retail news in context, analysis with attitude

The Wall Street Journal reports that this morning will see opening arguments in the long-running "pink slime" case, in which Beef Products Inc. is claiming that it was defamed by ABC News and one of its correspondents, Jim Avila, when the network's nightly news program reported on the use of "lean finely textured beef" that was sprayed with ammonia as filler in ground beef.

ABC News ran several stories about the subject, though Beef Products will have to prove that it was intentionally malicious in its coverage and use of the word "slime," which it says is the most offensive word that could've been used to describe its products.

While the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has approved the use of "lean finely textured beef," one of its staff microbiologists actually is the person who coined the allegedly negative term, "pink slime."

Beef Products, the Journal writes, "says the product ... is merely the result of discovering how to extract more lean beef from cows ... LFTB is made from beef trimmings put through centrifuges to remove fat. Some LFTB is treated with tiny amounts of ammonia gas to kill pathogens." The characterization otherwise hit its sales and profits hard, the company says.

ABC News argues that it never said that LFTB was unsafe to eat, and that "slime may be an unflattering word choice, but it is the kind of ‘imaginative expression’ and ‘rhetorical hyperbole’ that is constitutionally protected.”

ABC News could be on the hook for more than $6 billion if it loses the case.
KC's View:
I'm not crazy about the use of "imaginative expression" and "rhetorical hyperbole" in what is supposed to be a news story; in fact, this argument makes me less sympathetic to ABC News than I've been up to this point. (I engage in both, but I try to keep it to the sections that are labeled as my commentary ... it seems to me that this is both the fair and responsible thing to do.)

This is not a great time to be defending oneself in a libel case, since something like 38 percent of the country is convinced that anything they read with which they disagree is so-called "fake news."

To me, the primary defense ought to be that the company was not being transparent about what was in its ground beef, and that it falls within the purview of a journalistic organization to report on such a lack of transparency. That strikes me as entirely fair ... and if they asked me to testify to that as someone who has been writing about the food business for more than 30 years, that's what I would say. But they're not asking me ... which is probably a good thing because, as I said above, if they think that "imaginative expression" and "rhetorical hyperbole" are suitable in a new story, I'd have to say no.