Now it's NBC News' turn in court. Less than two months after Food Lion won $5.5 million in damages in a fraud lawsuit against ABC's Primetime Live, NBC and the producers of Dateline are facing similar charges in a lawsuit filed by a Maine trucking company.

Dateline--the NBC newsmagazine hosted by Stone Phillips and Jane Pauley--promised a nice, heartwarming story on the "positive side" of trucking, according to the lawsuit, filed January 29 in U.S. District Court in Bangor, Maine. Instead, the trucker claims, the network aired a pointed, two-part piece on how fatigued big-rig drivers turn American highways into "killing fields." The lawsuit charges fraud, negligence and invasion of privacy, in addition to defamation.

Classic Carriers said two Dateline producers approached the company about shooting a series on the "positive side" of trucking, the lawsuit contends. The company agreed to have a crew ride along with one of their drivers on a cross-country haul.

The lawsuit asserts the producers effectively lied because the April 1995 episode alleged criminal activity by Classic Carriers, its owners and the truck driver NBC rode with. The trucking company is seeking unspecified compensatory and punitive damages against NBC for misrepresenting the intent of the interviews, defaming Classic Carriers, invasion of privacy and emotional distress.

"The report was fair and accurate and we stand by it," said NBC spokeswoman Angelique Bell. Bell also said the network has not yet been served with the suit.

Along with the Food Lion-ABC legal battle--which the network is appealing--the Classic Carriers-NBC case signals a new legal strategy against media outlets. Rather than only suing for libel or slander--which is difficult to prove because the press has strong First Amendment protection--slighted companies are now filing fraud and negligence claims. News organizations fear such cases will curtail investigative reporting and ultimately chill free speech.

However, some media lawyers disagree, saying that such cases will force news crews to clean up their acts. "It will have a tremendous chilling effect on irresponsible journalism," said Jon Kotler, a media law professor at the University of Southern California.

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