Expert: ABC News Faces 'Real Legal Jeopardy' in Beef Company Defamation Suit

Beef Products Inc. ("BPI") last week sued ABC News for $1.2 billion in damages for allegedly defaming the company’s “lean finely textured beef (‘LFTB’)” product as "pink slime," which the company claims caused a nationwide panic and resulted in the company having to lay off 700 of its 1,300 employees. 

After ABC's crusade against LFTB, grocery stores refused to sell a product that had been deemed safe for decades and Americans had regularly consumed without problems. 

Steven Brill, a journalist with a particular expertise in these types of cases, predicted Tuesday this lawsuit is “not likely to go away quickly.”

“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,” Brill wrote.

After reading the 256-page complaint and then re-examining ABC News’s reports on the so-called “pink slime,” Brill said he “began to believe that it was Beef Products that was slimed” and “actually found myself believing that this may not be ‘The Jungle, Part Two.’” Brill continues: the file convincingly argues that what the company produces is real meat and 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.”

Brill also wrote he was “especially intrigued by the claims that ABC had blown off all the evidence Beef Products presented to the network's producers saying that their first reports were wrong, and that ABC not only did not correct them on air, but stepped up its campaign against ‘pink slime.'"

“If that's true it could establish the kind of ‘actual malice’ or ‘reckless disregard’ for the truth that would put ABC in real legal jeopardy,” Brill concluded. 

ABC News has claimed the suit is “without merit,” but an Iowa newspaper agreed with Brill’s contention that ABC News may not be without fault.

The Sioux City Journal, in a scathing editorial on Sunday, ripped ABC News for its “arrogance” and suggested the company may have violated journalism’s equivalent of the Hippocratic Oath. 

“Enormous news organizations like ABC News too often show blatant disregard for the average reader or viewer,” the newspaper argued. “They can easily lose sight of journalism’s guiding principles and the impact their decisions can have on real people. More importantly, as in this case, they are too often unwilling or unable to admit when they are wrong.”

The paper wrote that an “ethical” and “credible” news organization will “admit its mistakes, correct the record and strive do better moving forward.”

BPI claims ABC News -- and its reporter Jim Avila -- made “200 false, misleading or defamatory statements” in a month. These reports were on ABC World News with Diane Sawyer and quickly went viral on social media, allegedly destroying the livelihoods of hundreds of people. 

The Sioux City Journal noted that when BPI gave ABC News documentation contesting its television segment, the news organization sent the reporter who produced the original misleading segment to BPI’s press conference. 

“Jim didn’t sit quietly with the rest of the media, he became antagonistic and disrespectful,” the newspaper wrote. “There was simply no excuse for ABC News’ decision to send this reporter to our region, and no excuse for his behavior once he got here.”

The newspaper wrote that it was clear ABC News “should have understood in the immediate aftermath that their reporting was deeply flawed.”

“They were clearly not acting to minimize harm,” the newspaper wrote. “In fact, they were not only inflicting harm on a major corporation, they were inflicting harm on hundreds of the company’s workers and their families. 

“Given the clear evidence, provided to them in great depth by BPI and others, ABC News should have understood they needed to correct their mistakes. They did not. They doubled down.”

The newspaper asserted that “we know significant portions of that story were inaccurate or misleading.”

“If ABC News had simply swallowed its pride and done the right thing, it’s unlikely we’d be here today,” they wrote. “Its arrogance got them into this, but it most certainly won’t get them out.”


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