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The Media's Motivation: ABC and Food Lion and The First Amendment

the heroic war to protect the public and its right to know........what, exactly?

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, January 29, 1997.

It would probably be the lesser part of valor to offer, way late, an apology to Richard Jewell. Mr. Jewell was the security guard first applauded, then unofficially accused of planting the bomb at the Olympics this summer. Taking my cue conveniently from national media, I sat in judgment, safely here in Boulder, and took grim glee in seeing the pudgy guy - who would pose in camouflage with rifles and looks of grim determination, be pressured - perhaps illegally pressured - to admit wrongdoing. As we all now know, he was as innocent as the proverbial new fallen snow that so covered the Southland this winter, and he is now suing to regain his life. With one eye firmly on my liquid assets, I now apologize to Mr. Jewell. I was apparently wrong, and it is with some irony - being a convicted felon myself - that I passed judgment so quickly.

Which brings me to my topic this week, the ruling against ABC and for Food Lion by the court system. You may recall that ABC News did an investigative piece of work on national television on this large grocery store chain. It found the chain had chronic unhealthy food preparation problems, and acting on tips from former employees, managed to get some of its own people hired by falsifying their own records in order to see for themselves, and to record violations with the camera. They succeeded, and ran the piece which could reasonable be called crushing in its condemnation. Food Lion never challenged the evidence, but sued ABC in civil court for falsifying its employees records and - in essence - charged the network with a form of fraud, one specifically unexcused by its exercise of the first amendment, and asked for damages for the revelation of the truth about them.

It would be difficult and wrong to argue that the media, heir to the term “press” in Constitutional documents, should not be allowed to do investigative work that so directly affects public welfare. Certainly, a food chain selling unhealthy food is a prime target, and ABC is to be applauded for nailing them. That is where the media coverage of itself tends to stop, with a clucking over this apparent setback for human rights. But there is something eerier at work here, generally hidden under the cliché about the public’s right to know.

Nobody, these days, ever asks “right to know what?” Surely, the public has the right to know anything that threatens its safety, its well-being, its security. But does it stop there? My feeling is “yes” but there are many of you who disagree, who feel that someone caught under the headlight of the press has lost all right to privacy, and a judicial inquiry or even a high profile civil inquiry strips away any rights that entity may have had to privacy or supposition of innocence or non culpability. Here in Boulder, of course, the supposition of innocence in the Ramsey case is elevated to shrine status in the local media, which cowers before monetary power or even its threat of existence, but this I pass over as an embarrassing exception to the national norm.

Precisely when, we might ask, did the public come to have the right to know emotional reaction to events or charges that may have been nothing more than fabrications? Why - and to what good purpose - does the media have the right to invade property and slam a microphone under the mouth of distraught parents likely to emit some balderdash in a moment of high anxiety, and have to live with it for the rest of their lives as if it were a well thought out policy statement for their existence?

And what of the Jewell case, where an innocent man, because he fit the prototype image - and only superficially, it turns out - is actually and persistently libeled and vilified for an act he not only did not commit, but had actually been something of hero in preventing it from being worse? Did the public have the right to know whom he lived with? His work history? His personal habits?

Does a private business have the right to investigate another private business by illegal means? That, reduced to essentials, is the meat of the Food Lion case, and those of you in stiff competition with others would likely say, “no” they - and we - do not have that right, and darn good thing. You will note, however, that the media never describes itself as a mere business, but throws the gossamer gauze of something far more holy over their activities. Further, under the guise of acting for the public welfare, they feel they ought to be exempt from either prosecution or punishment when they are caught. But with their financial well being so closely tied up in sensationalism and guilty verdicts, they cannot be expected to act either as a judicial or even remotely objective participant. They are motivators of events and emotions, and plan to be rewarded as such. Not only did ABC plan to expose Food Lion as a contagion pit, they expected to be lauded and paid for it. To do so, they broke the law and perpetuated fraud upon crooks.

Stripped of all chauvinism and prejudice, the just person must admit that prostitutes can be raped. It must also be conceded that situational crooks can be situational victims, and that the law should sit in judgment of individual acts and incidents, not public image, and that Food Lion - continuing to pay the price of the expose, had the right to nail ABC in its turn for how that expose was achieved.

And what knowledge does the public have the right to receive in this case? It has the right to know that Food Lion in the past sold meat past all hope or caring. And it has the right to know that ABC - and perhaps by extension, its competitors - will lie and defraud to get a richer monetary goal; in this case, ratings.

Even in those air studios where the where the combatants in a civil case are called defense and prosecution, it must be admitted that the public has the right to know the motivation of the media, and that if the media will not acknowledge it, perhaps the civil court system can occasionally assist in this high-minded public endeavor.