|ABC's OF METABOLIFE|
October 19, 1999
The NewsHour Media Unit is funded by a grant from
the Pew Charitable Trusts.
TERENCE SMITH: Joining us to discuss the ramifications of this media exchange are two of the principal participants, David Westin, the president of ABC News, and Michael Ellis, the founder and CEO of Metabolife International. David Westin, we have just seen in the setup what Metabolife did in anticipation of ABC's piece. Do you have any problems with it?
DAVID WESTIN, President, ABC News: No. I don't fundamentally. Frankly I viewed it as bit as a publicity stunt and I hope it works for the money that they paid for it. What we do is quite different from what appeared on the Web site. The only possible grounds for concern out in the future is if people start confusing the raw ingredients of a piece that we do for one of our news programs with the finished product. There are a lot of ingredients that go into it. One of them is an interview such as we did with Mr. Diaz and Mr. Ellis. But there are other things that go into produce a fair and accurate piece, which is what we aired last Friday night. So fundamentally it's not a threat to us.
TERENCE SMITH: Well, an ABC spokeswoman described it as an invasion of our editorial process and Dick Wall, a longtime ABC executive, said it was a subtle attempt at intimidation.
DAVID WESTIN: I think attempt is the important word there, Terry. I think all of us would be concerned if these sorts of corporate PR tactics somehow did affect adversely the editorial process. I can tell you that as a matter of fact that ABC News, with respect to this piece, it didn't have any effect on us at all. And so it wasn't a problem in this case. It's something we can all look at in the future to make sure that companies such as this aren't able to affect the editorial process in a way that is to all of our detriment.
|Why the preemptive strike?|
TERENCE SMITH: Michael Ellis, why was that preemptive strike necessary in your view?
MICHAEL ELLIS, CEO, Metabolife International, Inc.: Well, I believe that ABC and so did our staff were intending to actually do a hit piece.
TERENCE SMITH: What do you mean by a hit piece?
MICHAEL ELLIS: Well, I think that what they were intending to do is basically broadcast a preconceived notion of what Metabolife is. There was a lot of exchange of information. There were many, many signs all the way down the line up until we actually decided to actually broadcast this on news interview Web site.
TERENCE SMITH: On your Web site?
MICHAEL ELLIS: That's correct.
TERENCE SMITH: That's right. What, now that you've done it, do you feel you had your say or changed the mix in any way?
MICHAEL ELLIS: Yes, I believe we did. I think it was very effective in many ways. One, it made ABC become a little more accountable. The story we believe had changed quite a bit from what it was being led down the path -- such as disclosing a physician was affiliated possibly with a competitor and other issues -- and from the response from the community that viewed both our Web site and the "20/20" broadcasts.
|Affecting the editorial process|
TERENCE SMITH: David Westin, did this change anything about the report or the way you put it on the air, did you hurry it on to the air since your competitors of course could now see part of your editorial process?
DAVID WESTIN: No, we didn't hurry it on at all. In fact, it's one of the first reactions when I heard about it. I said, we'll treat this just like any other piece in terms of timing exactly what we do. It's important for me to say, ABC News does not do so-called hit pieces at all. We don't put preconceived notions on the air but the important point here is we stand by what we put on the air, and the attempts of companies like this are basically to distract the American people from what we actually put on the air and to focus on various red herrings in the process that leads up to it. In fact, the physician to which Mr. Ellis referred was one of the named physicians in one of the studies that his own company referred to repeatedly, justifying the safety of his product. So we were simply pursuing what his own company indicated, but the important point is we stand by what we put on the air and the accuracy and fairness of that, and we're proud of it.
TERENCE SMITH: Michael Ellis, what do you think of the accuracy and fairness that was put on the air? Was the piece fair?
MICHAEL ELLIS: Well, I think there were many cases it was not -- ABC neglected to put conflicting statements by those same physicians that they had on the air where under even public testimony that they indicated that they even prescribe or recommend the product to their own patients, and that also the study is going on for a year, and these people are unmonitored - they're just given Metabolife and allowed to go out into the normal course of life and take the product. Those are just some of the examples that I think that probably should have been laid out to the public at the time of the broadcast.
TERENCE SMITH: Was it a hit piece by your definition?
