'Pink Slime' case against ABC a challenge
to press in era of 'fake news'
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[June 05, 2017]
By P.J. Huffstutter and Timothy Mclaughlin
CHICAGO (Reuters) - A South Dakota meat
processor's $5.7 billion defamation lawsuit against American
Broadcasting Companies Inc, which opens Monday, pits big agriculture
against big media, and is a first major court challenge against a media
company since accusations of “fake news” by U.S. President Donald Trump
and his supporters have become part of the American vernacular.
In the closely watched case, Beef Products Inc. (BPI) claims ABC, a unit
of Walt Disney Co., and its reporter Jim Avila, defamed the company by
calling its ground-beef product “pink slime” and making errors and
omissions in its reporting.
In the aftermath of the 2012 reports, privately held meat processor BPI
closed three of its four processing plants and saw its revenues drop 80
percent, to $130 million.
The trial will take place in Elk Point, South Dakota, population 2,000,
about 20 miles north of BPI’s headquarters, which employs 110 people.
Roughly 6 percent of the area labor force is involved in agriculture and
related industries, according to the local chamber of commerce.
Election records show 67 percent of the U.S. presidential vote in Union
County, where Elk Point sits, was won by Trump, who uses the term “fake
news” to argue that some mainstream media outlets cannot be trusted.
Lawyers for BPI have declined to say if they plan to focus on “fake
news” as a tactic at trial. But during a January court hearing, a BPI
lawyer, Erik Connolly, said ABC broadcasts and online reports about
"lean finely textured beef" (LFTB) used unreliable sources and set out
to foment public outrage. The ABC reports amounted to "fake news,"
Connolly told the judge.
Connolly did not respond to a request for comment.
BPI's signature product, commonly mixed into ground beef, is made from
beef chunks, including trimmings, and exposed to bursts of ammonium
hydroxide to kill E. coli and other contaminants.
ABC in a series of reports referred to the product as “pink slime” 137
times, according to BPI’s tally.
To win its case, BPI must show the network intended to harm the company
or knew what it reported was false when it referred to BPI's LFTB
product as "pink slime." BPI also claims ABC made other errors and
omissions that unfairly cast its product in a bad light.
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Lean, finely textured
beef (LFTB) is produced at the Beef Products Inc (BPI) facility in
South Sioux City, Nebraska November 19, 2012. REUTERS/Lane
"We look forward to the opportunity to present our case and
establish for the jury that BPI has suffered significant financial
harm because of the wrongful conduct by ABC," said Dan Webb, a
former U.S. Attorney representing BPI. ABC has countered that its
coverage was accurate and deserved protection under the U.S.
Constitution's First Amendment.
ABC denies any wrongdoing and is confident its reporting will be
"fully vindicated," a lawyer for ABC and Avila, Kevin Baine of
Williams & Connolly, said in a statement.
ABC lawyers declined to comment on whether they expect “fake news”
to be introduced by BPI lawyers during the trial.
Not since talk show host Oprah Winfrey in 1998 took on cattle
producers in Amarillo, Texas have big media and big agriculture
squared off in such a high-profile way on the industry's home turf.
The Texas jury in 2000 rejected claims Winfrey defamed cattle
ranches during a "dangerous food" episode of her eponymous show,
when she expressed concerns about eating beef at the height of the
panic in Britain over "mad cow" disease.
As in the Winfrey case, the lawsuit against ABC is upending a quiet,
rural town. To make room for overflow crowds, the county commission
earmarked $175,000 to turn the Union County Courthouse basement into
an enlarged courtroom and move records into a specially constructed
BPI moved modular offices into town to accommodate its legal team,
the company said.
(Editing by David Greising and James Dalgleish)
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