ABC News’ $1.2 billion “pink slime” lawsuit may affect journalism for years

ABC News slimed the beef industry, and producers of “lean, fine-textured beef” (LFTB) in a series of news reports about the product made from beef trimmings and used as an ingredient in much of the ground beef supply. I highlighted it in several posts because it was in my opinion a classic example of scare tactics and false reporting aimed at ratings that resulted in real harm–not just to the company, but the public. As such, it was an example of the kind of media coverage that I think is hurting us as well as an example of what the food industry overall is in for.

Personally, I was very happy to see BPI, the company nearly bankrupted by the attacks, fighting back with a defamation lawsuit against ABC News. A lawsuit that could conceivably cost The Disney Company, owner of ABC, $1.2 billion. This article from Reuters does a great job of exploring in detail the claims and counter claims involving this case. I think it is one that crisis communicators need to be watching carefully. Here are some key issues:

– our laws protect the news media against defamation to a very great degree. This is great giving our high value on free speech. This case has more potential because of state law designed to help protect agriculture. While news media can do just about anything they want, they need to be careful about intentionally saying things they know not to be true. This is largely where this case will hang.

– The tweets of ABC reporter Jim Avila are critical to BPI’s case. So there is going to be an important question raised here. In those tweets he said in effect that pink slime was not meat. But he knew it was meat. But, he didn’t say it wasn’t meat on the air. Is there a difference in defamation between a tweet and an on-air broadcast? This will be very important to watch.

– There is much the ABC reporters did not say that would have contributed to the balance in the story. One example: the prime former BPI employee who they used to attack his former employer lost a wrongful termination lawsuit and the company got a restraining order against him for his threats against the owner. He threatened to find another way to get even. None of this was included in the ABC report–instead they treated him as having high credibility.

– The core question is, is name calling defamation? It’s interesting to read the Reuters article to see how opposing attorneys are using dictionary definitions of “slime” to bolster their case. The law protects the media against name calling, so calling it slime in itself would be protected speech. But to knowing say that something is harmful when you know it isn’t constitutes defamation. So, if somebody says to you, “don’t eat that, it is slime,” is that saying to you it is harmful? I think so, but I am clearly biased. The point however is how cautious journalists need to be in labeling something they are covering. And I think journalists all over are watching this and the result will be a little more caution about the use of “rhetorical hyperbole” which ABC’s lawyers are using to justify their coverage.

Whether the Roths win this case or not, I for one am grateful that they brought it forward. There is far too little accountability on the damage done by journalists. There is a trend developing here, such as Elon Musk and New York Time’s John Broder’s nasty review of the Tesla. Where there was a great imbalance in power in the mainstream media, that power is shifting. In part it is shifting because of irresponsible ratings chasing that has resulted in extremely low trust ratings But the biggest reason is that the monopoly on information distribution and sharing has been forever broken.