When two local reporters’ story was killed, they got mad as hell. Not only did they take their case to court, they posted it on the Internet. The outcome could change the face of television journalism.
By LYNN WADDELL
© Weekly Planet, Tampa, published May 25, 1998
It’s a story with all the twists and turns of a John Grisham novel and all the bickering of a Jerry Springer show.
The characters: two hard-nosed investigative reporters, a villainous corporate giant that’s trying to kill their story and a television station that doesn’t want to get sued. The station is sued anyway, and the story the corporation tried to suppress gets worldwide attention.
It’s a case to keep media pundits busy for quite a while, and it all started in Tampa at station WTVT Fox 13, corporately known as New World Communications.
In April, reporters Jane Akre and Steve Wilson sued the station in Hillsborough County Circuit Court, claiming they were fired because they wouldn’t “lie” in their series about synthetic bovine growth hormone to make the manufacturer Monsanto look better.
Station General Manager Dave Boylan claims the reporters are just mad because their contracts weren’t renewed. “What is really an employment issue has been confused with a journalistic one,” he said, refusing to comment on the specifics of the reporters’ claims.
Beyond the melodrama, what two reporters have done in their battle with former employer Channel 13 could change the way you get your information and how censored it may be.
Not only is it unusual for reporters to sue over a story, but Akre and Wilson, who are married to each other, have also used the fact that the story is now part of a court’s public record to air it on their Web site, gaining international exposure of the milk hormone issue and themselves.
Since going public with the dispute they’ve received e-mail from political activist Noam Chomsky, who said he was interested in their case. They’ve garnered moral support from Walter Cronkite, who was in the area to speak at a fund-raising dinner. They have appeared on “Democracy Now,” “CounterSpin,” local National Public Radio, the “Jim Hightower Show” and at a Toronto Society of Professional Journalists meeting. Their story has been written about in Daily Variety and New Yorkmagazine. And they said they’ve even been offered a book deal.
Their Web site, which contains their lawsuit, scripts, press releases and a bulletin board, has gotten 18,000 to 20,000 hits a day and has been contacted by people from 30 countries, Akre said.
“They’re getting a lot more mileage out of it than if it had ran on local television during sweeps week,” said Jay Black, media ethics professor at the University of South Florida.
Many opponents of the milk hormone — commonly called BGH — and some journalists are viewing the couple as the Michael Moores of local television journalism. One supporter on the Internet even offered to help pay their legal fees.
“It is so uplifting for me to learn that there are investigative reporters that are not ‘on the take,’” the e-mailer wrote. “If there is any way I can help you, even a little, let me know. Our right to know is worthy of monetary contributions.”
The couple, however, doesn’t appear to be in dire financial straits. They are in the process of selling their half-million-dollar home on Lake Tarpon in upscale Boot Ranch. They plan to build another home in Tarpon Springs. They also own a home and farm in North Carolina. As for income, Wilson has a full-time phone-card business, Voicenet, with two employees. He started Voicenet before joining WTVT as a 10-hour-a-week, $40,000-a-year reporter. Akre earned $70,000 last year at WTVT.
Black, who has been an expert witness for national networks, said he’s never seen anything like the lawsuit. Most of these types of disputes never see the light of a courtroom, much less computer screens around the world.
“They are circumventing the normal process of settlement and perhaps creating a new model for disgruntled journalists everywhere,” Black said.
But you might want to wait before hailing them heroes. Almost everything is contentious in this case.
What the reporters call lies, station management and attorneys call balance and fairness, intimating that Wilson and Akre were biased and unrelenting.
“The station categorically denies that it ever asked Wilson or Akre to include false information in the piece, nor did Wilson or Akre ever identify any such false information,” Fox 13 said in a formal response to the lawsuit. “The station merely required the reporters to substantiate the claims made in their story, which is standard operating procedure in a responsible newsroom.”
Some who know those involved blame the dispute on strong personalities and different reporting styles. Scholars blame it partly on the chilling effect that fear of litigation has had on newsrooms, and some suggest it’s an example of corporate multi-media ownership gone awry. Perhaps it’s a little bit of all of these.
