ABC News wonders ‘where’s the beef’ in recent lawsuit

Editor’s note: This is part three of a four-part series on the defamation lawsuit filed by Beef Products Inc. against ABC News. It looks at how media are covering the story.

Earlier this year, ABC News aired a news segment exposing th

e manner in which Lean Finely Textured Beef (LFTB) is produced by Beef Products Inc. The story, which was designed to educate consumers about the ammonia gas treatment LFTB receives as part of the production process, questioned the safety of the meat product.

Food production and safety issues have become news staples in the past few years. Major television networks, such as ABC News, as well as independent websites and bloggers, have produced multiple stories in an effort to educate consumers about the food on their plates. Now, however, ABC News is faced with a $1.2 billion defamation lawsuit by BPI as a result of the news coverage.

Beef Products is seeking $400 million of compensatory damages representing lost profit, which could be tripled under South Dakota’s Agricultural Food Products Disparagement Act. It also is seeking punitive damages.

“The lawsuit is without merit,” said Jeffrey Schneider, senior vice president of ABC News, in an article posted on ABC News’ website Sept. 13. He added: “We will contest it vigorously.”

After the initial ABC News report, other media picked up the story and ran with it. This has led several to ask the question, “Why is BPI only suing ABC News?”

A Reuters article by Jonathan Stempel on the suit emphasized the legal questions about the agricultural disparagement laws. It read:

Beef Products accused ABC News of acting with actual malice in producing its reports, a high legal standard to meet.

“These kinds of cases are hard to win, because courts have given media many protections in reporting on matters of public concern,” said Bruce Rosen, a partner and media law specialist at McCusker, Anselmi, Rosen & Carvelli in Florham Park, N.J.

“Constitutionally, the plaintiff has to show ABC knew what it was broadcasting was false, or had very strong reasons to know and ignored them,” he said. “It’s a very hard standard to overcome. Dan Webb will have his hands full.”

Many media reports also are questioning the constitutionality of the South Dakota law that allowed the suit to be filed. South Dakota is one of 13 states that have agriculture disparagement laws, which allow agriculture producers to file suit against media and individuals.

Most news articles about the lawsuit, such as the Wall Street Journal article “ABC Sued for ‘Pink Slime’ Defamation,” cite attorneys and First Amendment experts who state BPI will have a hard time winning this case.

“The U.S. places great importance on free speech and the value of open public debate,” said Neil Hamilton, a Drake University professor and director of the Agricultural Law Center in Des Moines, Iowa, in a Huffington Post article. “A jury may have a very difficult time finding the news stories involved here were defamatory, or that there was any intent to harm the company.”

Blogs and watchdog websites have gone further than doubting BPI’s success with the lawsuit. They have directly questioned the validity of the agriculture disparagement laws.

“These laws are a direct threat to the free speech rights granted under the First Amendment,” wrote Carli Dolieslager and Amber Knight in a 2010 article on the Project Censored: Media Democracy in Action website. “Under such food disparagement laws, mass media and individual citizens would lose their right to inform – and to be informed.”

“It’s terrifying,” added David Bederman, an Emory University law professor who tried unsuccessfully to challenge Georgia’s disparagement law and has published multiple articles questioning the legality of “veggie libel” laws.

Meat industry media, including Beef Magazine, have published articles criticizing the ABC News coverage of LFTB and supporting BPI’s lawsuit. But even these articles begrudgingly acknowledge the unlikely success of the action.

“The legal hurdles for defamation are huge,” wrote Troy Marshall. “Obviously, the component of proving economic damage will be easy, and there certainly was a tremendous amount of incorrect material presented by ABC as well. But the sad fact is that when the media chooses to ignore facts and sensationalize a story, there’s little recourse for the aggrieved to take, even if a company, its employees, consumers and the public are injured in the process.”

Based on the news reports, BPI has a steep legal road to climb. The outcome could have long-lasting implications for media and free speech.

