Prime Time on Trial

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GREENSBORO, North Carolina: "They did their jobs. They faked nothing. They committed no fraud, no trespass or breach of duty," ABC attorney Bill Jeffress told jurors in opening the trial of "Prime Time Live" producers Lynn Dale and Susan Burnette, whose November 1992 story on improper food handling at Food Lion supermarkets cost the chain billions. Attorneys question which jobs the defendants were doing: television news producers or supermarket employees. Food Lion is suing Dale, Burnette and ABC for $2.5 billion over a story that portrayed Food Barn stores in North and South Carolina selling contaminated meat in unsanitary conditions. The company claims the network used illegal tactics to gather information, then knowingly aired a highly critical story they knew to be false. The chain's sales, profits and stock price all plummeted as a result of the report, says TIME's Lisa Towle. "Food Lion had to drastically cut back on expansion plans. Before the story, they were a booming company." But Towle also notes that ABC may have given too much credence to accounts by union sources of company conditions at a time when the firm was resisting unionization and was facing labor unrest. Towle says that there is an elegant turnabout in the Food Lion argument: "They are saying to ABC, 'You hold us to a retailing standard; we're going to hold you to a journalism standard.' Regardless of the outcome of the trial, this will have wide-ranging impact on investigative journalism."