Muckraking or Muckfaking?

Muckraking or Muckfaking?
by L. Brent Bozell III
January 28, 1997

What do you call it when an undercover reporter working for a national television network, investigating the sanitation of a grocery store with a hidden camera, films a dirty meat slicer and then mutters obscenities when an employee ruins the fun and cleans it up? Or when, posing as a worker in the store's meat department, puts what she knows to be spoiled chicken on sale and then instructs a cameraman to film it? Or when her network airs footage of an employee talking about cooking out-of-date chicken, but edits out the part where she says her manager instructed her to throw the chicken away?

"?Time honored ?" "?valuable, important?" "?basically right?" is how you defend the tactics of ABC's Prime Time Live and its report on Food Lion, which report has earned the network a $5.5 million fine by a jury that was obviously repulsed by the shoddy state of journalism today.

In a nutshell, in 1994 ABC planted two producers (with fake credentials provided by the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which has publicly vowed to destroy the right-to-work Food Lion grocery chain). The ten minute national television story purported to show serious sanitation problems at Food Lion; Food Lion responded with a lawsuit and in the discovery phase was able to acquire the 45 hours of footage ABC had compiled undercover, footage which showed the producers actually staging events in order to show Food Lion in the worst possible light. The food chain chose not to sue for libel - proving malice is next to impossible - instead opting to charge the network with fraud and trespassing. A jury agreed with the complaint, and slapped the multi-million dollar fine on ABC.

In the wake of yet another public embarrassment, journalists are circling the wagons. Newsweek's Eleanor Clift told McLaughlin Group viewers that the Food Lion story was "accurate" and in the "tradition of muckraking in this country." For NPR's Nina Totenberg, on Inside Washington, it was an example of "a time-honored way of getting at a story you can't get otherwise." It was "a very valuable, important story," according to Time magazine managing editor Walter Isaacson. Newsweek's Evan Thomas said "for the press it was a very scary verdict ? [because] ? the story was basically right." The Washington Post's Juan Williams cited the story as an example of "good journalism." Reporters repeatedly - and disingenuously - stated that since Food Lion didn't sue for libel, it wasn't challenging the accuracy of the story.

Thomas McArdle of Investor's Business Daily reviewed the outtake footage for National Review and has found even more troubling things which these commentators don't mention. For example: "For some reason [ABC producer] Mrs. Dale has left the store at 9:30 am. The videotape is blacked out, but the audio can be heard clearly. 'I'm gonna lose my job,' she nervously tells one of the technicians. Right before the tape cuts off, the technician is heard telling her, 'throw that tape away.' Food Lion is convinced that what Mrs. Dale had just been doing was removing a 10-inch wire from the water heater to make it impossible to clean the store's meat department that day." To wit: A plumber has testified that the heater had been vandalized.

Furthermore, Mr. McArdle asks that "if ABC had nothing to hide, why did it originally leave out key segments of the tapes when ordered to provide Food Lion with copies? Why did the copies provided by ABC, which owns the best in high-tech video equipment, seem to be copies of copies of copies, at least one segment re-recorded on used tape? Why were multiple 'cutting signatures' found on the tapes?"

Good questions. But few in the supposedly skeptical world of journalism seem to care to seek the answers.

That television newsmagazine shows would doctor the evidence to tell a preconceived story isn't really news: Our eyes should have been opened to these "journalists" when Dateline NBC rigged a GM truck to explode a few years ago. The new twist in the story is the way journalists are defending the dirty muckfaking practices of ABC. Those who defend the use of hidden cameras would be more credible if they were willing to criticize their misuse. But in the face of overwhelming evidence, many journalists still can't seem to bring themselves to do it. It is this form of arrogance, this holier-than-thou elitism that rates journalists on par with used car dealers on the credibility scale in the eyes of the American public.

Rather than defend the indefensible sober journalists ought to be asking themselves a serious question: What do we do to regain public trust? A first step is easy. Acknowledge, unwaveringly, that what ABC did was wrong.