The Great Media Debacle of 2012


One year ago this week, all of us witnessed one of the greatest injustices to truth we could have imagined. I’m talking about the month-long frenzy over lean finely textured beef (LFTB).

ABC’s senior correspondent Jim Avila began reporting in a way that we could not have imagined or predicted. All totaled, ABC carried 11 Nightly News broadcasts in a matter of four weeks and stirred other reporters to join in the insupportable, anti-LFTB chorus. Despite involvement from Governors and from the Secretary of Agriculture, neither media nor Twitter could be tamed and a safe and sustainable product was unfairly maligned.

Now, as we look back on both the coverage and the facts, we can safely say that what happened a year ago will go down as one of journalism’s darkest and most embarrassing hours. A fresh examination of past coverage shows a bias in tone, content and in the omission of leading experts who had offered comment. A photo that many say may not even depict a food product was used to represent lean finely textured beef by multiple media outlets. It was carried without any effort to confirm its authenticity. As this was happening, Avila detailed his personal views on Twitter and openly argued with experts about the facts.

Months later, after the publicity forced layoffs and plant closures, many of us cheered when Beef Products, Inc. sued ABC. While suits against media always face legal hurdles, hope for success was fueled when attorney and media critic Stephen Brill called the lawsuit the “most detailed, persuasive complaint of its kind that I have ever read.”

Now, two major media outlets have penned provocative pieces that are worth reading. Time reporter Josh Sanburn chronicles the case with hindsight’s wisdom. Likewise, Reuters’ PJ Hufstutter explores in detail ABC’s role in the matter. Her story lays the case out with such meticulous detail that Reuters included a foul language warning at the top of the piece.

While these stories cannot undo the damage caused by The Great Media Debacle of 2012, they can help all of us think more critically about the coverage we read and encourage the public to look beyond the headlines for the facts about products like lean finely textured beef. And those facts tell us this is a safe, wholesome product that deserves our confidence and a second look by customers and consumers.

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