A film snippet showing a California preacher boasting about his opulent lifestyle on 20/20 has dunked ABC and correspondent John Stossel in hot water, thanks to Dallas-based religious watchdog Ole Anthony and the Trinity Foundation.
Not only was the network forced to air a retraction, the preacher has filed a lawsuit for defamation against Stossel, Anthony, the Trinity Foundation and corporate entities of ABC saying the show falsely branded him as a hypocrite and thief.
It's the second time ABC has been sued along with Anthony, who, with his merry band of undercover detectives and dumpster divers and a vast network of sources, tracks the lifestyles of various religious leaders who take to the airwaves to proselytize—and raise money.
The story that aired at 9 p.m. on March 23 on 20/20 featured Frederick K.C. Price, a black prosperity preacher and best-selling author, pacing the aisle of the Crenshaw Christian Center in South Los Angeles.
Price founded the predominantly black church, which now boasts 22,000 members, in 1973. More than 3,500 people attend Sunday services under its "FaithDome," built on a 32-acre site once occupied by Pepperdine University. Price's sermons are broadcast in 15 of the largest markets in the U.S. and around the world as part of his "Ever Increasing Faith" ministry. But Stossel took Price to task for reaping a gold mine from faithful parishioners.
"They preach the gospel of giving to God," intoned John Stossel. "But how much of what you give do they keep for themselves?"
20/20 showed a church member saying she knew her donations to Price went to "excellent use." The church runs a school and a tape ministry and purportedly finances missions in Namibia, Ghana and Zimbabwe. It also contributes to missions in Haiti and Brazil and supports food and other service programs in South Los Angeles.
"And yet her pastor, Fred Price, boasts that..." and Stossel shifted to a clip of Price saying: "I live in a 25-room mansion. I have my own $6 million yacht, I have my own private jet and I have my own helicopter and I have seven luxury automobiles..."
The clip and Stossel's subsequent report—with pictures of a sumptuous estate and Rolls-Royces presented to look as if Price owned them—implies that he was lying to members who finance his ostentatious lifestyle. A former Wall Street analyst named Rusty Leonard, who quit his job to investigate church finances, goes on camera to say "donors are being hosed" by Price and other hypocritical and greedy preachers who "squander our money." Price's congregation was upset and horrified.
But is that what the clip really said? Price pulled out the full sermon, which had appeared in 1997 on Lifetime Television and was subsequently taped by the Trinity Foundation, which records appearances by television preachers on a routine basis and has a vast library of clips to offer journalists working on religion stories.
Price pointed out to Stossel that he was preaching about how a hypothetical rich man could feel unfulfilled despite his abundance. But Price's point was after the end of the clip: "The financial reviews would call me successful, but while all that's going on, my wife's making out with the gardener, the cat raped the canary this morning, all of my children are on drugs and I really don't know who my friends are because I don't know if they like me or like what I can do for them because of my money. I can't eat a decent meal and keep it down because my stomach is so full of holes because of worrying. My friends, that is bad success."
Price and his congregants protested to ABC, saying that the preacher and his wife owned only three cars and no yachts or helicopters, and the church's books were open for review by members and audited annually by an outside firm. (Price and/or the church has owned an airplane.) Price alleged that producer Glen Ruppel had made no effort to find out the true context of the story, even though the Walt Disney Co. owned both the Lifetime channel and ABC and the clip was in its archives.
ABC aired a retraction on May 11 by Stossel: "We thought Dr. Price...was talking about himself, but we later learned he was preaching a sermonabout a hypothetical person who had many material possessions but lived a spiritually unfulfilled life. We had used his quote out of context, and for that, we apologize to Dr. Price and the Crenshaw Christian Center. And we apologize to you if we misled you. Also, the Center sent us a statement saying Dr. Price is paid, quote, 'a salary commensurate with his duties,' and that the church, quote, 'openly shares its financial information with its congregation.'"
According to Price, that retraction, aired twice on 20/20 and Good Morning America, didn't comply with a California law that says that retractions must be "published or broadcast in substantially as conspicuous a manner" as originally aired.
In the lawsuit filed in Los Angeles last week, Price claims that the TV show and five different "teasers," including one that was broadcast on Good Morning America and lasted more than two minutes, were libelous and had severely damaged his reputation. He alleges that the clip was provided to ABC by Anthony and the Trinity Foundation, who are "vehemently hostile to evangelical leaders in general" and are a "biased and unreliable source."
In addition, Price alleges that ABC was aware of Anthony's bias because former Dallas-based religion editor Peggy Wehmeyer had warned producers years ago when Primetime Live went after Dallas-based preacher Robert Tilton using information generated by Anthony. The producer, the suit alleges, ignored the warning because Trinity provided evidence and footage she had not been able to find on her own.
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The resulting 1991 story made Anthony, who appeared on camera with Diane Sawyer and his "garbologists"—who'd dug into Tilton's trash to unearth evidence—superstars in the world of religious reporting. Tilton turned around and unsuccessfully sued Anthony, Primetime Live, Sawyer and her producer, Robby Gordon.
An August 3, 2006, Dallas Observer cover story titled "The Cult of Ole" showed that much of ABC's and Trinity's evidence had been edited out of context or distorted. Anthony never admitted wrongdoing, but one of his undercover detectives was stunned to discover his boss had lied about the accuracy of the evidence log Trinity had kept.
ABC spokeswoman Alyssa Apple said she couldn't comment on the lawsuit. "We made a full retraction," Apple says, "and we regret the error and we've made that very clear to Reverend Price."
Anthony and the Trinity Foundation had not responded to a request for comment by press time.