Get Ready for the Return of the Hidden Camera

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Investigative journalists breathed a collective sigh of relief Wednesday when a federal appeals court ruled that ABC won’t have to pay supermarket chain Food Lion a substantial damage award after all. The decision reverses a verdict that had been seen as a significant erosion of First Amendment rights. At issue was a 1992 "Primetime Live" exposé of unsanitary Food Lion practices such as bleaching old meat to cover its odor and re-dating foods. A North Carolina jury awarded Food Lion $5.5 million (later reduced to $350,000), reasoning that although the allegations were true, the undercover methods used to report the story (lying on job applications to get in the door, shooting covert footage inside the store and baiting other workers into doing and saying damaging things against their employer) were wrong. The U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that although Food Lion lost $1.3 billion when its stock plunged the week the segment aired, the loss was not the result of ABC’s fraudulent reporting methods, but of the report's findings, which were true. A divided court awarded the grocer a token $2 for damages from ABC's reporting misrepresentations.

For the past three decades, muckraking victims have increasingly moved away from alleging libel and defamation and toward attacking how a journalist goes about his work. "This was the first major case to make an end run and go after a news organization for what was essentially a libel claim," said TIME senior writer Alain Sanders. "And the court said no, you're not damaged because of trespass, you're damaged because of what they reported." Memo to supermarkets: When hiring someone to reprocess tainted meat, check references.