ABC News asked a judge in South Dakota this week to throw out the $1.2-billion defamation lawsuit brought against it by Beef Products, Inc. (BPI), a Dakota Dunes, SD-based beef processor. BPI says it will oppose the motion to dismiss.
BPI sued ABC News in September, claiming the network damaged the company by misleading consumers into believing that lean finely textured beef (LFTB), which the network characterized as "pink slime" is unhealthy and unsafe. The sensational ABC News reports on LFTB precipitated a firestorm of social media criticism that eventually led to the closure of three of four BPI processing plants and the loss of 650 jobs.
I've argued previously that, while probably justified, BPI's pink slime suit has very little chance of success. The courts have been more than a little hesitant to infringe on the press’s right to freedom of speech, no matter how irresponsibly they act.
Still it's infuriating to read the legal brief filed by ABC. It argues that the network didn’t call LFTB "unsafe," but rather unsuitable for human consumption. After reading that a half-dozen times, I'm still not sure about the distinction, but it's obviously important from a legal standpoint. The 1994 South Dakota food product law under which BPI sued ABC News deals only with the safety of a food product.
Secondly, ABC argues that the use of hyperbole, and essentially exaggeration, is constitutionally protected. I almost laughed at their defense of the term pink slime; they point out that it is indeed pinkish in color and that all ground beef has a somewhat slimy texture, so the term was not a derogative one but, in fact, an accurate description.
I don't know if the parties at BPI believe they'll ever see any of the restitution they are seeking. But I'm sure BPI felt it was something that was necessary, if for no other reason than to underscore the cost of an irresponsible media.