Fox Vows To Appeal

Fox Lawyers Say They Will Move To Have The Jury Verdict Set Aside

Report Archive:

ˇ August 18, 2000:
Full coverage of the jury's decision in the Fox/BGH suit

ˇ August 5, 2000:
Guest Editorial

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
Insanity Defense

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
says no

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
Is Seated

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:
Another Judge Says 'No' to Hearing Wilson/Akre v Fox Case

ˇ June 21, 2000:
Still No Judge To Hear Fox/BGH Case While Foxes Dishes More Distortion To WTVT Tampa Viewers

ˇ June 16, 2000:
Trial Date Pushed Back Again; New Judge To Be Selected

ˇ June 8, 2000:
Fox  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:
Fox Trial Will Start Sooner Than Expected
It will proceed in the heat of the summer, probably in July

ˇ May 25, 2000:
Fox Trial Will Not Start June 12 as Scheduled

ˇ May 18, 2000:
Fox Still Stalls on Testimony of Its president Mitchell Stern
Pre-trial hearing is otherwise uneventful

ˇ May 8, 2000:
Ralph Nader Testifies About Broadcasters' Public Interest Requirement
Presidential candidate gives testimony at pre-trial depo 

ˇ May 5, 2000:
Court-ordered Mediation Is Brief and Unsuccessful
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:
Walter Cronkite 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:
MSNBC: 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:
MSNBC: Mutable Feast:
Will the fight over gene-altered food products leapfrog across the Atlantic?

ˇ June 30:
Consumers International:
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, Too
Net Admits Staging after INSIDE EDITION Report

ˇ April 30:
Democracy Group Award to Akre/Wilson
Fired Reporters Cited for "Courage in Journalism"

ˇ April 29:
New Trial Date is October 11
Fox Piles On Big-Name Lawyers

ˇ April 17:
Clinton Lawyer Joins Fox Legal Team
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, Fox Coverup:
First-rate story of BGH situation and lawsuit against Fox TV (rated G -- no nudity, just the story)

ˇ January 25:
ENS 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 View-Listen to report with RealPlayer

ˇ January 14:
Health Canada Rejects Bovine Growth Hormone in Canada
Government News Release

ˇ December 16:
Akre & Wilson Win Courage Award
For Work On Story Which Cost Them Their Jobs

ˇ December 15:
ABC NEWS Catches Up on BGH
Read the ABC Story or View-Listen to report with RealPlayer

ˇ November 7:
FOX Legal (8/28) Answers
to Reporters' Complaint Now Available

ˇ November 1:
Monsanto and Fox: Partners in Censorship
PR Watch - Showcase Article

ˇ October 30:
Canadians Probe Coverup Claim
Read CBC Story or View-Listen to report with RealPlayer

ˇ October 24:
Reporters Get Top SPJ Ethics Award

ˇ October 22:
BGH Issue Explodes in Canada:
Read CBC Story or View-Listen to report with RealPlayer

ˇ October 7:
SECRET Canadian Study Leaked...
...BGH safety questions unanswered?

ˇ Sept 13:
Akre-Wilson Depos Start

ˇ Sept 10:
TIMES/St. Petersburg
SP Times covers NutraSweet flap

ˇ Sept 10:
Our Story: Fox Still Protecting Monsanto?

ˇ Sept 8:
Fox Pulls Plug on NutraSweet Foe

ˇ Sept 1:
Reporters Respond To Defense

ˇ READ story FOX-TV refused to air...
or View-Listen to report with RealPlayer

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 Set

ˇ June 7:
TIMES/St. Petersburg
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:
(Silenced) Reporters... Post Web Site

ˇ May 21:
Wilson/Akre demand on-air correction

ˇ April 29:
FOX-TV asks court:
Dismiss case and Delay depositions

We Distort, You Decide
                                              News and Comment
                                                 By STEVE WILSON
        It ought to be a lesson plan for every journalism educator in America.
        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?
        It’s 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 “is.”
        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 new commercials 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 promise:  “The Investigators: uncovering the truth, getting results, protecting you!"
        Fox 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 them.       
         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 threat letters 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 Fox managers

·        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' pay)

·        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.)

The Jury Speaks

     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 report.
        The jury did not sustain Wilson’s complaint, probably because Fox raised other issues as possible reasons for his termination.  Defense 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 activity.  “An 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 Statute—Elements)
        "On the 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…”
        Page 10 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.
        On Page 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 news.
        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 broadcast.       
And then, on Page 15 of the instructions, under the heading “Florida Private Whistleblower Statute—Burden of Proof,” the jury was instructed:
“If 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.

        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 the newscast.
        “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 did it.
        “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 news.
        But by the time the station’s 10 p.m. newscast took to the air, it was literally a whole different story.
        By now, somebody decided to play the news way down in the broadcastIt 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 BGH story.
       “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.

"Nothing 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 the screen.   

"It's a 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?    
“…I 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 professionals.”
        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.
Anyone who 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: Still Spinning

        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 believe.
        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.

 Listen To Interview
Requires RealPlayer
(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 instructions?  To 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.

It Happens Every Day?

          “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 television stations.
        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 aired.
        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 from coast-to-coast.
        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.

[CLICK HERE to return to coverage of courtroom "Victory"]


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