ˇ August 18, 2000:
VICTORY IN COURT!
Full coverage of the jury's decision in the Fox/BGH suit
ˇ August 5, 2000:
ˇ July 27, 2000:
Trial Coverage: Days 8-9
Startling Admission from Fox
V-P Who Fired Wilson/Akre
ˇ July 26, 2000:
Trial Coverage: Day 7
V-P News Lays Claim To
ˇ July 24, 2000:
Trial Coverage: Day 6
Second week of trial begins
ˇ July 21, 2000:
Trial Coverage: Day 5
Week one ends with a bang;
Fox seeks mistrial, Judge
ˇ July 20, 2000:
Trial Coverage: Days 3 and 4
ˇ July 18, 2000:
Trial Coverage: Day 2
ˇ July 17, 2000:
Trial Coverage: Day 1
ˇ July 14, 2000:
Justice For Sale In Tampa?
Finally at the courthouse,
litigants can't afford to use
the courtroom facilities
ˇ July 12, 2000:
Fox Loses Key Motion; Jury
Plaintiffs do not have to
prove Fox guilty of violating Communications Act
ˇ July 8, 2000:
Potential Landmine Could
Derail Entire Case
ˇ June 30, 2000:
Judge Steinberg Ready To
Get Case Back On Track
ˇ June 26, 2000:
Judge Says 'No' to Hearing Wilson/Akre v Fox Case
ˇ June 21, 2000:
Judge To Hear Fox/BGH Case While Foxes Dishes More Distortion To WTVT Tampa
ˇ June 16, 2000:
Date Pushed Back Again; New Judge To Be Selected
ˇ June 8, 2000:
Manager Who Fired Akre and Wilson In Tampa Gets Big Promotion
David Boylan Flies Into The Sunset to Manage KTTV, Los Angeles
ˇ June 6, 2000:
Will Start Sooner Than Expected
It will proceed in the heat of the summer, probably in July
ˇ May 25, 2000:
Will Not Start June 12 as Scheduled
ˇ May 18, 2000:
Stalls on Testimony of Its president Mitchell Stern
Pre-trial hearing is otherwise uneventful
Testifies About Broadcasters' Public Interest Requirement
Presidential candidate gives testimony at pre-trial depo
ˇ May 5, 2000:
Court-ordered Mediation Is Brief and
Trial set to begin June 12
ˇ April 28,2000:
Fox Challenges rBGH
Experts At Depositions
Fox lawyers laying ground-
work to tell jurors experts are cancer scaremongers?
ˇ April 26,2000:
Testifies on Behalf of Akre & Wilson
Fox lawyers lodge objections
ˇ October 19:
Fox Lawyers Insist On Secrecy At Deposition
French TV Ejected
ˇ October 18:
FDA Wants Comments on G-M Foods
Public Meetings Start in November
ˇ October 13:
Judge Rules: Trial Will Proceed:
Defense loses third effort to have case dismissed
ˇ September 24:
Gene-modified foods might get labels:
Industry weighs voluntary steps, U.S. studies options as well
ˇ September 20:
Trial Still Set to Start Soon:
Busy Docket Delays foxBGHsuit
ˇ August 4:
Will the fight over gene-altered food products leapfrog across the Atlantic?
ˇ June 30:
UN Health Group Shuns BGH
ˇ June 1:
New York Times:
Farmers’ Right To Sue Grows - Food Warning Muzzle Likely
ˇ May 10:
Corporate Crime Reporter:
Monsanto Officials Join Leading Consumer, Environmental Groups
ˇ May 3:
Fox Deceives Viewers in Primetime,
Net Admits Staging after INSIDE EDITION Report
ˇ April 30:
Democracy Group Award to
Fired Reporters Cited for "Courage in Journalism"
ˇ April 29:
New Trial Date is October
Fox Piles On Big-Name Lawyers
ˇ April 17:
Clinton Lawyer Joins Fox
David Kendall Involvement Confirmed in Letter to Monsanto
ˇ April 16:
Fox Pleads for Another Delay
Later Trial Date to be Set April 29th
ˇ April 1:
Judge Says BGH Case Will
Go To Trial
Opening Gavel Falls May 10th
ˇ February 16:
PENTHOUSE Exposes BGH,
First-rate story of BGH situation and lawsuit against Fox TV
(rated G -- no nudity, just the story)
ˇ January 25:
Summary of BGH Developments
ˇ January 14:
How Fox Wanted to Slant News
of Canadian Concerns
Canadian BGH Concerns Were Big Issue In Firing of Fox Reporters
ˇ January 14:
Canada Says NO to BGH!
