Round One: ABC News 1, Metabolife 0

Chatterbox finally logged on to Metabolife’s “up yours, 20/20Web site. As explained in previous items (see “Metabolife’s Lawyer Assures C’box He Won’t Sue” and “Metabolife: Read This! No, Wait, Don’t Read This!“), Metabolife felt ill-used by 20/20’s Arnold Diaz when he interviewed its chief executive officer, Mike Ellis, about the safety and efficacy of Metabolife’s popular herbal diet pills. So the company put an unedited videotape of the interview (made by Metabolife’s technicians, with an audio feed from ABC) on a special Web site and invited consumers to compare that with 20/20’s report, which has yet to air.

Chatterbox believes the behavior of the press merits no less scrutiny than the behavior of companies like Metabolife. Therefore, he declines to join ABC News in its whiny denunciation of Metabolife’s attempt to turn the tables. However, now that Chatterbox has examined Metabolife’s annotated transcript of the 20/20 interview (Chatterbox lacked the patience to download the video), he is ready to pronounce the opening round of this public-relations battle … a victory for ABC News!

Before proceeding, Chatterbox needs to state a few caveats. 1) Chatterbox went into this with no knowledge, and no opinion, about the safety and efficacy of Metabolife’s herbal drug supplement. 2) Chatterbox knows a little more now that he’s read the transcript, but not enough to render a reliable judgment on whether Metabolife is safe and effective. 3) Chatterbox obviously can’t judge the fairness of a 20/20 episode that hasn’t aired yet; the best he can do right now is try to evaluate whether the reporter, Diaz, conducted a professional and responsible interview. Which (unless the unseen tape reveals Diaz physically pummeling Ellis while he asks his questions), Diaz seems to have done.

The bulk of the interview consists of Diaz asking Ellis in various ways whether Metabolife is safe and effective. The form these exchanges mostly take is a debate about whether Metabolife, in its labeling and its promotional material, accurately presents what scientific study has found about the product. Diaz keeps accusing Ellis, in effect, of exaggerating the assurances given by the scientific community; Ellis, in turn, says Diaz is misinterpreting various scientific studies, or misstating who the lead scientist on this or that study was. Notes interjected by Metabolife into the transcript point out that some of the scientists Diaz cites have economic ties to rival diet products.

Though Chatterbox won’t attempt to referee the scientific questions, Diaz at least gives the impression of being fairly well-informed, while Ellis often gives the impression of being evasive. At one point, for instance, Ellis states flatly that certain language cited by Diaz declaring Metabolife to be safe and effective is “not on the Metabolife Web page.” But later Ellis concedes, “You know, to be honestly fair with you, I do not know what our Web site looks like.”

Probably the most accessible part of the interview is when Diaz quizzes Ellis about his criminal past:

Diaz: Now, you developed this product while you … you developed the product while you were on probation for a drug conviction.Ellis: That’s correct.

Here Metabolife interjects the following explanatory note: “Nine years ago, Michael Ellis received five years probation for the use of a telephone to facilitate a drug trafficking offense committed in 1989.”

Diaz: Now talk to me about that. You were a former police officer, and yet you got caught setting up and dealing methamphetamine.Ellis: Well, it’s correct I was a former police officer, and it’s correct that I did receive probation for using a telephone to further a drug transaction. And that’s something I’m not proud of; I think that happening to me is the nightmare of my life, and I’ve made it a point to kind of try to do the right thing ever since that. It’s not something I’m proud of.Diaz: How does a former police officer get involved with running a laboratory making illegal speed?Ellis: Well, I don’t think I was running a laboratory, I think that’s a misconception. But I made a grave error, just a bad mistake on my part.

Chatterbox predicts that this exchange will end up airing in the 20/20 broadcast. When asked to explain this “bad mistake,” Ellis elaborates:

Ellis: You know, it’s one of the people that were involved in that, it’s a very personal issue with him; and why I got involved, he’s like a brother to me, he’s like my best friend, and I allowed emotions to get in the way of probably better judgment.

Diaz then tells Ellis that unsealed court records show “that you were involved in a very large methamphetamine lab manufacturing speed,” but that Ellis pleaded to “a lesser charge” that was nonetheless a felony.

Ellis: Yes I did.Diaz: OK. So the key ingredient in the illegal drug speed is ephedrine; ephedrine is the key ingredient in the Metabolife pills that you’re making now. Is that a coincidence?

At this point, Metabolife interjects another explanatory note: A DEA-approved lab found that Metabolife could not be converted into illegal “speed” using the method published in the Journal of Forensic Sciences, Vol. 40, No. 4, July 1995.

Then the transcript proceeds to Ellis’ response:

Well, when I designed Metabolife, in those days especially, I mean it was known as ma huang. It’s only recently has been where everybody became aware of a lot of the active alkaloids in it. And that Metabolife, specifically, has been tested, and has been through rigorous testing through DEA–and FDA certified laboratories to determine if in fact you could make methamphetamine out of Metabolife, it was concluded you could not do that.

Score one badly needed blow for Ellis. But within moments Diaz is up off the ropes:

Diaz: … [W]hy did you make the man who was convicted with you, Michael Blevens, a partner in the company?

Chatterbox predicts this question, and the following answer, will also make the 20/20 broadcast:

Ellis: Well, Michael Blevens had his personal reasons why he got involved, and Michael Blevens is like a brother to me. I may not approve of a lot of things a lot of people do–like my children, I would not approve of certain things they do, but it doesn’t stop you from loving them. I still love Michael Blevens, he was raised like a brother with me, and I knew his mother, especially, that was like a mother to me. And so, because of an incident that I am just–you know, I made poor judgment also–that I’m not going to sit back and judge the real character that the person might be.

When asked by Diaz whether Blevens still plays an active role in Metabolife, Ellis says he hasn’t for “almost a year.”

To summarize: Round one goes to ABC News. Chatterbox will judge round two after 20/20 airs its Metabolife story.