ABC News Liable for 'Pink slime'?

A South Dakota judge has allowed the bulk of a defamation lawsuit lodged by Beef Products Inc. against ABC News, including anchor Diane Sawyer, to go forward. The move is a blow to ABC News, which had asked to have the suit thrown out.

At issue is what critics have called a classic case of “media misconduct.” ABC News aired a 2012 investigative report on a processed meat product that became known as “pink slime.” It was used at many schools and elsewhere.

The lawsuit alleges that ABC slanted its coverage of “pink slime,” costing the company $1.2 billion and 700 jobs. ABC has countered that the meat industry doesn’t get to dictate how people describe its products, and it maintains that its reporting on what the meat industry calls “lean, finely textured beef” (LFTB) was both accurate and fair.

But in her ruling, Judge Cheryle Gering noted that ABC News isn’t protected from liability simply by couching damning reporting with a single sentence about how authorities say the product is safe and nutritious.

Media watchers will have to wait as the suit plays out to see if Beef Products Inc, is successful in pursuing the claim that it was wrongfully ‘slimed’ by ABC News and Diane Sawyer’s “pink slime” reporting. There are more details available here.

“Diane Sawyer is E.F. Hutton,” says Lin Wood, a lawyer and defamation expert in Atlanta. “When she speaks, people listen…. That’s why this one sounds like it’s a little problematic for ABC, especially in this jurisdiction and especially if a company can show impact on its business.”

To be sure, the “pink slime” story raised some legitimate concerns: for one, that US food labeling didn’t require producers to list the ingredient separately. The US Department of Agriculture has now begun requiring more details on meat labels.