NEW YORK — In a verdict that could limit undercover investigations by the nation's journalists, a North Carolina jury Wednesday awarded Food Lion Inc. $5.5 million in punitive damages for an ABC News expose on how the grocery chain sold tainted meat and fish to unwary customers.
While the food company's lawyer said the award "will be an effective reminder to ABC that it needs to follow the laws of this country," ABC News President Roone Arledge said the decision "should trouble every American--especially every journalist."
"If large corporations were allowed to stop hard-hitting investigative journalism, the American people would be the losers," Arledge said.
At issue were the methods used for a Nov. 5, 1992, "PrimeTime Live" report charging that Food Lion employees were selling expired meat and washing chicken with bleach to destroy the smell. To get pictures for their story, ABC's employees misrepresented themselves to apply for jobs at the stores and used tiny "lipstick" cameras hidden in wigs to film their surroundings.
Food Lion has repeatedly denied in public statements that its stores used unsanitary practices, but the company did not challenge the truthfulness of the broadcast in court. Instead, the chain of more than 1,100 food stores convinced the jury that the ABC staffers had committed fraud, trespassing and breach of loyalty by working as fake employees.
"We hope this jury award today will be an effective reminder to ABC that it needs to follow the laws of this country, and a warning to other news organizations that illegal conduct in the pursuit of sensational videotape will not be tolerated," said Food Lion attorney Richard L. Wyatt.
Arledge said the network plans to appeal the award.
Mike Cavender, chairman of the Radio and Television News Directors Assn., said he expected some hesitation about the use of undercover reporters.
"It's certainly an issue that will get more attention now from us, especially since in recent years, juries are less tolerant of these kinds of things from journalists," he said.
The foreman of the jury, Gregory Mack, told reporters that the award was not intended to "handcuff the media" doing investigative work.
"The media has a right to bring in the news, but they have to watch what they do," Mack said. "It's like a football game. There are boundaries, and you have to make sure you don't go outside the boundaries."
Mike Wallace, longtime investigative television reporter with CBS News' "60 Minutes," predicted that most journalists will continue to do investigations, but probably not the way ABC News did in this case.
"There is nothing, I repeat, nothing, wrong with the judicious and prudent use of hidden cameras," he said. "But I think that you don't lie. You don't lie. It's as simple as that. You want to do a story like that? You get a whistle-blower inside. You put a lipstick camera in his hair or her hair and you get the same pictures."
As for undercover employees: "I can see the circumstance if there's a nuclear explosion or a huge terrorist incident. But spoiled fish? No." Wallace added.
Arledge said that for the "PrimeTime" expose on Food Lion, producers decided that a whistle-blower's videotape could be suspect because there was a union challenge to the company at the time. "We needed our own pictures," he said, so ABC employees committed the "minor transgression of falsifying a resume to get a job."
Arledge also said that the story "concerned the very heart of the issue of what food people eat and was worthy of the highest traditions of crusading journalism."