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Lionizing journalism.

It's Identity Crisis time again in journalism. The cause is the recent Food Lion case, in which a jury awarded the supermarket giant $5.5 million from ABC. The case arose because, in order to film workers tampering with expiration dates on meat, bleaching spoiled chicken and selling cheese gnawed by rats, ABC's reporters committed "fraud" to get themselves hired as workers. ("I really miss working in a grocery store, and I love meat wrapping." read one reporter's resume.)

The decision was extraordinary and chilling in the extreme, for the following reasons: The jury never saw the televised segment; it was instructed by the judge to assume that everything ABC had reported was true, thus making truth irrelevant as a defense, unlike libel cases; and compensatory damages, despite the supermarket's extravagant claims of roughly $2 billion in losses, were found to be only $1,402. The remaining $5,498,598 were punitive damages, awarded as a measure of the jury's wrath and contempt for the phony resumes.

At a recent breakfast sponsored by the Columbia Journalism School in the wake of the case, high-powered journalists and legal experts sparred over whether "lying" was ever necessary. Most agreed that a certain degree of misrepresentation is unavoidable in some instances, when the import of the story justifies it. (Even Ben Bradlee and Abe Rosenthal, who noisily condemned the practice, agreed it would be justified to prevent a nuclear holocaust.) First Amendment specialist Floyd Abrams, who argued that ABC's undercover journalists had committed a crime "equivalent to jaywalking," nevertheless tried to draw a line by saying that journalists should "never steal." When it was pointed out that without The New York Times's willingness, at least, to act as an accessory to the "stealing" of the Pentagon Papers, they would still be sitting in Daniel Ellsberg's office, Abrams relented. No one, it seems, knows where the line is.

The problem is not that journalists lie sometimes. It's that, unlike in the glory days of Woodward and Bernstein, the public cannot distinguish between a journalist's lying for the public good and just lying. The relentless Geraldo-ization of network news magazines has led them to use hidden cameras as an audience-grabbing stunt rather than as a considered last resort, at the cost of equating all journalism with that practiced by the New York Post and The National Enquirer.

Most people don't disapprove of misrepresentation per se. Few complained recently when Operation Protect Kids used deception to discover if convenience stores were selling cigarettes to minors, for example. It's journalists they don't trust, not their methods. A recent Gallup poll showed that only 17 percent of the public feels newspaper reporters' honesty and ethical standards are "high" or "very high."

Exposing the selling of unsafe meat at Food Lion is a case ABC could have expected a jury to understand in terms of the public stake involved. Forget it. To those empaneled, apparently, ABC's reporters might well have been Joe Klein lying to Newsweek's readers to protect his $6 million earnings. Without better and clearer rules to govern such behavior, every journalist will be viewed as Joe Klein, but without the money. Investigative reporting, meanwhile, will go the way of the manual typewriter.

The Food Lion case was a focus of another recent high-powered conference, hosted in Washington by Harvard's Joan Shorenstein Center. Here, however, it was placed in the context of a number of crises that make one wonder whether honest journalism has any future at all. The Brookings Institution's Stephen Hess worried about celebrification of journalists interfering with news coverage, noting Barbara Walters's recent interview of Andrew Lloyd Webber, in which she neglected to inform viewers of her $100,000 investment in his show Sunset Boulevard. (Did Walters deliberately cover up her investment? Simply "forget"? No answer is likely to inspire confidence in celebrity journalists' ability to cover their peers.) Hess bemoaned the disappearance of international reporting on network TV According to recent figures, network news stories originating from foreign bureaus declined by more than half between 1988 and 1996. The Washington Post's Dorothy Gilliam brought up "insensitive coverage of women and minorities," which she held partly to blame for passage of the welfare reform bill. Frank Sesno of CNN pointed out that college students and many high school kids get most of their "news" from MTV and the Internet. The conference's two distinguished panels agreed that almost everything mentioned was a real problem.

Consensus was maintained until a Pacifica reporter pointed out the corruption that inevitably results from increasing conglomeratization of the industry: Could ABC do a better job of covering Disney-owned sweatshops in Haiti? Could NBC and CBS do a better job of reporting on GE end Westinghouse plants making nuclear weaponry and providing nuclear power? Naah. Everyone agreed that this was not a real problem. Apparently journalism is the only trade in America in which nobody worries about upsetting the boss's boss or screwing with the company's stock price. Daniel Schorr lamented that, according to his reading of CBS News president Andrew Heyward's presentation regarding the financial pressures facing his third-ranking CBS Evening News, it's fighting for its life.

Yes, all concurred' that was the real problem. Content remains politically pristine, but owners are demanding unreasonable profits from their news organizations. In the good old days, Bill Paley was happy to lose money presenting a news network as a public service, but Westinghouse is not. The profit pressure now drives every decision, including the use of unnecessary hidden cameras and phony resumes. The network newscasts, like the daily print media, feel themselves to be dying a slow, public death, but they have no idea how to revive the body. MSNBC's answer--combining cable with the Internet--makes them decidedly uncomfortable. "If only," mused Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr., only half in jest, "the health care debate could have been turned into a murder trial."
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Title Annotation:Full-Court Press; journalism overreacts to the Food Lion verdict vs. ABC-TV
Author:Alterman, Eric
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Mar 24, 1997
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