Magazine article St. Louis Journalism Review

Food Lion Reversed, Hallelujah

Magazine article St. Louis Journalism Review

Food Lion Reversed, Hallelujah

Article excerpt

What good is the First Amendment right to publish information if you can't get the information to publish? Or, to put it another way, the right to gather information must be assumed in the First Amendment if freedom of the press is to have any meaning.

Naturally, the press has always assumed that the right to gather information on behalf of the public was broad and unassailable. Journalists have gone about investigating corruption, malfeasance, illegality and shady deals with unmitigated enthusiasm for decades. Get the information however you can, verify it, and give it to the public. It might not be easy, but it's simple.

Then along came the Food Lion case.

On Nov. 5, 1992, the ABC news magazine "Prime Time Live" ran a story alleging that Food Lion supermarkets were repackaging expired meat, in some cases bleaching it to remove its rank odor, and re-dating it. ABC alleged that managers were even ordering clerks to go out into dumpsters to retrieve meat. Then they would have the clerks wash off the meat and put it back in the store's display cases.

And ABC had the pictures to prove it.

Two reporters had gone undercover. Using false identities and references, they got jobs at Food Lion, brought in hidden cameras and tape recorders, and got damaging pictures of the unwholesome and potentially unhealthy mishandling of meat. They even taped store employees pouring barbecue sauce on rancid chicken and placing it in the gourmet food section.

Needless to say, the story caused a sensation in the cities where Food Lion stores were located. The company sued.

Food Lion did not contest the accuracy of the report. The company did not charge libel or even misinterpretation of the facts. Instead, Food Lion sued ABC for fraud, trespass and breach of employee loyalty. And, guess what? They won.

Five point five million dollars. …

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