Food Lion’s Response To ABC Hidden Cameras Created New Mess

O.J. Simpson's wrongful death trial in California was not the only gut-wrenching civil trial of 1996. Food Lion's lawsuit against ABC News for "fraud, deceptive trade practices, civil conspiracy and breach of duty of loyalty" was perhaps more painful because the grocery giant claims a 1992 investigative report by the network's "PrimeTime Live" program caused many of their stores to close in the years since and have cost hundreds their jobs. And though these sensational legal charges may sound more like ABC News reporter Sam Donaldson's opening salvo in the original "Primetime Live" news segment which accused Food Lion of selling tainted food, it wasn't. Food Lion won the case in January 1997, getting $5.5 million in punitive damages (on appeal, naturally) from the network. So what does a $5.5 million judgment really mean for a grocery conglomerate living down hidden-camera reports alleging that it passed off rotten goods to their loyal customers? Call it a ray of sunshine for North Carolina's favorite grocers, but it doesn't make up for over $150 million in losses the year the story broke. TIMELINESS OF THE MESSAGE The Food Lion vs. ABC News case is one of those murky situations where you have to wonder, somewhat futilely, if the publicity generated by the lawsuit did more damage than the "original sin." McDonald's U.K. has certainly paid a hefty price for trying to squash a couple of impoverished free thinkers who spread around pamphlets bashing the fast-food chain in 1996. The civil case has cost McDonald's U.K. millions and given the burger-bashers more publicity for their cause than they could have ever dreamed of. EFFECTIVENESS OF SPOKESPERSONS But back to Food Lion. Just before Ted Koppel hosted a special "Viewpoint" program in place of "Nightline," Feb. 12, 1996, to discuss hidden-camera journalism, "PrimeTime Live" allowed both parties to speak unedited about the case. Chris Ahearn, Food Lion's communications director, repeated the company's contention that the ABC News reporters had "staged" scenes of macaroni salad-abuse, using producers as "actors" to make Food Lion appear evil, presumably. Reality Check: Ahearn neglected to mention that the legal judgment had nothing to do with whether or not ABC News fabricated the whole story; the suit was over the fact that ABC News producers lied on their applications to get hired, and once employed by Food Lion, did not admit their "guilt" at being professional snoops employed simultaneously by a news service ("duty of loyalty"). And then there's the burning question which asks why ABC News would make up something as nasty as this story. Ratings? Not likely, the original segment was a mere 10 minutes -- not quite enough to dent prime-time ratings tickers. Again, the 1996 lawsuit has given ABC News plenty of excuses to re-broadcast the original hidden-camera report from 1992 which allegedly did so much harm. IMPACT ON CUSTOMERS, INVESTORS, EMPLOYEES Food Lion did not return repeated calls by PR NEWS, and therefore little specific information is known regarding the effect this case has had on customers, investors and employees of Food Lion. But ABC News reported that in the year following the initial 1992 report on Food Lion, the company's profits fell a shocking 98 percent, from $174 million to $11 million. Can this be explained simply as a result of one 10-minute report on "PrimetTme Live?" Or are Food Lion's attacks on ABC News and failure to publicly admit any wrongdoing to blame? As a citizen on CNN's "TalkBack" chat show opined, "If I'm being sold outdated meat, I want to know about it. And if ABC News doesn't tell me, who will?" MEDIA REACTION Surprisingly, the national news media has weighed in on both sides of this hot-handled topic and reached a variety of conclusions. One school of thought has been reflected by TV news industry types who have published dozens of letters on the subject in Don Fitzpatrick's popular "ShopTalk" E-column ( One executive recently wrote: "we see many 'hidden camera' exposes now that seem to spend more time explaining how they pulled it off than they do explaining why they felt the need to use hidden cameras in the first place." To Food Lion's detriment, a poll conducted in February 1997 by the Media Studies Center in Washington, D.C., said that the American public was more sympathetic to ABC News than to Food Lion in the matter, "by a two-to-one margin," according to the poll. SENIOR LEVEL INVOLVEMENT To their credit, ABC News wheeled out then-news chairman Roone Arledge and reporter Diane Sawyer to join a panel discussion on the case for the Feb. 12, 1997 ABC "Viewpoint" program hosted by Koppel, while Food Lion left CEO Tom Smith at home in favor of Ahearn and a couple of lawyers.

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