That was the lead-in to an entertaining if inconclusive panel, hosted by Medill on the occasion of its 75th anniversary, on the ABC-TV hidden camera investigation of the Food Lion grocery chain.
ABC phonied resumes to gain employment for its undercover reporters at Food Lion. Once inside, hidden cameras purported to show old meat being relabeled with new dates, unsanitary conditions and other assorted atrocities.
The "Prime Time Live" segment was aired in November 1992 (during a ratings sweeps period), six months after the investigation concluded. Food Lion sued ABC for fraud and trespassing, claiming the network staged certain egregious scenes and left others not supporting its litany of sins on the cutting-room floor. A jury awarded Food Lion $5.5 million in punitive damages.
The episode made me glad to be a print journalist. The network didn't bother to do an even cursory check of health records, lawsuits by disgruntled patrons or other basic records available to any halfway knowledgeable reporter.
The ethics of television-style undercover reporting went under the microscope at the Medill panel. First up was the proposition that if the story justifies it, it's OK to lie.
Under some conditions, lying is something a journalist is forced to do, said investigative producer Sandy Bergo of WBBM-TV in Chicago. "But we don't do it lightly or comfortably."
Brooks Jackson of CNN added that lying wasn't just the problem, but deception was. He said there was "a huge difference" between passive deception and fraud.
That seemed to me akin to the old how-many-angels-can-fit-on-the-head- of-a-pin question, and Laura Pincus, director of DePaul University's Institute for Business & Ethics, wasn't impressed.
She said she wasn't sure there was much difference if people are under the impression that a reporter is someone else and a reporter who says he's someone else.
Louis Hodges, a Bible professor at Washington & Lee University, chimed in with: "That's just playing games. Because the motive and outcome are the same, there is no moral difference. Deception is deception."
Steven Molo, a senior litigation partner at law firm Winston & Strawn, said, "What makes this scary is that visual images raise the level of responsibility." He questioned whether there was enough news to justify all the investigations, and noted that "it's cheaper to produce `Dateline NBC' than `Laverne & Shirley."'
The issue is whether the end justifies the means, Ms. Pincus said. It's a question of whether "you are uncovering evil in our society or you're embarrassing people for something everybody knows," such as doing a hidden-camera "expose" on psychic hot lines.
Ms. Pincus asked who was the most important "stakeholder" in the Food Lion investigation? "Shouldn't the Food & Drug Administration get the information first, rather than air the program months after it was done?" But Prof. Hodges said, "You don't want to become an arm of the law." Added Ms. Bergo: "We want to retain our independence."
Another panel at the Medill symposium didn't have much sympathy for Food Lion. Glenn Coleman, managing editor of Crain's Chicago Business, a sister publication of Advertising Age, said Food Lion failed to launch "an aggressive counterattack" but instead relied on "snarky legal arguments and tactics."
The big mistake Food Lion made, the panel agreed, was not showing enough concern. "Where was the outrage expressed by Food Lion?" said Mary Moster, VP-communications at Comdisco. "You can admit to concern without admitting guilt."
Although the PR people thought Food Lion was the big loser in the court of public opinion, Mr. Jackson of CNN contended "a lot of trust has been lost, and we [as journalists] need to work hard to get it back."