KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The trial of talk show host Oprah Winfrey may have done some good if it encourages journalists to be more responsible in their reporting, a University of Tennessee law professor said Friday.
Glenn Reynolds, a professor in the UT College of Law, said the Texas “veggie libel law” that landed Winfrey in court was a “little silly,” but an inevitable response to previous attacks on food producers.
“Fear about food has been a major journalistic sales tool for quite a while and it has done a fair amount of harm,” Reynolds said. “If this encourages journalists to be a little more responsible, that won’t be all bad.”
A Texas jury found in Winfrey’s favor Thursday, deciding that a talk show she produced about mad cow disease and beef safety did not damage four Amarillo cattle ranchers.
The ranchers claimed Winfrey’s program and her vow never to eat another hamburger caused cattle prices to plummet, costing them approximately $11 million.
Reynolds said the Winfrey case did not concern him as much as the situation that gave rise to the Texas “veggie law” — the Alar scare several years ago that cost apple growers millions of dollars.
Alar is a preservative used to prolong the shelf-life of apples. Claims were made that the preservative caused health problems, especially in children.
“There was some misrepresentation there, and it did a huge amount of harm to an industry,” Reynolds said. “A lot of people lost money based on some information that was essentially false. People have a right to be wrong, but they should be required to act in good faith.”
Reynolds said statements by some public interest groups should be scrutinized more closely.
“Various public interest groups have an incentive to exaggerate and inflame hysteria because it helps them get attention and helps their fund raising,” Reynolds said. “That was true with Alar and it was true to some degree in the beef case.”
Reynolds said he thought all along that the Winfrey case was a “loser” for the cattlemen.
“The actual ‘veggie’ libel statute was narrowly drawn, and it really only reached people who were acting in bad faith,” Reynolds said.
“People ought to be able to say absolutely anything that’s true,” Reynolds said. “If Oprah says she’s not going to eat hamburgers anymore, it’s her choice not to eat hamburgers anymore, and there’s no reason to think she’s lying about it.”
Contact: Glenn Reynolds (423-974-6744)