Akre and Wilson spent a month putting together the hard-hitting series on BGH, or as it is sometimes called, rBGH. While the hormone has received press coverage since before its legalization in 1993, the WTVT reporters had a fresh angle. They found that even though major Florida grocers appeased critics by asking dairies not to provide BGH-enhanced milk, the grocers never followed up to make sure it happened. Akre found that all seven dairies she visited at random used synthetic BGH.
The resulting series was not unlike one you might see on “Inside Edition,” Wilson’s former employer. It gave an in-depth look at a complex issue but had the edge of old-fashioned muckraking.
“As locally produced television, it showed evidence of careful research and extended interviews,” said Black, who reviewed tapes of the four-part series and documents in the lawsuit.
Their series was initially approved by the station’s outside attorney Greg Jones and was set to air on Monday, Feb. 24, 1997, but on Feb. 21 a five-page letter from high-powered New York attorney, John Walsh, changed that.
Walsh, representing BGH manufacturer Monsanto, wrote to Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes: “This situation requires immediate investigation by you and your senior news executives.” Copies of the letter were forwarded to Channel 13.
At first glance it appears Fox 13 was merely buckling to outside pressure, but Boylan said the hold was because of ongoing management changes. Fox had closed on the deal to buy Channel 13 and nine other local television stations less than a month before the series was set to air.
Fox wanted to wait to air the series until new management was in place and had a chance to review it, he said.
“It clearly was not because of our fear of BGH and Monsanto,” Boylan said. “It was really a story of a team in transition.”
At the time, Akre and Wilson said they were told the story was being held because of Monsanto’s threats. But in efforts to get the story on the air they agreed to do another interview with Monsanto, based in St. Louis.
Yet, things continued to go downhill. Monsanto wanted a written list of questions from the reporters, and they refused to give them, because it’s not standard journalistic practice. Instead, they faxed a list of the general areas in which they were interested. That prompted another letter from the New York Monsanto attorney, this time more tersely written.
“It simply defied credulity that an experienced journalist would expect a representative of any company to go on camera and respond to the vague, undetailed — and for the most part accusatory — points listed by Ms. Akre,” Walsh wrote. “Indeed, some of the points clearly contain the elements of defamatory statements which, if repeated in a broadcast, could lead to serious damage to Monsanto and dire consequences for Fox News.”
What followed was a spring, summer and fall of meetings and sometimes inflammatory faxes that ended in 73 versions of the script.
During that process, things got ugly as evidenced by a letter from Fox attorney Carolyn Forrest to the reporters on April 10, 1997:
“A final publishable version of your story could have been achieved many versions (and weeks) ago if the needed changes had been made by you without rancor, argument and personal attacks on Greg Jones … (Channel 13 assistant news director) Sue Kawalerski and me,” Forrest wrote.
The station and many others involved in the ordeal refused to comment about the details. Boylan says he can’t get into personnel matters. Former News Director Daniel Webster, now at a San Francisco station, and Kawalerski, now in Miami, didn’t respond to interview requests. Current News Director Phil Metlin, who came to the station during the middle of it all, doesn’t want to be quoted. So much of the insight into the news fiasco comes from Wilson and Akre, who are eager to talk and provide the letters and faxes they kept.
On April 16, 1997, Akre and Wilson claim Boylan told them to insert information into the story that they felt was false and misleading. “We paid $3 billion for these television stations,” Akre claims Boylan said. “We will decide what the news is. The news is what we tell you it is.”
Although Boylan can’t exacty recall that conversation, he said that he has uttered things like that in response to employee complaints about differences in Fox policies.
“That’s fairly consistant with what I’ve said a in number of situations where people have said we did it this way in the past. I’ve said, ‘That’s the way it’s being done here now,” Boylan said. “I told Steve and Jane that we bought these stations. These are our rules. We go through our attorney. We have a process of pre-broadcast review.”
Boylan added that he never read the BGH scripts.
He Said, She Said
It’s often been overlooked in the whole media frenzy surrounding the lawsuit exactly what those “lies” were. But here are a few examples given by the reporters:
• The reporters say they were told to include the following Monsanto quote, “The public can be confident that milk and meat from BGH-treated cows is safe to consume.” Monsanto told management its follow-up studies proved this. But reporters pointed out the follow-up stories were done on cows, not people. They say management responded with, “that’s what Monsanto said, so put it in.”
