Internet

Netizens weigh in on Oprah trial

The Net community loves a courtroom drama, and Oprah Winfrey's trial in Texas on charges of violating food disparagement laws is no exception.

As Oprah Winfrey goes to trial in Amarillo, Texas, on charges of violating food disparagement laws, the meat industry is finding that its opponents are winning the war of words, at least on the Internet.

In a trial that could prove relevant to free speech on the Internet, Winfrey is facing charges along with organic farming activist Howard Lyman for remarks about beef that they made on Winfrey's television talk show in 1996.

The Amarillo trial joins a growing list of courtroom dramas that are reaching people around the world through the Internet. From the O.J. Simpson trials to the ongoing Unabomber trial, the Internet has offered everything from trial transcripts and up-to-the minute news to low parodies and forums for Netizens to voice their opinions.

While sites that sympathize with the Amarillo defense are blaring information about the trial on their front doors, the cattle industry's online apparatus has been slow to respond.

"This is going to hurt us," said Macky Hall, spokesperson for the American Feed Industry Association. "We don't have as much of an online presence...so we won't be able to get our message out to a big audience out there."

Hall said his industry was behind in getting online. "We have dedicated our technology to other areas," he said.

But beef industry organizations fully equipped to spotlight the trial and the issues it raises have passed up the opportunity to do so. The National Cattlemen's Beef Association, for example, has nothing related to the Oprah trial except three press releases from 1996. The AIF yesterday updated its news section with information about the trial.

Hall rejected the notion, advanced by some anti-beef industry activists, that the industry wants to minimize discussion and coverage of the trial for fear it will arouse anxiety about health risks allegedly posed by beef consumption.

Online pro-Oprah forces in both the vegetarian and free-speech camps, by contrast, have focused on the trial as a cause celebre.

Vegetarian-interest Web site Vegsource.org is hosting a page for Oprah's codefendant in the case, Howard Lyman. Lyman's page features a transcript of the disputed Oprah Winfrey episode along with information about Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, commonly known as Mad Cow Disease.

The site also provides a spirited discussion area, where participants do not shrink from disparaging the meat industry.

"Let the Texas cattlemen eat tofu!" reads one posting. "Truth shall set you free, cowboys!"

Newsgroups including "talk.politics.animals," "alt.tv.talkshows.dayt," "alt.agriculture.misc," and "alt.politics.greens" are busy with many like-minded and a smaller number of opposing sentiments.

Ironically, the same laws that enabled the cattlemen to bring Winfrey and Lyman to trial could make posting some anti-meat sentiments on the Internet illegal.

After an apple industry lawsuit against CBS failed in 1989, the food industry began pushing for what are known as food disparagement laws. Currently on the books in 13 states, these laws impose stiff penalties for the disparagement of perishable food products.

"Since the Internet, like the Oprah broadcast, is in every state, people in states with food disparagement laws can access that site. If they feel [postings] disparage food, they could bring a lawsuit," said John Stauber, editor of the Center for Media and Democracy's PR Watch newsletter.

The current trial in Amarillo is the first test of the food disparagement laws, said Stauber.

PR Watch is running a special report with several articles about trial-related topics. The report is earning the Web site an unprecedented volume of hits, said Stauber, though exact numbers were not available.

Another site with extensive coverage of the trial and related links is the Amarillo Globe-News.

But one site that is entirely mum about the trial is the official Oprah Winfrey site. That may be because the judge in the trial has imposed a gag order on participants, according to Stauber.