Vindication for "Dateline NBC"

Article excerpt

When Peter Kennedy sat down with two friends and a bowl of popcorn to watch "Dateline NBC" on April 19, 1995, he expected to see himself portrayed as a champion for the nation's truck drivers, exposing outdated regulations and demonstrating the need for reform. A "Dateline" crew had accompanied him on a trip from Salinas, California, to Chelsea, Massachusetts, in the fall of 1994, and he had been interviewed and videotaped for the broadcast.

Instead Kennedy saw himself in the leading role in a convincing expose on tired truckers who can become deadly hazards on the highways, exceeding the number of hours they should drive without sleep, using drugs to stay awake, and falsifying the hours recorded in their log books to hide their violations. The two-part program seemed to vindicate complaints of Parents Against Tired Truckers, an advocacy group formed by the parents of one of four teenagers killed in Lewiston, Maine, in October 1993 when an 18-wheeler plowed into their stalled car because the truck driver had dozed at the wheel.

Outraged by the way he was depicted, Kennedy, along with his employer, Ray Veilleux, owner of Classic Carriers in Waterville, Maine, filed suit against NBC. "Why would someone who had spent all his adult life in an industry he loved take a $100,000 truck and a $50,000 trailer and commit professional suicide in front of 27 million people and ruin himself?" asks Veilleux. His answer, and one of several claims in the suit, is that he and Kennedy were misled.

A Bangor, Maine, jury agreed on July 8, 1998. The nine jurors affirmed that NBC and the staff of the newsmagazine not only misrepresented their plans for the program, but also caused defamation, emotional distress, portrayal in a false light and invasion of privacy. The 19-count verdict awarded the truckers $525,000.

But in March, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Boston reversed most of the jury's decision, stating that the allegedly defamatory statements were reasonably based on Kennedy's admissions and that the plaintiffs could not prove them false. The court called "Dateline's" promise to produce a "positive" story "too vague and, in this context, constitutionally suspect" to support a claim of misrepresentation.

The case draws distinctions between ethical and legal issues and affirms First Amendment protection for issues of public concern. But it also raises questions: What should the ethical--as opposed to legal--limits be in obtaining information from a trusting source? What gives when the journalist's mandate to "seek and report the truth" collides with the obligation to "minimize harm"--two tenets of the Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics?

The truckers say they agreed to participate because "Dateline" producers said they wanted to show the "positive side" of trucking and would not include PATT's positions in the program. The truckers also say NBC took quotes out of context and betrayed a confidence in broadcasting that Kennedy had tested positive for marijuana and amphetamines in a drug test. Veilleux testified he was hospitalized with chest pains after viewing the first segment and watched the second from his hospital bed. Classic Carriers drivers received death threats; the company lost business; and Kennedy was ridiculed and threatened when fellow truckers recognized him at truck stops, according to testimony.

Attorney Bernard Kubetz of Bangor, who represented NBC in the case, countered that everything in the program was true and that the producers promised only to create an accurate documentary. "At issue in this case is what was in the program," he says. Kennedy told NBC senior correspondent Fred Francis on camera that truckers call their log books "lie books" and that they could not stay in business if they operated within the law. …