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Deception: invitation to a libel suit.

Back when America was more innocent, people confidently believed that pictures didn't lie. Everybody now knows, however, that television pictures can and sometimes do lie. The recent episode of video flim-flam by NBC News not only put an ugly stain on broadcast journalism, it also thrust the network--inevitably--into a no-win legal situation.

NBC News made the work of libel lawyers for General Motors easy by the way the network's staff prepared and presented a "Dateline NBC" segment on the supposed fire risks of some of Gm's pickup trucks.

To prove the network's point that fullsize pickups made by GM between 1973 and 1987 were "waiting to explode" if hit from the side (where the gas tanks are located), the segment portrayed a broadside collision resulting in a dramatic fire. The main ethical lapse, and source of the legal calamity that befell NBC, was the use of hidden and unmentioned toy rocket engines to make sure that a fire was ignited in the crash.

That doctored demonstration, aired last November 17 during the television industry's intensely competitive "sweeps" period, was seen in perhaps 11 million households. But whatever NBC News gained from that exposure has been more than erased; millions now are aware that the network lied by omission, was sued and, at the depths of the public relations fiasco, surrendered with a nationally broadcast apology.

NBC rushed to settle the suit a day after it was filed, but much of the damage already had been done. Gm's 24-page legal complaint attacking the network's truck crash test is in reality a scathing indictment of the network's journalistic instincts and practices in doing the story.

GM did not say in the suit how much it was seeking in damages. But merely by filing the suit and forcing NBC to run for cover, the automaker did more to help repair its tarnished image than tens of millions of dollars in advertising could have.

For months, GM had been trying to fight off scores of lawsuits in the courts, including eight combinations of individual claims in federal courts in Pennsylvania and Texas. Every one of those claims seeks to hold GM responsible for harm allegedly caused by the badly flawed design of its pickups; recalls in the millions are being demanded.

The huge manufacturer's reputation was suffering, and its potential legal liability skyrocketing. In February it got worse: A jury in Atlanta concluded that the truck design was faulty and awarded $101 million in punitive damages and $4.2 million in compensatory damages to the family of a youth who died in a collision involving a GM pickup.

Four days after the verdict, GM launched a campaign to create a more positive image for itself and its products. The centerpiece was the libel suit it filed, with plenty of ballyhoo, in an Indianapolis court.

NBC News, which laudably had set out to highlight the nationwide controversy over the safety of Gm's trucks, apparently found itself unable to do a hard-hitting story without resorting to artifice. It staged a truck collision to create the picture it wanted: a GM truck engulfed in flames.

Whether NBC News contemplated the severe damage it might do to its journalistic reputation may not be known until two outside lawyers complete an investigation of the incident. But what NBC News should have known, and what any libel lawyer could have told it, was that its test trickery was made to order for a lawsuit.

The press does not often get sued for allegedly libeling a commercial product or its manufacturer, and few such suits succeed. The press has wide freedom to comment on consumer products, and that freedom generally shields the most critical things it says about goods offered for public sale. But the press is sure to end up in court if it uses easily proved deception to criticize a product or its maker, and the dishonesty injures a commercial reputation.

In its lawsuit, GM catalogued the falsehoods it found in the "Dateline NBC" segment, and said that those, in combination with the "rigged tests," defamed Gm's trucks and "impugned General Motors' reputation as a responsible manufacturer of cars and trucks." The complaint went so far as to accuse NBC of injuring GM "by encouraging litigation based on allegations" that its trucks "tend to burn in side-impact collisions." That appears to have been thrown in just for good measure; GM already was facing a rash of litigation.

What the lawsuit illustrates is that instead of illuminating a public controversy about vehicle safety, NBC News succeeded primarily in thrusting itself into the middle of the story. That diverted attention from the safety issue, at least temporarily; it also may have the longer-term effect of making juries more skeptical of claims that GM makes unsafe vehicles.

But there is another aspect to the incident worth noting: It is a vivid reminder that a breach of press ethics can degenerate, quickly, into serious legal woe.
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Author:Denniston, Lyle
Publication:American Journalism Review
Article Type:Column
Date:Apr 1, 1993
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