Read the CBC Story or
ˇ January 14:
Health Canada Rejects Bovine Growth Hormone in Canada
Government News Release
ˇ December 16:
Akre & Wilson Win Courage
For Work On Story Which Cost Them Their Jobs
ˇ December 15:
ABC NEWS Catches Up on BGH
Read the ABC Story or
ˇ November 7:
FOX Legal (8/28) Answers
to Reporters' Complaint Now Available
ˇ November 1:
and Fox: Partners in Censorship
PR Watch - Showcase Article
ˇ October 30:
Canadians Probe Coverup Claim
Read CBC Story or
ˇ October 24:
Reporters Get Top SPJ Ethics
ˇ October 22:
BGH Issue Explodes in Canada:
Read CBC Story or
ˇ October 7:
SECRET Canadian Study Leaked...
...BGH safety questions unanswered?
ˇ Sept 13:
Akre-Wilson Depos Start
ˇ Sept 10:
SP Times covers NutraSweet flap
ˇ Sept 10:
Our Story: Fox Still Protecting
ˇ Sept 8:
Fox Pulls Plug on NutraSweet
ˇ Sept 1:
Reporters Respond To Defense
story FOX-TV refused to air...
ˇ July 14:
Judge refuses to dismiss
all but one count of reporters' suit
ˇ July 5:
Digger Still Plays Dirty
ˇ July 1:
Depositions Continue, Trial Date
ˇ June 7:
Akre/Wilson Preparing FCC Complaint
ˇ May 26:
Judge rejects Defense motion
for Protective Order
ˇ May 25:
Grazing A Stink
- - -Don't Have a Cow
ˇ May 23:
NEW YORK TIMES:
(Silenced) Reporters... Post Web Site
ˇ May 21:
Wilson/Akre demand on-air correction
ˇ April 29:
FOX-TV asks court:
and Delay depositions
We Distort, You Decide
FOX CONTINUES NEWS DISTORTION AFTER LOSS
News and Comment
By STEVE WILSON
It ought to be a lesson plan for every journalism educator in
You'd think any
self-respecting news organization just slapped with a $425,000 jury
verdict based on a finding that its managers and lawyers acted
intentionally and deliberately to falsify or distort a series of
investigative reports would show a little humility, if not remorse.
But a jury verdict
against Fox Television and in favor of a TV reporter who was fired
for threatening to blow the whistle to the FCC has prompted Rupert
Murdoch's Media Empire to not only misstate the jury's findings but
to crow to anyone who will listen that the decision completely
vindicates its good name and reputation.
One of Williams & Connolly's Best?
the kind of spin you’d expect when a defendant has the bottomless
pockets to hire the likes of Williams & Connolly. You'll
recall it was defense lawyers from that Washington firm that managed
to help President Clinton hold onto his job largely by explaining
away his misconduct and clarifying the definition of the word
It’s also the kind of spin most of us are used to from
companies that get caught polluting our environment or knowingly
selling products that kill. But
when it's a news organization stretching the truth about something
as fundamentally shameful as getting caught violating the public
trust by pressuring a reporter to lie on the air, and then the same
news organization insists on distorting the news about its own
misconduct, somebody somewhere in journalism ought to pay attention
and have the courage to speak up.
If you’re new to this saga, here’s a quick catch-up:
Fox-owned WTVT in Tampa decided in 1996 that it needed to
“up the profile” of its investigative reporting unit.
Station officials recruited and hired Jane Akre and Steve
Wilson, an award-winning husband-and-wife team with nearly 50 years
of broadcast news experience between them at places like CBS in New
York, ABC in San Francisco, and CNN in Atlanta.
The station told the journalists to go out and produce
hard-hitting, 60 Minutes-style inves-
tigative reporting. Expensive
were produced showing
|a team that looked like the Mod Squad, walking down a
dark, smoke-filled alley while a deep baritone voice made viewers a
Investigators: uncovering the truth, getting results, protecting
managers made a promise to the journalists, too.
They promised the reporters that when their stories generated
the inevitable heat and pressure from the subjects of their
investigative reports, station managers would stand up and support
them and ultimately broadcast the truth.
They promised that the people and companies who would
threaten to sue or cancel their advertising would never force
the station back down and pull the stories, or edit the heart of
But when Akre
discovered that virtually all of the milk in Florida (and throughout
much of the nation) has been affected by the secret use of a
controversial bovine growth hormone linked to cancer, everything
changed after Fox News chief Roger Ailes received two toughly-worded
from Monsanto, the hormone maker.
One of the letters predicted “dire consequences” if
Akre’s story were broadcast.
