ABC Accused of Not Intervening in Abuse Video

The ABC news magazine Primetime recently broadcast video of a man in northern New York state slapping and punching his 15-year-old daughter. Some viewers, including the Franklin County District Attorney, now accuse ABC of standing by when they should have intervened. Brian Mann of North Country Public Radio reports.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

You hear these warnings all the time, but this story has especially disturbing audiotape in it. So if there are children listening you may want to turn the radio off for the next several minutes. But it's an important story. It's about child abuse and what the media's responsibility is in reporting it.

Last Friday the ABC news magazine Primetime broadcast videotape of a man in Northern New York abusing his 15-year-old stepdaughter. It caused outrage in the community. Here is Brian Mann from North Country Public Radio.

BRIAN MANN reporting:

In 2002 Primetime's producers set up cameras in two volunteer households, hoping to catch the intimate lives of stepfamilies in crisis.

They recorded more than 1200 hours of tape with the family of Joe and Lynn Nelson, who live in tiny Vermontville, New York. Kyle Nelson, Joe's daughter from an earlier marriage, was then 15 years old. Much of the footage is emotionally savage, but it was this scene that outraged viewers.

(Soundbite of girl screaming)

MANN: Kyle Nelson is sitting on a couch arguing with her father about homework. Joe Nelson lunges at his daughter, pinning the girl, punching and slapping her at least five times.

Mr. JOE NELSON (Father): I've never (bleep) lied to you, never have I lied to you, you little bitch, never! You're calling me a liar? You, you dirty little bitch! I never!

MANN: One of the horrified viewers Friday evening was Franklin County District Attorney Derrick Champagne.

Mr. DERRICK CHAMPAGNE (District Attorney, Franklin County, New York): It was very disturbing, it was a very horrific piece of film and ABC had three quote "experts" watching it and at least two of them were cringing and turning their heads away. So I think the footage speaks for itself.

MANN: Champagne quickly opened an investigation but found that while the videotape was sitting on a shelf at ABC News, the two year statute of limitations for criminal charges had expired.

Mr. CHAMPAGNE: In my nine years as a prosecutor I've never had an endangering the welfare of a child case that would have been so solid.

MANN: Champagne says ABC's producers should have come forward immediately. During the Primetime broadcast host Diane Sawyer seems to acknowledge the physical danger and emotional brutality of the Nelson household.

Ms. DIANE SAWYER (Primetime Host): Watch the explosion.

(Soundbite of screaming)

Ms. SAWYER: You want reality TV? Tonight you get it. Starting now.

MANN: Primetime's executive producer David Sloan declined to be interview on tape about this story. In an emailed reply to NPR's questions, ABC spokesperson Paige Capossela said the documentary didn't air sooner because of scheduling conflicts and because other projects delayed its completion.

Appearing this week on ABC's Good Morning America Diane Sawyer said the network acted appropriately, working closely with family therapists.

Ms. SAWYER: Let's talk about ABC News in this, because there was an issue raised whether ABC News upon viewing that one moment should have gone to authorities, and we did not feel we should and everybody out there I hope knows about us, if we ever think that anybody's in peril, we move in. That's why we're here, that's what we do.

MANN: Experts on journalism ethics are divided on this case. Kelly McBride, who writes a column about ethics for the Pointer Institute, says not contacting authorities was a reasonable decision.

Ms. KELLY MCBRIDE (Pointer Institute): This is a one time event, according to the videotape that they had. The family was getting counseling to try and resolve their issues and the child was not seriously hurt in that particular instance. I think there's room for discretion.

MANN: But Joseph Angotti, former executive producer of NBC Nightly News, says Primetime's producers weren't qualified to judge whether the children were safe.

Ms. JOSEPH ANGOTTI (Former Executive Producer, NBC Nightly News): That decision makes no sense at all to me. I think it was an irresponsible decision. I think it was unethical.

MANN: Kyle Nelson, who's now 18 years old, moved out shortly after the attack and lives with her grandmother.

Joe and Lynn Nelson couldn't be reached for comment. Officials in New York State say an investigation is underway to determine whether three children still living in the Nelson home should be removed.

For NPR News, I'm Brian Mann in Northern New York.

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