FOCUS ON THE CORPORATION: 17 APRIL 1998

The More You Watch, the Less You Know


Here's another reason not to watch television: corporate media conglomerates are getting rid of the few remaining aggressive television investigative reporters.
Last year, two such reporters, Jane Akre and Steve Wilson, were added to the list of road kill on the television superhighway when they were fired from the Fox Television affiliate in Tampa, Florida (WTVT).
In a lawsuit filed against the station earlier this month, Akre and Wilson alleged that Fox executives ordered them to broadcast lies about Monsanto's controversial bovine growth hormone (BGH) now being used by many of the nation's dairy farmers.
The journalists say they were fired from Fox-owned station in Tampa (WTVT) after completing a four-part series on BGH in the Florida milk supply.
The series alleged, among other things, that supermarkets in Florida have been selling milk from cows injected with BGH, despite promises by those supermarkets that they would not buy milk from treated cows until the hormone gained widespread public acceptance.
BGH was approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1993 over the objections of independent scientists who contend that use of the hormone poses health risks to milk drinkers. Such concerns have led the European Union, Australia, and New Zealand to prohibit use of BGH in cows.
Wilson says that just prior to the first scheduled air date (February 24, 1997), Monsanto's outside libel attorney sent a threatening letter to Roger Ailes, president of Fox Network News.
As a result of that letter, the series was postponed, and Wilson and Akre agreed to go back to Monsanto to give the company another chance to respond to the allegations in the story.
This drew another letter from Monsanto's lawyer. From then on, things went sour between the reporters and their bosses. Wilson says the letters were the beginning of a successful campaign by Monsanto to kill the story.
A meeting was held at the station March 5, 1997 to discuss the issue, but Wilson and Akre were not invited.
"After that, the script was reworked," Wilson says. "Changes were ordered in the script. We were essentially presented with an order to run the script in the altered fashion that Fox lawyers suddenly thought was the way to tell the story."
Wilson says that Fox first threatened to fire them when they refused to broadcast what Wilson and Akre considered to be false and misleading information.
According to Wilson, on April 16, 1997, WTVT's vice president and general manager, David Boylan, told Wilson and Akre "you will either broadcast this story the way we are telling you to broadcast it, or we will fire you in 48 hours."
Unlike many of their supine brethren within the industry, Wilson and Akre stood up to the corporate bosses. Wilson told Boylan, "If you fire us for refusing to broadcast this information that we have already documented to you is false and misleading, if you do that, we will go directly to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and file a complaint. You cannot knowingly broadcast news which you know to be false and misleading."
After threatening to go to the FCC, the station responded by offering about $200,000 to the reporters if they would agree to a gag order.
Wilson and Akre refused and were then assigned to re-write the story 73 times over the course of the remaining nine months on their contract. At least six air dates were set and cancelled by the station. They were fired on December 2, 1997.
In the lawsuit filed against the station, Wilson and Akre allege that the station violated the state's whistleblower statute by firing them after they threatened to report wrongdoing to federal authorities.
In a two-page statement, WTVT said that it "ended the employment of the Wilson/Akre team when it became apparent that their journalistic differences could not be resolved despite the station's extraordinary efforts to complete this story."
The station also denied offering a "hush money" payment to the two reporters.
Wilson was having none of the station's explanation.
"We set out to tell Florida consumers the truth a giant chemical company and a powerful dairy lobby clearly doesn't want them to know," Wilson said. "That used to be something investigative reporters won awards for. Sadly, as we've learned the hard way, it's something you can be fired for these days whenever a news organization places more value on its bottom line than on delivering the news to its viewers honestly."


Russell Mokhiber is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Corporate Crime Reporter.
Robert Weissman is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based
Multinational Monitor.

COPYRIGHT © RUSSELL MOKHIBER AND ROBERT WEISSMAN

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