Part four will provide an in-depth look at agriculture disparagement laws.

Format

Editor’s note: This is part three of a four-part series on the defamation lawsuit filed by Beef Products Inc. against ABC News. It looks at how media are covering the story.
Earlier this year, ABC News aired a news segment exposing the manner in which Lean Finely Textured Beef (LFTB) is produced by Beef Products Inc. The story, which was designed to educate consumers about the ammonia gas treatment LFTB receives as part of the production process, questioned the safety of the meat product.
Food production and safety issues have become news staples in the past few years. Major television networks, such as ABC News, as well as independent websites and bloggers, have produced multiple stories in an effort to educate consumers about the food on their plates. Now, however, ABC News is faced with a $1.2 billion defamation lawsuit by BPI as a result of the news coverage.
Beef Products is seeking $400 million of compensatory damages representing lost profit, which could be tripled under South Dakota’s Agricultural Food Products Disparagement Act. It also is seeking punitive damages.
“The lawsuit is without merit,” said Jeffrey Schneider, senior vice president of ABC News, in an article posted on ABC News’ website Sept. 13. He added: “We will contest it vigorously.”
After the initial ABC News report, other media picked up the story and ran with it. This has led several to ask the question, “Why is BPI only suing ABC News?”
A Reuters article by Jonathan Stempel on the suit emphasized the legal questions about the agricultural disparagement laws. It read:
Beef Products accused ABC News of acting with actual malice in producing its reports, a high legal standard to meet.
“These kinds of cases are hard to win, because courts have given media many protections in reporting on matters of public concern,” said Bruce Rosen, a partner and media law specialist at McCusker, Anselmi, Rosen & Carvelli in Florham Park, N.J.
“Constitutionally, the plaintiff has to show ABC knew what it was broadcasting was false, or had very strong reasons to know and ignored them,” he said. “It’s a very hard standard to overcome. Dan Webb will have his hands full.”
Many media reports also are questioning the constitutionality of the South Dakota law that allowed the suit to be filed. South Dakota is one of 13 states that have agriculture disparagement laws, which allow agriculture producers to file suit against media and individuals.
Most news articles about the lawsuit, such as the Wall Street Journal article “ABC Sued for ‘Pink Slime’ Defamation,” cite attorneys and First Amendment experts who state BPI will have a hard time winning this case.
“The U.S. places great importance on free speech and the value of open public debate,” said Neil Hamilton, a Drake University professor and director of the Agricultural Law Center in Des Moines, Iowa, in a Huffington Post article. “A jury may have a very difficult time finding the news stories involved here were defamatory, or that there was any intent to harm the company.”
Blogs and watchdog websites have gone further than doubting BPI’s success with the lawsuit. They have directly questioned the validity of the agriculture disparagement laws.
“These laws are a direct threat to the free speech rights granted under the First Amendment,” wrote Carli Dolieslager and Amber Knight in a 2010 article on the Project Censored: Media Democracy in Action website. “Under such food disparagement laws, mass media and individual citizens would lose their right to inform – and to be informed.”
“It’s terrifying,” added David Bederman, an Emory University law professor who tried unsuccessfully to challenge Georgia’s disparagement law and has published multiple articles questioning the legality of “veggie libel” laws.
Meat industry media, including Beef Magazine, have published articles criticizing the ABC News coverage of LFTB and supporting BPI’s lawsuit. But even these articles begrudgingly acknowledge the unlikely success of the action.
“The legal hurdles for defamation are huge,” wrote Troy Marshall. “Obviously, the component of proving economic damage will be easy, and there certainly was a tremendous amount of incorrect material presented by ABC as well. But the sad fact is that when the media chooses to ignore facts and sensationalize a story, there’s little recourse for the aggrieved to take, even if a company, its employees, consumers and the public are injured in the process.”
Based on the news reports, BPI has a steep legal road to climb. The outcome could have long-lasting implications for media and free speech.
Part four will provide an in-depth look at agriculture disparagement laws.
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