What followed, according to testimony in the five-week-long
trial that ended this summer (August 18) in Tampa, was an effort by
to enlist the reporters help in covering up the story
after Monsanto applied pressure (the reporters refused)
a threat from the station manager who told both
journalists they would be fired in 48 hours if they would not go
along with the station’s desire to either bury the story or edit
it in a way to appease Monsanto (the reporters said they’d report
such misconduct to the FCC)
a six-figure cash offer from the station manager to
entice the journalists to drop their ethical objections and the
story the way Monsanto preferred to have it reported (the reporters
declined, after getting the Fox offer in writing)
a nine-month process in which station managers and
lawyers ordered the reporters to re-write the story 83 times, none
of which was ever acceptable for broadcast
a three-week lockout and suspension without pay,
unless the reporters would continue to work and provide a script
exactly as the lawyers dictated (the reporters provided such a
script, noted why it was inaccurate and slanted—and also provided
a second version which reflected the truth as the journalists
understood and documented it...Fox never interrupted the reporters'
dismissal of both reporters “for no cause” just
before Christmas 1997
When a Fox attorney provided written
acknowledgement to the reporters that they were fired for their
refusal to broadcast the story the way they were told, the two filed
suit seeking protection under Florida’s
Whistleblower law. (As in many states,
Florida protects workers who are fired either for refusing to
participate in an activity that is against the law, or for
threatening to report such activity to a government agency.)
CAROLYN Y. FORREST
SHOWED FOX'S TRUE MOTIVE FOR FIRINGS
After sifting through the evidence for more than a month,
the three-man, three-woman jury deliberated six hours (on August
18, 2000) before concluding that Akre was terminated solely for
her threat to alert the FCC about Fox’s misconduct in
deliberately pressuring her to broadcast a false or distorted news
The jury did not sustain Wilson’s complaint, probably
because Fox raised other issues as possible reasons for his
attorneys argued to the jury, for instance, that his research and
discussion of the story on the Internet violated the
confidentiality provisions of his contract.
The jury instructions clearly stated that the sole reason
for dismissal had to be retaliation for whistleblower-protected
employee may not recover in any action brought under the private
whistleblower statute if the retaliatory personnel action was
predicated upon a ground other than the employer’s exercise of a
right protected by the Whistleblower statute,” as
is written on Page
12 of the jury instructions
The same instructions—all
32 pages of them—clearly set forth the standard of proof
that was required in order for either of the plaintiffs to prevail
with their claim.
For instance, on page
5, the jury was instructed:
“…proof of a
violation (of Florida’s Whistleblower law) requires that the
Plaintiffs establish that WTVT’s station or news management
acted intentionally and deliberately to falsify or distort the
Plaintiff’s news report on BGH.
In addition, the alleged falsification or distortion must
have involved a significant event or a matter that affected the
basic accuracy of the news report and not merely a minor or
incidental aspect of the report.”
The instructions went on to explain (on Page
9, heading reads Florida Private Whistleblower
plaintiff’s claim of retaliatory personnel action in violation
of Florida (Whistleblower law), each plaintiff has the burden of
proving each and every one of the three elements…”
then set forth the first element that each plaintiff must prove:
A) that he or she threatened to blow the whistle to the FCC about
the unlawful editing, “and,
or in the alternative, that B) he or she objected to or refused to
participate in the unlawful slanting or distortion in connection
with the editing of the BGH story.
11, the second element was that each plaintiff must prove he
or she had a reasonable good-faith belief that Fox’s conduct in
connection with the editing was in violation of the FCC’s
prohibition against deliberate falsification or distortion of the
And the third element, as specified on Page
12, was that each plaintiff must prove that the station took
retaliatory personnel action because of the reporter’s threat to
disclose AND/OR because the reporter objected to pr refused to
participate in the editing which the reporter had a reasonable,
good-faith belief that such editing amount to deliberate
distortion or falsification of the news if the story were
And then, on Page
15 of the instructions, under the heading “Florida
Private Whistleblower Statute—Burden of Proof,” the jury
you find that the plaintiff has established all the elements of
his or her claim by the greater weight of the evidence, then your
verdict in this claim should be for the plaintiff.
If, on the other hand, you find that the plaintiff has
failed to establish at least one of the other elements of his or
her claim, by the greater weight of the evidence, then your
verdict on this claim should be for the defendant.”
To say that the Fox defense attorneys were stunned by the
jury’s finding and the award of nearly half-a-million dollars in
damages could be the understatement of the year.
DISTORT, YOU DECIDE?
Within an hour, on the defendant station’s six o’clock
news, WTVT, Fox 13 reported its loss with what could only be
described as accuracy and grace.
