In his weekly “Stories I’d like to see” columnist, journalist and entrepreneur Steven Brill spotlights topics that, in his opinion, have received insufficient media attention. This article was originally published on Reuters.com.
1. The beef against ABC:
Most of us remember seeing or hearing about the multiple ABC news broadcasts beginning last March about how meat packers were adulterating the meat we buy in grocery stores and restaurants with a filler called “pink slime.” Other news outlets picked up on the controversy over the filler, which in fact had been reported on before, but which ABC took on as a crusade. Leading with Diane Sawyer’s flagship evening newscast, on which she touted her team’s “startling investigation,” ABC did 11 separate broadcasts about “pink slime” over about four weeks. This culminated in cheerleading and self-congratulatory coverage of consumer groups responding to the ABC reports with campaigns to demand that the major grocery store chains boycott products containing “pink slime.” It was as if Upton Sinclair and his epic novel The Jungle that took readers inside the gruesome meat packing plants of the early 20th century had been reborn in the person of Sawyer and lead on-air reporter Jim Avila.
These multiple reports — hyped by online and social media reports from ABC producers and on-air people, along with promotions on its local news outlets — and the resulting consumer boycott campaigns had such a broad impact that the companies that produce “pink slime” saw their business plummet within a few weeks.
Last week, the leading “pink slime” purveyor, Beef Products, Inc., whose primary operations are in South Dakota, sued ABC. According to its complaint Beef Products quickly lost 60 percent of its business as a result of the ABC broadcasts and had to lay off 700 of 1,300 employees.
Most of the modest press coverage of the filing of the suit acknowledged the huge hurdles any plaintiff has in a country where the First Amendment protects not only free expression, but those, like ABC, whose expression angers its targets and even causes them ruinous economic harm. That’s true.
Some of the coverage, like this Wall Street Journal report, also focused on Beef Products’ invocation of a South Dakota law “that gives agricultural companies the ability to sue when their products are criticized,” and noted that beef producers had tried unsuccessfully to sue Oprah Winfrey in Texas using the same type of argument that she had disparaged meat products. That’s true, too.
But I don’t think that’s the whole story. This case is not likely to go away quickly.
Sure, the meat disparagement claims obviously will not and should not survive First Amendment scrutiny, nor will Beef Products’ absurd claim that by cheering on a boycott of its products ABC was “tortiously interfering” with the company’s contracts with its customers. (Actually, Beef Products claims that ABC called for the boycotts, which is not true. But even if it had, its First Amendment right to do so would easily trump this interference with contracts claim.)
But - and this is a big but - there are 13 counts alleging defamation in this complaint, and they are compellingly persuasive. In fact, they make ABC look terrible.
To be sure, the great fun in writing about litigation is that if both sides have good lawyers (and Beef Products’ lawyer is heavyweight former Chicago federal prosecutor Dan Webb), one side’s arguments can look persuasive until challenged by the other side. So, maybe Beef Products’s case will evaporate when ABC answers.
But as an aficionado of these cases, I can report that this is the most detailed, persuasive complaint of its kind that I have ever read.
After reading it — and, in fact, reading and re-reading its painstaking explanation of how the plaintiff’s product is produced and used — and then looking back at some of the ABC reports, I began to believe that it was Beef Products that was slimed. I actually found myself believing that this may not be The Jungle, Part Two; that what the company produces really is the “lean, finally textured beef,” or “LFTB” that Beef Products’ complaint says it is; that it is real meat, not “filler” or “gelatin,” as it was described on ABC; and that it is safe and has been deemed so by federal inspectors and officials who were not paid off or unduly influenced by corporate politics and lobbying.