MICHAEL ELLIS: Well, I think what it was is that it was a wash-down hit piece. I think it would have been a whole lot worse if Metabolife would not have drawn attention to ABC and the practices and what they do -- journalism.
TERENCE SMITH: David Westin would it "have been a whole lot worse" or in any way different?
DAVID WESTIN: No, as I said, and I think it's very important for all of us - certainly in news organizations - but I think for the American people as well, it's very important for all of us to set our standards high, to pursue accuracy and fairness in every piece we do, and then not to be altered in that course by whatever winds buffet us one way or the other. It becomes accepted practice that if someone take out a $1.5 million campaign or whatever that will affect the piece, then I think we should be very concerned about journalism. I'm not as concerned in this instance because I know from ABC News' point of view that didn't in this instance.
TERENCE SMITH: Michael Ellis, you did spend probably close to $2 million on this whole effort in advertising. Was it worth it?
|Presenting all the facts, fairly|
MICHAEL ELLIS: Yes. I think it was worth it. I think just in the comments of Mr. Westin, it says he places us against them. I think true journalism is lay out all the facts of the issue and let the consumer or the viewer actually draw a conclusion. I think that's what balanced journalism is, and I think across the board in the United States to a great extent that's how journalism is performed and conducted here in the United States. I believe that lot of consumers may look at "20/20" as actually being a news piece, when I think maybe it might be a little bit more an entertainment piece to get ratings and such so that people watch, and unfortunately, it's usually at the expense of either corporations, politicians, or individuals.
TERENCE SMITH: On your Web site, Mr. Ellis, you invited people to vote your word as to whether or not the ABC piece was fair. How did they vote?
MICHAEL ELLIS: Well, it's been popping back and forth across the 50 percent mark. So one hour it is somewhere close around 51 percent in favor of ABC and then 49 at Metabolife, and then vice versa, it starts changing. It changes as the time goes on where people are able to get into the system because it's been overwhelmed by millions of hits.
TERENCE SMITH: David Westin, what does the future hold in this department, the next time ABC is asked or perhaps a condition is set for an interview that the interviewee make a tape, a videotape?
DAVID WESTIN: Well, this isn't the first time that people have asked to record interviews that we do. And there is nothing that we do or should be doing in the interview that we would be ashamed of in any way, shape, or form. The fact we don't end of broadcasting it doesn't mean that we're ashamed of asking the question; it may be a line of inquiry that we didn't think was merited in the end, and it didn't deserve publication. But we're not ashamed of it. And we won't restrict that in the future. There are some areas for concern. I can imagine situations which did not happen in this instance where people could take our anchors or our correspondents and put them in a Web site that would be really a false light for them or detracting to them and we would have to think about that issue. But I'm happy to say I really do agree with Mr. Ellis and what we should be doing in journalism is producing fair and accurate pieces that present all the relevant and material points of view. And I would say that's exactly what we did in this piece.
TERENCE SMITH: What Ellis, what about you in the future? Would you follow the same course?
MICHAEL ELLIS: Well, this is very unusual for our company. I've been on hundreds and hundreds of interviews. And the majority of journalists are very fair and accurate. And if they're not, they're very susceptible and amenable to changing that inaccuracy. But Metabolife is a dietary supplement company. We're not professionals in the media, and, you know, and this is very unusual for us. I don't know what we would do in the future.
TERENCE SMITH: And your motive, you say, was to make the record available to all?
MICHAEL ELLIS: Yes, absolutely.
TERENCE SMITH: David Westin, did you believe that was the motive?
DAVID WESTIN: Oh, I don't impugn motives; I really don't. I have a full-time job. It keeps me busy, and Mr. Ellis has a company; he has to pursue his interest and the interest of his shareholders, and I respect that. My job is to make sure that we are doing our job.
And I think that ABC News did in this instance, and I'm proud of what we did.
TERENCE SMITH: David Westin, you are a lawyer. Is there anything illegal in any of this?
DAVID WESTIN: Oh, no, not that I'm aware of. I mean, I used to practice law and maybe others would know things that I don't know, but I'm not aware of anything illegal, no, not at all.
TERENCE SMITH: Okay. Michael Ellis, David Westin, thank you both very much.
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