Tag Archives: ABC News

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.

 

Arsenic rice scare–justified or another example of media scare tactics?

I subscribe to Foodsafety.gov and was curious when I received an alert from the FDA about arsenic in rice. It would obviously be significant if the FDA discovered some health risk in one of the world’s most common foods. Instead, I found strong reassurance including the 20 year testing history, how many products they have tested and are in process of testing (1200 different rice products), and exactly what the arsenic levels are (in cooked rice 6.7 micrograms or millionth of a gram–which is the highest found so far).

For the FDA to do this kind of proactive reassuring and given their language in the release that recognizes consumers are concerned about this matter,  here must be some concern so I googled rice and arsenic. Here I found this story just out from ABC News’s Jim Avila. Having just read the FDA report on their extensive research I was stunned (actually really realled p-off) to hear the anchor say that the FDA was out with a report “similar” to a Consumer Reports report which said rice products had “worrisome levels” of arsenic. Please pay close attention to the headline of the ABC story, the words used to lead into the story, and the titles on the screen–all clearly design to scare the beJesus out of us who may eat some rice. Jim Avila says “now a troubling warning to limit how much rice we eat…”

Both the Avila report and the text of the online story say that the FDA is going to issue warnings: “Today, the FDA will announce it has concerns about rice and arsenic and is studying the issue, but in the meantime recommends a varied diet. Consumer Reports calls for more.”

This is so misleading regarding the FDA’s report to constitute outright lying in my mind. The FDA report says very clearly that there is no evidence to date that supports a change in diet: “Based on data and scientific literature available now, FDA is not recommending that consumers change their consumption of rice and rice products at this time, but that people eat a balanced diet containing a wide variety of grains.” Avila jumps on this recommendation that people eat a balanced diet to support his totally unsubstantiated claim that the FDA is issuing some kind of dire warning.

Avila, quoting the Consumer Report study, says rice gets more arsenic because it is grown in water. Oh boy, this issue is going to provide much fodder for environmentalists who will claim as I’m sure they already are that vast increases in arsenic levels in the atmosphere is poisoning our water and now our rice. But the FDA seems to anticipate this argument. It first states that arsenic is a naturally occurring substance (hmm, don’t think I saw that in the ABC story) but it also comes from human activity:

“Human activities also add arsenic to the environment. They include burning coal, oil, gasoline and wood, mining, and the use of arsenic compounds as pesticides, herbicides and wood preservatives.

FDA has been monitoring arsenic levels in rice for more than 20 years. Its analysis thus far does not show any evidence of a change in total arsenic levels. The change is that researchers are better able to measure whether those levels represent more or less toxic forms of arsenic. 

So, while our ability to detect arsenic and determine toxicity has dramatically improved in 20 years, there is no evidence that the amount of total arsenic has increased. That is a very relevant fact that just somehow never made it into the Consumer Reports or ABC story.

I don’t work for any rice related clients. I have no dog in this hunt other than the truth. My bias and purpose is that these kind of profit-centered media scare tactics are extremely dangerous to all of us, including our health. The fact is, rice like corn, is a miracle of nutrition that sustain a great many including those who may not be able to afford higher priced substitutes. Now, thanks to Avila and Consumer Reports, when those mothers feed their children it will be with unjustified fear. I get angry about that.

I see so many commercials on TV for those attorneys jumping on any and every medical or pharmaceutical product where they may be a case or two of someone getting some side effects. A class action is sought. Why not a class action against this kind of unwarranted fear mongering? Certainly a great many are getting hurt by it–and I don’t mean the rice producers. I mean those who will now decide it is dangerous to eat rice based on this kind of dishonest reporting. This new report by Jim Avila comes close to matching his egregious reporting on pink slime, which just landed ABC News with a $1.2 billion lawsuit. At some point I’m hoping that the ratings and profits gained by ABC News and Disney (ABC’s owner) with this kind of fear mongering will be balanced by some big legal payouts. Much better would it be to see its ratings decline because of the news viewers distrust based on this kind of dishonest reporting.

One more thing. I just watched a program on TV about longevity. I had heard before that the island of Okinawa is famous for having more centenarians than anywhere else. The have the population who live the longest in the world. It’s in their diet and hardwork, we are told. Their diet? Mostly rice.

