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"Dangerous Food" talk show not libelous

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  1. Libel and Privacy
    NMU         FIFTH CIRCUIT    

    NMU         FIFTH CIRCUIT         Libel         Feb 10, 2000    

“Dangerous Food” talk show not libelous

  • A federal appellate court has upheld a lower court ruling that found Oprah Winfrey and a guest did not defame Texas cattle ranchers by discussing “mad cow disease.”

The U.S. Court of Appeals in New Orleans (5th Cir.) ruled Feb. 9 that Oprah Winfrey and one of her guests, Howard Lyman, did not knowingly and falsely depict American beef as unsafe. The court upheld the partial dismissal of the claims brought by Texas cattlemen after Winfrey’s show discussed “mad cow disease” in 1996.

“When Ms. Winfrey speaks, America listens. But her statement is neither actionable nor claimed to be so,” the court explained. “Instead, two false statements by Lyman and misleading editing are relied upon to carry the cattlemen’s difficult burden. Like the district court, we hold that they have not sustained their burden of articulating a genuine issue of material fact concerning liability under the (Texas Disparagement of Perishable Food Products) Act.”

At the core of the dispute is the mid-April 1996 “Dangerous Food” broadcast of the “Oprah Winfrey Show.” The show allegedly depicted American beef as unsafe in the wake of the British panic over “mad cow disease.” The beef market suffered substantial losses after the show aired, according to several Texas cattle ranchers.

In late May 1996, the cattlemen sued Winfrey, producers and distributors of the “Oprah Winfrey Show” and Lyman in a Texas trial court, but the suit was moved to federal court.

The cattleman alleged violations of the Texas Disparagement of Perishable Food Products Act and damages from business disparagement, defamation and negligence.

In February 1998, the court dismissed most of the claims, including the food disparagement claim. The same month, a jury found in favor of Winfrey on the remaining claim of business disparagement. The cattlemen then appealed.

According to the appellate court, “The critical issue here is whether the appellees knowingly disseminated false information tending to show that American beef is not fit for public consumption.” The court noted that “the expression of opinions as well as facts is constitutionally protected so long as a factual basis underlies the opinion.”

The court ruled that Winfrey and Harpo Productions cannot be liable for the editing of the disputed show. “While the editor of the ‘Dangerous Food’ show was instructed to cut out the redundancies in the unedited interviews, he was also required to cut the piece to fit into a smaller time frame for the ultimate broadcast. Although the show’s producer undeniably spliced questions and answers, the editing did not misrepresent … responses.”

(Texas Beef Group v. Winfrey; Media Counsel; Charles Babcock, Houston)

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© 2000 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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