary? What if the mentally ill were being neglected, or children were being abused?"

Hard to imagine how America survived before Prime Time Live.

Sawyer spent nine minutes showing parts of the 1992 Food Lion piece, including segments disputed by Food Lion, and then talked with some jurors. Referring to the February 12 Court TV special, Sawyer asked the jurors: "Recently, another news organization did show some of the jurors our original broadcast. We wondered if it changed anyone's mind." Juror Greg Mack replied: "If I could have considered the broadcast, it probably would have changed my mind a bit in favor of ABC." But juror Betty Wicker wondered "How do we know those tapes weren't put together? And a piece of this and a piece of that."

ABC allowed Food Lion's Chris Ahearn two minutes for rebuttal near the end of the show. She insisted "The Prime Time Live show about Food Lion was not true, and it wasn't good journalism. We know this because Food Lion has the 45 hours of hidden camera footage ABC shot in our stores. This footage shows that Prime Time Live staged scenes, violated our store policies and then deceptively edited the tapes."

Sounds like an opportunity for some fascinating TV. Here you have two jurors, one who found ABC's story persuasive and one unconvinced. Plus, a video response available from Food Lion. ABC had plenty of time to show the entire PTL piece and the Food Lion response. Food Lion's video does show how ABC distorted and inaccurately described several of the scenes shown on PTL. But Food Lion did not counter some other clips. So do they concede those scenes of food mishandling were accurate? How does ABC defend their editing or do they believe Food Lion's tape employed misleading editing?

We'll never know. ABC was either too afraid or too arrogant to consider that the PTL story was anything less than perfect. Though Ted Koppel opened Viewpoint with a piece explaining the anti-media attitude in Salisbury, NC, headquarters of Food Lion, and even though the show came live from nearby Wake Forest University, Koppel made clear he wanted to move beyond Food Lion. He declared:
"Clearly, we are here because of the Food Lion case and I fully expect that some of the issues raised by that case will be discussed here tonight. But we are all of us here determined to move beyond the case and talk about the hard choices raised by hidden cameras and by journalists posing as something they are not."

In their refusal to explore the PTL story, ABC made two bold assertions that don't hold up:

-- We Stand By Our Story. When former Senator Alan Simpson noted that the media "have an institutional, constitutional abhorrence of ever saying anything more than that marvelous phrase, we stick by our story," ABC News President Roone Arledge shot back: "Not true."
*** Reality Check: Minutes later Arledge confirmed Simpson's insight. Talking about the Food Lion story Arledge insisted: "But the fact of the matter is the broadcast was true." Earlier, on PTL, ABC News President David Westin declared: "Tonight, as we did in 1992, we stand by the truth and integrity of our Food Lion report."

-- If Journalists are Watchdogs Who is Checking Them? Food Lion's Chris Ahearn asked "who is watching journalists?" Koppel replied: "Journalists are watching journalists." 60 Minutes Executive Producer Don Hewitt chimed in: "That's why we're doing this program. That's why we're here."
*** Reality Check: First, the show's avoidance of any discussion of the specifics of the Food Lion piece proves Koppel and Hewitt wrong. Second, when another journalistic enterprise dared to give voice to Food Lion's side of the story, ABC didn't celebrate their watchdog role. ABC condemned them. On the day of the punitive verdict, January 22, Fox News Channel ran Food Lion's video of clips from ABC's original footage. ABC Television President David Westin was steamed: "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 Fox play, on CNN Sam Donaldson told Larry King: "I think that was irresponsible."

2) It's Diane Sawyer who refuses to allow ABC to let go of the Food Lion case, Brit Hume suggested in the "Inside Sources" segment on the February 16 Fox News Sunday. Hume, ABC's White House reporter until a few months ago, explained:
"There's been a lot of wondering in media circles about why ABC News doesn't cut its losses, if that's what they are, in its fight with Food Lion. ABC did two-and-a-half hours on the issue this week. It lost that lawsuit. And the reason is not that anybody in the ABC hierarchy wants to do it. Mr. Arledge, the President of ABC News doesn't want to keep this thing going according to my sources -- that the person who wants to keep this going is Diane Sawyer who feels under attack and wants to stay with this until she feels she's vindicated."
He added: "She's hugely well paid and thought to be important to the network. Contract is up. They're afraid she'll leave. And she's exercising great influence."

On January 22 Sawyer assured PTL viewers that "the truth of the broadcast was not at issue in this decision and ABC stands behind the talented journalists who brought this important story to your attention."

If Sawyer really believes in her show's story then she should be willing to participate in a real debate over its content, not just say the jury didn't deal with its accuracy and then dedicate her whole program to the controversy but refuse take on Food Lion's criticisms point by point. Indeed, all ABC has really given viewers is the tired refrain of "we stand by our story."

-- Brent Baker