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Agricultural News

Settlement Between ABC News and Beef Products Inc. Over "Pink Slime" Draws Ire from Agvocates

Mon, 03 Jul 2017 15:21:45 CDT

Settlement Between ABC News and Beef Products Inc. Over The following op-ed piece was authored by Steve Dittmer, Executive Vice President of the Agribusiness Freedom Foundation, and included in the latest AFF Sentinel newsletter on June 30th, 2017.

"It is no secret that those folks who wanted to see ABC News thoroughly discredited and punished for their attack on Beef Products Inc. (BPI) and lean finely texture beef (LFTB) will be disappointed that the case has been settled out of court, in the 18th day of the trial expected to last two months. The parties have agreed not to disclose terms of the settlement, frustrating us even more.

"Jim Avila, thanking the jury in the BPI vs. ABC News case, smugly told them, "I wish they had had the chance to hear my side of the story," according to the Sioux City Journal. "It's important to note we're not retracting anything or apologizing for anything," (BPI Claims Settlement with ABC `vindicates' Dunes Firm's Beef Product, 2/28/17).

"That arrogant attitude, when one knows the facts, saw how Avila behaved in researching and reporting the story and his imperious method of cherry picking his data and slanting his reportage, will certainly rankle the industry. Avila was the 'reporter' at ABC during the BPI episode and now is, perhaps fittingly, at CNN, which has already this month fired three reporters and retracted a significant story. We would also note that these reporters were not green interns or twenty or thirty-something youngsters. Part of the problem with network news and Congress in general, is that very important judgment calls are being made by young men and women who, through no fault of their own, simply have not had the life and work experience to have developed the judgment and wisdom of a decade or two of experience.

"The reporters CNN fired didn't have that excuse. They were experienced journalists, having worked for other organizations that don't always get the facts right, or regularly substitute opinion for news reporting, like the New York Times. We don't know why Avila left ABC or NBC before that, except that the rumors we heard were not that he was too scrupulous with the facts, that his image was too squeaky clean for the networks he was leaving behind.

"We all must keep some perspective about this outcome. It is very rare for lawsuits against major media organizations to get to a jury trial at all. The media usually escapes without even having to pay settlements. The burden of proof is too great and the pockets too deep and the lawyers too good for people or companies attacked by the media to get very far.

"Yet BPI managed to drag one of the world's largest media organizations in the world to a little town in South Dakota that had to scramble to provide a big enough court room to handle the trial. ABC and Avila's behavior was egregious and suspect enough to get to court. BPI's grit and determination was big enough to try to prove their product was what they said it was and that they had been wronged.

"If you followed this story as closely as we did, Mr. Smug, Avila and Mrs. Smug, Diane Sawyer, were the known faces of the problem. The person at the bottom of the garbage pile, who had a vendetta against conventionally produced meat, especially processed meat and ground beef, the man who was also smug, and proud of himself, for coming up with the term "pink slime," got dropped from the case early on. We don't know why the legal beagles let the first perpetrator off the hook but we suspect it had something to do with taking on someone acting partially within his purview as a government employee, even though his personal behavior went well beyond that, depending on one's opinion on who wrote articles on an author-disguised blog.

"So why is this trial over? BPI was still presenting its side of the case. They certainly had the opportunity to explain the safety and nutritional content of LFTB. How many people saw that, we're not sure. We're assuming it was because a major media organization was involved that there was a virtual media blackout, once the initial stories that the trial had begun. We could hardly find a story on the internet after June 5 and were wondering if there had been a recess granted, as weeks went by.

"Then startling news Wednesday that the case had been settled.

"'Terms of the settlement are confidential but judging from the celebratory mood of BPI officials and their lawyers, it was apparent that the agreement was favorable to the company,' the Sioux City Journal reported.

"'We are extraordinarily pleased with the settlement," BPI attorney Dan Web said outside the courthouse. "I believe we have totally vindicated the product.'

"Judging from those statements, we're assuming a considerable pile of money is headed BPI's way to settle the case. Given the way BPI's owner Eldon Roth has handled this situation, we've got to believe he would not have settled without having felt he had made a strong case for LFTB and gotten a big pile of money.

"ABC's motivation for settling also reflected making the point they have hewed to all along -- that they did nothing wrong and relied on experts who criticized the product. That they relied on some experts who were grinding an axe that was the incorrect foundation for the whole incident and hung up on others who didn't agree, they didn't acknowledge.

"But ABC was the party that offered to settle. ABC, with all the fleets of lawyers and network deep pockets, decided that the risk was too great that they might be made to look worse, spend more time in court and ultimately risk shelling out nearly $6 billion dollars in treble damages, a tidy sum for any broadcast network battling industrywide shrinking audiences and a tough advertising climate.

"It was an interesting note regarding ABC's reputation for "accuracy' that in a news release posted on ABC's website after the settlement, they noted that the first story after the settlement 'has been corrected to show that five million is equivalent to 2.3 million kilograms, not 23 million kilograms.'

"BPI has been funding the legal fight for five years, slogging away to re-build their market share and feels a responsibility towards their company, employees and former employees. Did they get, say, a billion dollars to rejuvenate the company and forego the opportunity to nail ABC in court?

"Something in the court procedures so far convinced both parties that a clean victory was unlikely for either party, given the vagaries of the legal system. It was time for ABC to cut its losses, pay a big pile to avoid paying a much bigger pile and go back to trading on its mantra of reporting accurately.

"'Although we have concluded that continued litigation of this case is not in the company's interests, we remain committed to the vigorous pursuit of truth and the consumer's right to know about the products they purchase,' ABC spokeswoman Julie Townsend said in a written statement.

"A media law professor from the University of Minnesota following the case expressed the downside of settlements.

"'As a general proposition, I think settlements are bad because they send a message to other litigants that news organizations basically will buy their way out of lawsuits,' Jane Kirtley said. 'This is a powerful corporation and it represents a powerful industry, and I think everyone should be concerned about the future of investigative reporting when powerful entities can bring an action like this and bring a settlement,' ('ABC: Settlement reached in 'Pink slime' Defamation Lawsuit,' Chicago Tribune, 6/28/2017).

"The Wall Street Journal called this case a "high-profile legal test of so-called food libel laws intended to shield the food production industry from bogus food safety scares," (ABC Settles Suit Over 'Pink Slime,' 06/29/2017).

"So a major news network proposed a settlement in an important case involving food disparagement, abandons a case and likely shells out big money to the plaintiff. That is a win for BPI and the food industry. It is disappointing not to see the whole issue brought to a more satisfying conclusion. But as we've already noted, the original culprit wasn't even in the dock. ABC will pretend this never happened. But it cannot escape the facts. In a court of law -- not public opinion -- they could not prevail. Hopefully, the case will be a warning to other media outlets: stick to the facts, qualify your sources, avoid ill-founded social campaigns and jerk the chain on reporters who don't.

"Congratulations are in order to Eldon Roth and BPI."



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