• Lawyers and management were nervous about the mention of cancer relating to BGH and asked for more proof. Reporters gave them full text of the studies they cited. Akre quoted Fox attorney Carolyn Forrest as saying, “We’ve already talked about cancer, I’m not comfortable with it. I’m going to throw my weight around and tell you what to do.” In the final version, cancer was only mentioned in the first part of the series.
• Reporters say they weren’t allowed to rebut Monsanto statements such as: “What they need to know is that the milk hasn’t changed, and that’s the important thing here, the milk hasn’t changed.” Akre said she submitted what she considered ample evidence contradicting that statement but was not allowed to use it.
In the end, even though the reporters said they were made to add Monsanto’s assertions, the resulting series is much more critical of BGH and its potential health risks than it is positive.
It’s confusing why the story never aired, since both sides now say they were basically happy with it.
“That was the script we wanted to do,” Boylan said.
He said the reporters backed away from the story after they were told their contracts weren’t being renewed.
Another person close to the case but who didn’t want to be identified put it more bluntly. “They turned their back. They said ‘we want to start over.’ It was ready to air. This is nuts. Now they have the audacity to put those stories out and this spin.”
Wilson and Akre say management came back to them with a list of more changes, “and we said forget it. For them to say they were happy with it (the series) is demonstrably false. I was willing to compromise. Anything short of letting them write the damn thing, it was not going to fly,” Wilson said.
With that kind of disagreement it’s easy to see why some think the whole thing is just a clash of personalities.
“I can easily see Jane and Steve going head to head with these guys because they are 180 degrees different people,” said Kevin Kalwary, who worked with Akre at Channel 10 and who was Wilson’s and Akre’s predecessor at Channel 13.
Steve Wilson has a reputation of a crusader and in the past has been rewarded for it. While working as a reporter for the syndicated tabloid television show “Inside Edition,” his investigative story about the faulty rear-door latches on Chrysler minivans prompted design changes and won him a National Press Club award. His report on fire hazards in Ford ignition switches resulted in the largest-ever recall of automobiles in the U.S.
But he’s not a soft touch.
Wilson was regarded as a provocateur in Washington, D.C., where he once dogged Sam Donaldson with a camera crew in tow, charging him with hypocrisy for accepting federal subsidies for his New Mexico ranch. Wilson is also the reporter whose attempt to interview Dan Rather ended with Rather saying, “Fuck you.”
His reporting style was called “hounding, harassing, intimidating and frightening” by U.S. District Judge Raymond J. Broderick in Philadelphia, who barred him and “Inside Edition” producer Paul Lewis from videotaping or following U.S. Healthcare Inc. executives Richard and Nancy Wolfson, and members of their family. (WTVT attorney Pat Anderson pointed this out. “This guy has single-handedly done more to push the envelope on electronic newsgathering than any other news reporter,” she said.)
The Wolfson family also filed an invasion of privacy lawsuit against the station, which was settled on the eve of the trial. Wilson said the network show didn’t pay the family a dime.
Wilson said he and Lewis were merely trying to show the lavish lifestyle the HMO board members were living as the HMO was “kicking women out of the hospital while they were having babies. These people (HMO executives) were really raking it in.”
But the measures to which Wilson went to show corporate greed even caused some journalists to cringe. He and Lewis rented a boat, anchored it in the Intracoastal Waterway in front of the Wolfsons’ West Palm Beach home and set up a boom microphone and camera in attempts to catch the Wolfsons on tape.
“I didn’t do anything wrong in that case, and it’s the only time I’ve been to court,” Wilson said. “And it has nothing whatsoever to do with this case. Even if I was possibly that person harassing people, I didn’t do the reporting on this (the BGH story), Jane did.”
True, but it does show Wilson’s tenacity and sometimes overwhelming drive to expose what he feels isn’t right, characteristics that may not have meshed well with the more traditional local newsroom management.
“You’ve got a very smart, experienced, headstrong group here,” Kalwary said. “No one’s going to push Steve Wilson around; nobody’s going to push (news director) Phil Metlin around; nobody’s going to push Greg Jones around.”
Kalwary, who also worked with Jones in reviewing investigative stories, said he didn’t have a problem with the tough standards Jones placed upon his stories. “To put it in I had to prove it. It made my stories better.”
