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Oprah accused of whipping up anti-beef 'lynch mob'

Oprah leaves court
Thumbs up from Oprah Winfrey as she leaves court Wednesday

Food defamation trial opens in Amarillo

January 21, 1998
Web posted at: 8:56 p.m. EST (0156 GMT)

AMARILLO, Texas (CNN) -- Talk show host Oprah Winfrey was accused of creating a "lynch mob mentality" among members of her studio audience to produce a "scary" story about the safety of beef, according to attorneys for a group of Texas cattle producers suing Winfrey over a 1995 episode of her show.

"The message of the show was never meant to be where opinions are shared. The show was meant to be scary," said David Mullin, an attorney for the cattle producers, during opening statements in the trial Wednesday. "The truth is not as interesting. It doesn't produce ratings."

But Winfrey's attorney, Chip Babcock, told the eight women and four men on the jury that the show in question was fair and that Winfrey did not set out to target the beef industry.

"The program did not suggest beef was unsafe. Oprah Winfrey did not wake up and say, 'Let's go get the beef industry,'" Babcock said.

The cattle producers are suing Winfrey under a 1995 Texas law under which people can be held liable if they make false and disparaging statements about perishable food products.

In April 1996, the topic of Winfrey's show was mad cow disease, an outbreak of which had occurred in Britain. The disease in cattle has been linked to a related disease in humans that kills people by slowing destroying brain tissue.

Though there has not been any outbreak of mad cow disease in the United States, a guest on Winfrey's show, Howard Lyman, criticized the practice of feeding processed livestock to cattle, which has been linked to the outbreak in Europe. Winfrey responded that Lyman's remarks "just stopped me cold from eating another burger."

Protest/Santa Fe
Supporters of Oprah in Santa Fe, New Mexico

Lyman, who is also being sued by the cattle producers, also intimated that an outbreak of human form of mad cow disease could make AIDS look like the common cold.

Cattle producers claim that the remarks on Winfrey's top-rated talk show subsequently sent cattle prices tumbling, costing them $12 million.

However, in his opening remarks, Babcock claimed that one of the cattle producers actually made $140,000 in the aftermath of the show by betting in the cattle futures market that prices would go down.

After the opening arguments, jurors watched an 80-minute unedited version of the show, as well as the final hour-long version that aired.

Winfrey, who arrived in Amarillo earlier in the week, attended Wednesday's court session, entering through a back door to elude fans camped out in front. She generally remained quiet and expressionless for the most part throughout the proceedings.

But another plaintiffs' attorney, Joseph Coyne, elicited a wide-eyed, incredulous look from the talk show host when he said that "during breaks, Ms. Winfrey acted as cheerleader and created a lynch mob mentality among spectators."

Starting Thursday, Winfrey will begin filming her talk show, normally based in Chicago, in Amarillo. Scheduled guests include three native Texans: actor Patrick Swayze, country singer Clint Black and his wife, actress Lisa Hartman Black. Local residents have been clamoring to get tickets.

Meanwhile, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, supporters of Winfrey staged a protest rally Wednesday, trampling hamburgers underfoot to show solidarity.

Correspondent Jeff Flock contributed to this report.


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