It was a watershed moment for American business. Following a wildly spun anti-alcohol hour on “20/20,” industry officials complained to ABC. On Sept. 28, the network actually corrected its blatant agenda with a comment at the end of that night’s show.
ABC went from “intoxication nation” to apology network in one week. But ABC’s “little clarification” likely had less to do with the alcohol broadcast’s grievous inaccuracies than with a $1.2 billion suit against the network from the last industry it smeared: beef. Disney-owned ABC must have decided it can’t play villain in two major epics. Thus the decision to make the spin from “20/20” just go away.
ABC’s previous edition of “20/20” had appeared more like a temperance meeting than objective journalism. Blackouts, eyeball shots, “alcohol poisoning and drunk and disorderly arrests” formed the boozy backdrop for the latest assault on the alcohol industry. When the Distilled Spirits Council pointed out that underage drinking was down, they were dismissed out of hand. Anchor Chris Cuomo said the group “told ‘20/20’ underage drinking is at ‘historic lows’ but that’s the industry talking.”
No, that wasn’t just “industry talking.” It was factual. So factual, that ABC reported it back in 2011 under the headline: “Teen Smoking, Drinking Down; Marijuana Use Up.” That story cited information from the National Institute on Drug Abuse to prove its point. The National Institutes of Health reported the same findings.
The claim that it was just the alcohol industry talking meant that ABC was only listening to anti-alcohol activists, not to the industry, government or even the network’s own reporting.
ABC’s clarification didn’t admit its obvious wrongdoing - networks seldom do. Cuomo reminded viewers that, despite all the hype of the previous program, the battle against underage drinking is “showing progress.” He explained that “a federal study out this week shows underage drinking, while still a problem, has declined more than 10 percent over the past 10 years.” He still refused to acknowledge the key point: Underage drinking is at historic lows, and ABC chooses to hype it.
Most news networks would celebrate a 10 percent decline in underage drinking, unless they were pushing an agenda. They wouldn’t have buried the news at the end of the program a week later. They also wouldn’t have waited nearly a week after the program ran to post the Sept. 13 statement from the Distilled Spirits Council. Yes, as Cuomo said in the clarification, the drop in underage drinking is “good news.” It’s bad news for ABC, though, which was so embarrassed by its story that it has hidden the video evidence on the website.
For a network trying to fend off a $1.2-billion lawsuit over similar agenda reporting, this was an amazing incident. Look back at how ABC attacked the beef industry, and Beef Products, Inc. (BPI), calling its lean finely textured beef “pink slime.” That assault first came from Chef Jamie Oliver in 2011. At the time, the beef industry responded by trying to correct ABC’s errors and spin.
ABC corrected its alcohol reporting. But BPI and companies it does business with weren’t so lucky. National correspondent Jim Avila apparently only listened to anti-beef activists and ignored industry arguments in his so-called “pink slime” crusade.
Had that story been more balanced, the result probably would have been continued employment for more than 700 BPI employees who instead lost their jobs, along with an estimated 1,300 workers in other organizations. Then there’s the hundreds of millions of dollars in damages to an American company that might have been avoided.
And it’s not just beef and alcohol. In 2008, ABC’s “Nightline” pushed an activist who supported labeling organic as “food” and everything else as “food-like substances.” A recent study in the Annals of Internal Medicine undercut the belief that organic is any better than other ways to raise food.
Everywhere you turn on ABC, the network has attacked businesses: chicken, coal, caffeine…and that’s just the Cs. Still, the network seldom gives business complaints the time of day.
Apparently, lawyers are worth something. In this case, it took lawyers and credible case of defamation to force ABC to own up to its other mistakes. That may not mean much to BPI, which had its entire business decimated after Avila’s reporting. But for other industries, the message is clear with ABC: Fight early and often. The network simply can’t afford too many battles all at once.
That means things could be getting very tough for the Anti-Business Channel.
Dan Gainor is vice president for Business and Culture at the Media Research Center.