Kalwary got out of the business before the infamous ABC/Food Lion court decision in January 1997, awarding the grocery giant more than $5.5 million even though the reporters could prove their story truthful. It was another blaring reminder to journalists of their unpopularity in American culture, which doesn’t bode well for freedom of the press.
“The Food Lion decision is going to make it harder for investigative reporters,” Black said, adding that it could result in what he calls “lawyering a story to death.”
“You have to make sure it doesn’t get controlled by fear of a lawsuit or it would chill investigative journalism,” Black said. “If it worked that way everyday, no investigative journalism, no editorials, columns would be published or aired. As soon as bullies recognize they can intimidate the free press, it changes the whole system.”
There’s some evidence that may have been the case in the Fox 13 story. The BGH series appears to have been more scrutinized than anything Black said he has seen at the networks.
But, he added, “The stakes were higher.” Monsanto is a powerful company with enough money to keep a news organization in court until their well runs dry.
Boylan is adamant that the station wasn’t dissuaded by Monsanto, pointing to a recent half-hour noon show on Channel 13 with vehement BGH-critic Robert Cohen, author of Milk, the Deadly Poison,as proof of the station’s willingness to take on the issue. Also, the station’s new investigative reporter, Nathan Lang, is on the BGH trail, and his story is expected to air within the next month, Boylan said.
The station’s attorney, Anderson, said the current legal climate makes it only prudent to review a story that’s being questioned, such as Akre’s and Wilson’s was. But she reiterated that ultimately the story didn’t run because of the reporters’ unwillingness to stop being “advocates.”
Anderson also said First Amendment issues are at stake in this case, but they have more to do with Fox 13. In the station’s motion to dismiss the reporter’s breach of contract and whistleblower lawsuit, Anderson argued that if the case goes to trial it will violate the station’s First Amendment rights.
“This lawsuit is an invitation for the court to encroach in a big way on press freedoms,” she warned.
Anderson said the court shouldn’t be determining word choice, editing, tone and other matters of editorial discretion that are at the heart of the reporter’s complaint.
Black agreed, suggesting that such matters be mediated by a local news council. Tampa Bay doesn’t currently have one, but one is being organized.
And last, but not least, there are those who fear this case may be emblematic of the evils of corporate media ownership, a hot topic in the age of media consolidation. A 1997 Roper survey showed that 88 percent of Americans questioned said they believed corporate owners improperly influence the news.
Adding fuel to the local fire is that right-wing billionaire Rupert Murdoch owns WTVT, and he’s about as popular in this country as journalists.
Murdoch also owns, among other things, the public relations firm Actmedia, which does in-store marketing through the use of coupon dispensers, cart ads and free samples. NutraSweet, a subsidiary of Monsanto, is one of Actmedia’s bigger clients.
Anderson chuckled at the suggestion that the BGH story was impacted by Murdoch or any other his other businesses. The Monsanto letters were never answered, and Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes is not even known to have read the letters Monsanto wrote to him, she said.
“That’s a delusion of grandeur on the reporter’s part,” Anderson said. “This isn’t the Pentagon Papers.”
Nevertheless, corporate pressure can be a subtle, unspoken thing, said John McManus, a journalism professor at St. Mary’s College in California and author of a book about corporate pressures in local television news, Market Driven Journalism: Let the Citizen Beware.
“Murdoch doesn’t have to be a part of it” for it to be corporate pressure, McManus said. “Any management trying to curry favor with Murdoch, might say that this would be enough to raise an eyebrow, and they would rather play it safe.”
Wilson is writing an article about the controversy for The Nation magazine as part of its upcoming package on the dangers associated with the media being so tightly held by a few corporations and individuals such as Murdoch. It’s the old David and Goliath story, with corporate powers being Goliath and the average person being David in the war for objective information.
But, in effect, Wilson and Akre have already found a novel way to overcome censorship, corporate or local.
“We’re all Goliaths now,” Black said. “All we have to do is put up a Web site.”
NO PULLQUOTES, USE FACTOID BOXES
Monsanto isn’t just tinkering with bovine genetics. Earlier this month the St. Louis corporation agreed to pay an estimated $4.4 billion for two of the nation’s largest seed companies, making Monsanto the dominant developer of genetically engineered crops.
Monsanto, with more than $11.2 billion in assets, last year split off its chemical division into a company called Solutia. However, Monsanto still develops products such as Round-Up, a herbicide.