“Pink slime” lawsuit worth $5.7 billion could change journalism – VICE News
A multibillion-dollar court battle is raging in a small South Dakota town between a former heavyweight meat-producer and one of TVâs Big Three networks.
The battle between Beef Products Inc. (BPI) â a local beef processor that once supplied McDonaldâs, Burger King, and Taco Bell â and ABC News is the first big case brought against a media company since the forced sale of Gawker in 2016. The sheer size of the case is sending ripples through the media industry, and the result could have a huge impact on how reporters do their jobs.
In March 2012, ABC aired a series of reports about BPI’s âlean, finely textured beef,â an inexpensive ground beef additive made up of waste beef trimmings that have been heated, spun in a centrifuge, and doused with ammonia to reduce bacteria.
In the first report on âWorld News Tonight,â two USDA whistleblowers spoke about the product, which they called âpink slime.â Despite concerns they had about the product being sold and labeled as meat, they said supervisors had overruled them. In his opening statement Monday, ABCâs attorney, Dane Butswinkas, claimed that the supervisors’ lack of actionÂ was due to intense lobbying pressure, noting that JoAnn Smith, the USDA assistant secretary for Marketing and Inspection Services at the time, eventually went to work for BPIâs main supplier.
âNone of this was illegal. Just another day in the swamp. Politics as usual,â Butswinkas said.
The âWorld News Tonightâ segment also reported that 70 percent of the ground beef sold in supermarkets contained the so-called âlean finely textured beef.â
In its lawsuit, BPI saidÂ revenue dropped 80 percent to $130 million after ABC aired the segments, and the company had to close three of its four processing plants. Now, BPIÂ is suing the Disney-owned media giant, as well as on-air reporter Jim Avila, for up to $5.7 billion in damages on claims that the news reports defamed the company.
âThe only favor I’ll ask is that you look at the details.â
ToÂ prove speech is defamatory, BPIâs attorneys will have to show that ABCâs reporting was both false and that the reporters knowingly tried to harm the company. But proving that ABCâs reporters showed a âreckless disregard for the truthâ will be an uphill battle, according to University of Florida College of Law professor Lyrissa Lidsky.
âI think they definitely suffered economic harm from the report, but the question is, to what extent was the report inaccurate, and if it was inaccurate, to what extent did they recklessly disregard the truth?â Lidsky said.
BPIâs attorney, Dan Webb, said in court Monday that ABC used the term âpink slimeâ 350 times over the course of its reporting, and that ABC willfully spread this preconceived, negative message. Webb also showed the jurors a picture of lean finely textured beef. âIt physically doesn’t look like slime,â he said.
But David Heller, deputy director of the Media Law Resource Center, said ABCâs opening statement in court Monday provided âquite powerful evidenceâ to the contrary. The networkâs attorney Butswinkas asked, âIf school lunches and fast-food chains [were pulling away from BPI], how long could it have been for supermarkets to follow?â
âA number of other people had already referred to beef as âpink slime,â and fast-food companies had already dropped [BPI] as a source [of product],â Heller said.
In fact, the term âpink slimeâ was coined by one of the segmentâs whistleblowing USDA scientists in a 2002 email to colleagues, and a 2009 New York Times piece using the term to describe BPIâs meat product won a Pulitzer Prize.
The small town where the trial is being held â Elk Point, South Dakota â could influence the way the jury sees the information as well. About 20 miles from BPI’s headquarters, Elk Point is home to about 2,000 people.
âItâs a small town, so they might be more likely to see the big media company as an outsider, not fully understanding the meat product or the companyâs production methods or any of that,â Lidsky said.
Thatâs certainly something that BPIâs attorney is playing up, telling jurors that the company âtook 30 years to succeed, and it took ABC less than 30 days to severely damage the company.â
ABCâs attorney said he picked the 12 jurors by deciding who would work the hardest to fully examine the intricacies of the case.
âThe only favor I’ll ask is that you look at the details,â he told the jurors at the end of his opening statement.
South Dakotaâs agricultural disparagement law also allows the harmed company to seek triple the amount of the damages they suffered, which, in this case, is $5.7 billion. Like the Terry Bollea vs. Gawker case, which bankrupted the news company with a $31 million settlement, a large settlement could have a chilling effect on the news media at large.
âCertainly large damage awards, if theyâre given out too frequently or too easily, could result in having us have a press that is going to be reluctant or concerned about sharing what could be really valuable information with us,â said Sonja West, a University of Georgia First Amendment law professor.
While the Hulk Hogan/Gawker case ended with a huge settlement, that case was different from BPIâs defamation suit, according to Heller.
âThere really wasnât a dispute about whether it was true or not; the tape was the tape. And it in some ways is a more complicated question about how far should protection of privacy go,â Heller said.
A similar agricultural disparagement law in Texas served as the basis of cattle producersâ case against Oprah Winfrey for a 1996 âOprahâ episode about mad cow disease in the U.S. The jurors sided with Winfrey in that case, and she came out of the courtroom saying:Â âFree speech not only lives â it rocks!â
But itâs not 1998 anymore, and President Donald Trump has stoked disdain for the press, calling the media the âenemy of the people.â West contends that the news media is on âpretty strong groundsâ constitutionally when it comes to defamation, but she also thinks Trumpâs anti-media rhetoric has thrown the strength of the press into questionable territory.
âThe 2016 election in a lot of ways showed us that a number of people view that the value of the media and the work that they do is very low,â West said. âThe fact that we have a jury at all adds this risk that they might not value what it was that the press was trying to do here.â