“A court battle involving Fox 13 and two former employees
is over tonight,” read Fox Anchor Kelly Ring in the third story of
“Just a short time ago a jury in Tampa awarded former Fox
13 anchor Jane Akre over $400,000 in damages,” she continued.
“Fox 13 management fired Akre back in 1997 and the jury
found the station violated the states whistleblower law when they
“Steve Wilson, Akre’s husband was also part of the
lawsuit but the jury found Fox 13 did nothing wrong when he was
fired that same year.” And
that was it. A
20-second story, a quick V-O (voice-over) in the parlance of TV
But by the time the station’s 10 p.m. newscast took to the
air, it was literally a whole different
By now, somebody decided to play the news way down in the
broadcast. It was no
longer the third item, now it was buried in the second half-hour.
When it was broadcast
about 10:32 p.m., you could almost see the handprints of the
station’s managers and its Washington lawyers, as well as
the corporate spin doctors as you watched an entirely
different version of the news.
A Different Story
at 10 p.m.
Kelly Ring, the same friendly, credible and competent anchorwoman
who read the early news was now, suddenly, not so clear about what
happened in court.
“The Hillsborough County jury
took nearly six hours to return the verdict in the case,”
she reported to the late news audience.
“Jane Akre and Steve Wilson sued Fox 13 saying the station
fired them in violation of Florida’s whistleblower law.
The married couple says they were fired for refusing to lie
in stories about artificial bovine growth hormone.”
And despite the fact that the news is now about what
the jury has decided after hearing the evidence for more than
a month, Ring reads what has been put in front of her and her her
TelePrompTer—another denial of any wrongdoing by the station:
“WTVT’s management denies the allegations and says the
couple was fired legally in accordance with their employment
contracts.” Then, she introduces
a packaged report from the field and the reporter who has covered
the case gavel-to-gavel for five weeks. Her story runs less
than two minutes and is a puzzle for the viewer.
“The jury decided that WTVT did not violate Florida’s
so-called whistleblower law when the station fired Steve Wilson,”
the station’s correspondent reported.
“However, the jury found in favor of part of Jane Akre’s
claim. The jury agreed with Akre that WTVT fired her for a threat
she made to the station.”
In a business
where you only get a couple of minutes to state the facts as clearly
and unambiguously as you can, this is entirely clear, is it
not? The jury found in
favor of part of Akre’s claim?
Remember, Akre’s claim was simple: Fox violated the Florida
state Whistleblower law when they fired her.
It was, after all, just that simple at 6 p.m. wasn’t it?
A few moments later: “Fox 13 representatives say the jury
through its verdict clearly stated that the station did not
tell Akre and Wilson to falsify and distort the news through their
“They also say the one part of Akre’s claim the jury
found against WTVT doesn’t deal with news distortion at all,”
the station’s freelance journalist reports.
to do with distortion"
And then, a young Fox lawyer just six years out of law school,
stationed in the courtroom to monitor the proceedings for Fox's CEO
who refused to take the stand, 30-year-old Ted Russell looks
into a camera and says, “That is a separate issue having to do
with threats to go to the FCC.
That does not have to do with distortion of the news.
It does not have to do with falsification of the news.”
Excuse me? They awarded
money because Akre wanted to complain about the color of her Fox
dressing room, or some other concern unrelated to the falsification
and distortion of the news?
Was this guy at the same
trial? Does his copy
of the jury instructions not say: “…proof of a violation (of
Florida’s Whistleblower law) requires that the Plaintiffs
establish that WTVT’s station or news management acted
intentionally and deliberately to falsify or distort the
Plaintiff’s news report on BGH”?
Well, he is a lawyer, after all.
And what reporter who has ever covered a trial expects the
unvarnished truth from all lawyers, especially those whose clients
have just been found guilty? But
a few moments later, it’s the Fox V-P of News, Phillip Metlin, on
wonderful day for Fox 13
...We are professionals"
Now here’s a newsman,
a professional journalist,
someone committed to telling the truth, even if it hurts.
And what does Mr. Metlin tell Fox viewers when he
looks into the camera?
think today is a wonderful day for Fox 13 because I think we are
completely vindicated on the finding of this jury that we do not
distort news, we do not lie about the
news, we do not slant the news, we are
In all fairness, the
station did broadcast one clip of an interview with me in which I
characterized what the jury meant by it’s verdict:
“They’re saying that this company knew what it was doing,
that this company knew it was slanting and distorting the news and
when she threatened to go to the government and to blow the whistle
on that, they fired her.”
