Oprah vs. beef The national media was abuzz in mid- January about the doings in Amarillo, TX. There, a beef disparagement suit was being pursued against Oprah Winfrey, the host of the world's number-one talk show, by a group of Texas cattlemen led by cattle feeder Paul Engler.

As you likely recall, Winfrey was sued for her show on BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) in which she and rancher-turned-vegetarian activist Howard Lyman alerted the nation as to its impending doom at the hands of BSE and Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease. Generally described, the episode was alarmist and sensational and dismissed not only the fact that BSE hasn't been found in the U.S., but USDA's 11-year record of intensive surveillance.

The Texans sued Winfrey under a food defamation law that allows producers to seek damages if they have been harmed by false or misleading statements about ag products. Thirteen states now have such laws that grew out of the "60 Minutes" Alar and apples scare of 1989. Another nine states are considering similar legislation.

Some Doubt Constitutionality Some civil libertarians think that while there could be a favorable judgment for producers in this Texas case, it's a matter of time before such laws are judged unconstitutional. They also feel that such laws put a gag on public safety-minded discussion of potentially dangerous issues.

It would seem to me, however, that there is little difference between these food defamation statutes and the rules governing libel or slander. In all cases, it just means doing your research and acting responsibly.

Although she's moved more to the high road recently, Winfrey's program has historically been a good example of the irresponsibility that plagues the type of mass media infotainment she helped pioneer.

An Internet search, for instance, cites a May 7, 1989 article in the Chicago Tribune regarding a program Winfrey did in 1989 on cult murders. A segment of this program included a woman suffering severe psychiatric disorders who said she witnessed the ritualistic murder of children by Jews. She also said it was occurring in other families around the U.S., and the police knew about it. When Jewish and civil liberties groups protested, Winfrey begged off by saying she wasn't the one who had said it.

Such an easy brushing aside of responsibility does a severe disservice, not only to the offended parties but the public as a whole. If you're going to provide the venue for any nut to make any kind of allegation, you should be responsible enough to do your homework and present a fair discussion to your audience.

Scaring People Works There are three subjects that are guaranteed to draw an audience and hold attention - food, air and water.

I'm reminded of a story about a man who surveyed 50 people about supporting his call for a ban on a gas called dihydrogen oxide. He told these people that, among many other things, this gas was a component of acid rain, always found in polluted waters and is evident in the tumors of all victims of terminal cancer. Virtually all the respondents were outraged and only one disagreed with his call for a ban because he knew dihydrogen oxide was the chemical name for water.

Less than 2% of the nation's populace is engaged in agriculture these days. That ignorance is fertile ground for any story someone with a financial, social or political agenda wants to sow. The public needs to be informed and protected, but it should be done responsibly, both in the interests of the general populace and the folks who are being criticized.