 

Now we’ll find out who really creates slime–Beef Products Inc. sues ABC News

Remember the “pink slime” story? There have been few news stories in the last while that so got my goat as this one. First New York Times dubbed this 100% beef product “pink slime”, then celebrity chef Jamie Oliver got in the act and through outrageous demonstration showed that this product was actually poison, and then Jim Avila of ABC News jumped on the band wagon and did stories on this horrific stuff being fed to us and our kids in our innocent hamburger.

This was “infotainment” at some of its worst, and the price paid was high. Beef prices did jump for a bit, schools refused to buy hamburger using the product known in the industry as “lean, finely textured beef,” and grocery stores took it off their shelves. Meat processors had to shut down and the main producer, BPI, laid off over 650 workers.

Now, they are fighting back with a $1.2 billion (yes, billion) lawsuit against ABC News. The legal standard for libel and defamation is exceptionally high, and I am grateful for that because protecting a free and open press is vitally important to all of us. Consequently I think that BPI has a big hill to climb. But I also think that ABC is going to have to answer some tough questions. I only regret that Jamie Oliver was not named as I thought his behavior on that show was inexcusable (see crisisblogger story linked above for link to his show YouTube).

Let me be very clear here. I have no problem with people deciding they don’t want lean, finely textured beef in their hamburger. I have no problem with full disclosure and food companies saying exactly what’s in the food. I have a huge problem with labeling a product with a name like slime, picturing use of ammonia in maintaining food safety as some dubious chemical practice when ammonia itself is present in beef and a normal part of making tons of food products like ice cream. In short, if you are going to tell a story about something like a beef product you don’t like, you better tell more of the story than was told here and you better be careful about how you lead your audiences by false characterizations. In other words, for God’s sake, be honest. There is plenty of bad stuff being done by bad people to tell the truth about it. Don’t go around making it up and then pretend you are a responsible journalist.

BPI was horribly ill-prepared to respond to the crisis as so many in food production are. But I for one am grateful that they are going to try and hold ABC to account for the damage done.

 

 

Here's why the media's investigative reports make me angry

Certainly a lot of investigative reports are valuable, perform an important service. But far too often they are far more harmful than helpful. The harmful part is driven by the media’s need to entertain, which they do by creating a white hat/black hat story regardless of the truth.

Like many farms, Randy Adkin’s blueberry farm uses migrant workers which are housed in camps–about 250 of them. Farm labor was plentiful this year and Adkins turned away over 1000 adults looking for work. Normally the children of the migrant families attend a state-supported day care, but Michigan’s economy was in the tank so no day care and no summer school program for the kids. So the migrant families had to supply their own daycare and some brought their kids to the field with them. It is not a practice Adkins supported, but much to his regret, he did not do enough to stop it.

I just want to mention a side note here. I grew up in berry picking area and every summer since I was about five years old I would go and pick berries. First with my mom, then when about nine or ten, on my own with my brothers. We would ride our bikes, pick berries, eat a whole lot and earn a little money for candy, school supplies, etc. It was where most of us around here learned what work was all about. But some enlightened do-gooders decided that child labor was a throw back to bad old days of the industrial revolution and now it is illegal for anyone under 12 to work. Sure, there is some value in that, but my gosh don’t we go overboard.

Back to the Adkin’s farm. Some college kids said they were doing a documentary on how blueberry farms work and shot video of the children in the fields working alongside their parent. They turned it over to authorities and the media. The Department of Labor stepped in and levied fines. ABC News ran a big story with Chrlie Gibson and Brian Ross who were suitably shocked and dismayed at the shameful exploitation of child labor by this berry farmer.

But of course, that is not enough. The big image-conscious companies who marketed the blueberries, Meijer, Kroger and Walmart all suspended business with the farm. As the editor of Food Grower News points out, Walmart’s righteous indignation was especially galling since they have become the behemoth they are largely on child labor in China.

As a result, every farmer in the nation was scurrying to make certain that not a single child any where near age 12 was to be found any where near their fields. Is that a good thing? Certainly not for the strapped migrant families. Beyond that I’ll let you be the judge. The Department of Labor of course looks good because they did their enforcement thing. The big companies protected their image because they told the world they won’t stand for this kind of brutal exploitation of child labor. ABC can feel quite good because it was definitely a white hat black hat story that played well to the credulous masses.

The sad thing is the truth escaped the agendas of all those involved. And that is something that every American ought to care deeply about.