About the best
thing you could say for the coverage on Fox’s own station: at
least they aired it. Other
stations in town ignored the trial altogether.
Compare the early and
late news stories yourself. You decide.
could read jury instructions could tell that damage-control
statements made by Fox officials were not consistent with the truth.
But here's another important point: Are viewers served with this
kind of “he-said, she-said” journalism?
Is it up to the viewer (who doesn’t have the
instructions) to sort all that out? To guess at the facts?
Aren’t Fox journalists allowed to
investigate anything anymore?
To look at the facts and state them as they are, without
merely grabbing a soundbite from each side and leaving it up to the
viewer to decide matters of fact?
Letting each side air its opinions are one thing a
journalist is surely obligated to do…but who will report the facts
so the viewers can put those opinions into some sort of perspective?
A Week Later:
A week after the
verdict, the station was sending its own news
release to anyone who asked.
“Jury Vindicates WTVT,” its headline reads.
“The jury’s verdict vindicates the station’s good name
and reputation,” it says.
And, sadly, a lot of other reporters and publications
appeared to be buying their brethren’s slant on the news, many
without even bother to call the other side for a comment or
documents which refute those claims.
A reporter for the trade paper Electronic Media
said they were going to write two or three lines and let it go at
that. A reporter for Broadcasting
indicated Fox was spinning his ears off and he wasn’t sure who to
Then, on the one-week anniversary of the jury’s decision,
Fox’s Russell was at it again, this time on radio in Tampa.
By now, Rusell was telling WMNF Radio news director Rob Lorei
that “the judge went the Whistleblower claim to the jury with
four separate issues…and the station prevailed on three of
those four issues.”
The truth, of course, is that there was one issue, an identical
issue for two defendants, Jane Akre and Steve Wilson.
(Akre/Wilson segment begins 11:35 in)
|The issue was simple: Did Fox violate Florida’s
Whistleblower law when it fired these two journalists?
Remember those jury
find that they did, the jurors had to find that each reporter was
fired solely for A) refusing to participate in an activity which
would violate a law (in this case the unlawful editing of a news
story so as to leave it false and distorted), AND/OR,
B) for threatening to blow the whistle to the FCC about a news story
which the jury believed was “false, distorted or slanted.”
One issue, identical to both claims. And written exactly the
same (except for the Plaintiff’s names) on each of two jury
verdict forms. Yes to Question A, Yes to Question B.
Yes to BOTH is okay, too, but either A or B have to be true
and the jury decided in Jane’s case B was true.
(Observers have suggested jurors could not have found A to
also be true because she never refused to participate in the
process—she wrote the story 83 times!)
“This was a situation which we showed in five weeks of
testimony did not involve lies, it did not involve news distortion,
did not involve slanting, and that’s what the jury found after
listening to these claims for five weeks,” Russell told WMNF
listeners in a recorded
interview aired during an hour in which Akre and I appeared live
on the air.
On the day following the
WMNF broadcast, even media critic Howard Kurtz was swallowing the
Fox spin on the CNN broadcast Reliable Sources. Despite the
fact Akre even sent copies of the jury instructions to a Kurtz
producer, the story that aired falsely reported that the jury didn't
but the Akre/Wilson claim that Fox slanted the story in response to
Monsanto's pressure. (see Mainstream
Media Coverage for more on this.)
Apparently media folks
tend to believe other media folks, even when the facts contradict
what they say.
“This was a case that
involved editorial judgment and editorial input, the same type of
input that journalists take every day from editors…” Russell
said at the conclusion of his radio interview the other day. .
And he may be right. It may happen everyday at Fox-owned
We had a witness prepared to testify that his report on the
indoor use of the insecticide Dursban was sent to Dow Chemical
lawyers when they complained to Fox as the story was about to be
That reporter says Dow got a chance to edit his story before
passing it to Fox lawyers who then passed it back to him to make
changes he knew and documented to be false and misleading.
Facing the same ultimatum they gave Akre and me, he aired the
story and left the station in disgust not long after.
Oh, and did I mention that after Dow refused to respond to
the reporter’s questions, they were allowed to shoot their own
response which was aired by Fox unedited except for a comment or two
critical of the Fox investigative reporter?
If this is happening every day at newsrooms throughout this
country, somebody ought to raising a stink we could smell
In the meantime, maybe journalism schools and ethics
think-tanks like the ones that have ignored this whole story for so
long, ought to consider giving it a thorough airing.
No matter where they ultimately come down on this particular
case, surely it deserves some
thought and attention before nobody believes a thing any one
of us reports for any newspaper or broadcast station anywhere.
HERE to return to coverage of courtroom "Victory"]