Prime Time Slime

ABC News’ Prime Time Live is being sued for libel by three white policemen who were targeted in a hidden-camera report about the tendency of cops to pull over and harass black drivers for trivial or nonexistent traffic violations. The policemen in question were shown doing a search of a Mercedes whose three black occupants (two college students and one recent college graduate, all operating undercover for ABC) were pulled over in Jamesburg, N.J., after failing to signal before making a lane change. But the cops allege that Prime Time Live viewers weren’t permitted to see that after they pulled the Mercedes over, one of the car’s occupants engaged in suspicious and provocative behavior. ABC denies that any such behavior occurred and, by implication, that any significant information was omitted.

“Let’s go to the tape,” Chatterbox wrote in a 1997 article about the controversy in U.S. News and World Report. At the time, ABC wasn’t making the outtakes available, claiming they were “privileged and confidential.” Chatterbox pointed out in U.S. News that the justification for witholding such information was usually to protect confidential sources, but that in this case, “the secret (the hidden camera) was being kept from the sources (the patrolmen), not for them,” which seemed pretty screwy.

Now a judge has compelled ABC to fork over the outtakes to the three policemen. Chatterbox has reviewed some of these outtakes, and is ready to conclude that ABC’s broadcast was indeed shoddy. However, the “suppressed” footage fails to support–and in some cases flatly contradicts–several specific allegations that the three policemen made to Chatterbox back in 1997.

First, the bad news for ABC: The outtakes clearly show that one of the three occupants of the Mercedes, a New York University student named Raymond Campbell, either inadvertently or deliberately made himself seem suspicious after the cops pulled the car over–but before they searched the car. Campbell, who was sitting in the car’s back seat, had pretended not to have any ID (“I left mine at home,” he says on the tape, somewhat unconvincingly). One can certainly ask why a back-seat passenger would be asked for his ID under such circumstances, and if ABC had left it at that it might have had a good story. But note the following exchange, none of which was shown (or even alluded to) in the final ABC broadcast:

Patrolman Louis Hornberger (to driver Jason Williamson) : “What’s the gentleman in the back seat’s first name?”

Williamson: “Raymond.”

Hornberger: “Raymond? Raymond what?”

Williamson: “Campbell.”

Hornberger: “Campbell? You being straight with me? The other kid [apparently William Armstrong, the front-seat passenger] said his name is John.”

It was only after this exchange, which suggests that the cops’ suspicions about who they had in their custody were legitimate, that the car was searched. Let’s have a big, loud Intellectual Dishonesty raspberry for ABC’s refusal to share this information with its viewers.

But is it libel? The patrolmen’s legal claims may be undercut by the fact that many of the things they’ve been alleging about the incident and how it was presented to ABC’s viewers are unsupported by the ABC outtakes. Back in 1997, the patrolmen told Chatterbox that Campbell had to be asked three times to step out of the car. But the tape shows Campbell stepping out of the car as soon as he’s asked to do so. The patrolmen have also said that Campbell, upon leaving the car, drew his face up to one of them and said, “I don’t like cops.” The tape doesn’t show that, either. (Though it’s entirely possible it happened out of camera and mike range; the hidden camera showed only what was going on inside the car. An ABC lawyer has previously conceded that Campbell did, after leaving the car, express “annoyance with the process.”) Finally, one of the patrolmen told Chatterbox two years ago that he had asked for, and gotten, driver Williamson’s permission to search the car. Williamson told Chatterbox he did not. The tape doesn’t show any of the cops asking permission to search the car. Indeed, ABC’s lawyers are now seeking to file a counterclaim that the three passengers’ Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights were violated by the search–an effective-seeming strategy to get the entire lawsuit dismissed.

To Chatterbox, the lesson is that life is messier and more complicated than litigants and ABC News would have you believe. Yes, racial “profiling” is a social problem. Yes, the circumstances under which this particular car was pulled over look fishy. Yes, the cops may have conducted an illegal search. But no, the suspicions that led the cops to conduct this search once the car had been pulled over were not misplaced. By failing to show that, ABC conned its viewers.

–Timothy Noah