Whistleblower Count Re-Instated;
Fox Answers Suit With Denials,
Affirmative Defenses to Reporters' Claims
By STEVE WILSON
TAMPA (September 1, 1998)--Clarifying what the defendants claimed was a technical deficiency in the pleadings, plaintiffs in the suit against Fox Television have re-instated their whistleblower count and received an answer to the lawsuit they filed April 2.
In a 36-page document a Fox attorney mailed to the plaintiffs August 28, Fox-owned WTVT denies the claims of the two investigative reporters it fired late last year and asserts 19 affirmative defenses.
This reporter and investigative reporter/anchor Jane Akre, a husband-wife investigative reporting team recruited and hired by Fox in the Fall of 1996, are suing the broadcaster. Their complaint charges they were fired for refusing to broadcast news reports they new and documented to be false or misleading about a controversial bovine growth hormone which they discovered being used on much of Florida's dairy herd.
Fox's response to the suit claims the journalists produced biased and one-sided reports, turned them in late, and failed to perform professionally…all this despite a superhuman effort by Fox news managers and lawyers who only wanted to make the BGH reports fair, balanced, and accurate.
Fox also claims in its response that its only reasons for firing the two was their "contentious, argumentative, ad hominem, and vituperative conduct and their refusal to abide by Defendant's established policies and procedures."
"Contentious and argumentative?" reporter Akre responded to the claim. "Just what is the proper response when a reporter is ordered to deliberately and knowingly lie or distort the truth in a news broadcast to the public?
"Every journalist has a moral and ethical responsibility to tell the truth as he or she knows it. And when you're using the public airwaves to broadcast your reports, it is a legal requirement. When Fox threatened to fire us for upholding those basic principals, we believed we had a clear legal and moral duty to resist their directions to break the law and violate the public trust," she added.
The document is frequently contemptuous in tone, attacking the journalists' professional capabilities. It claims the plaintiffs' refusal to be edited or adhere to Fox journalistic standards makes them "unsuitable for reporting jobs" of any kind.
The reply also says when plaintiff Akre was removed from her weekend anchor duties, her more-suitable replacement generated even higher ratings and when Akre was assigned to general reporting duties, she performed in an unsatisfactory manner.
"These people have already proven themselves to be serial liars," Akre said. "My ratings were high and growing higher when the decision was made to violate my contract, assign me to cover non-stories like vandalism at an abandoned house and misrepresent it as an important investigative story, and ultimately terminate my anchor duties," Akre said.
"My reports about speeding cops was praised by managers who loved it so much they ran it two or three times," she continued. "In a lawsuit, people can understand f these charges were made outside the protection Only in official court papers like these
The testimony also cites "a history of employment termination and difficult working relationships" during both reporters' careers, a claim the two insist is unsupportable.
There is no mention in the defendant's response about why two truly "unsuitable" reporters would have been hired in the first place, kept working for an entire year, or offered news consulting contracts for six figures in exchange for keeping quiet about their story and experiences at Fox Television.
In sworn testimony in June, former WTVT news director Daniel Webster indicated Wilson and Akre were recruited and hired because of their reputations as good, aggressive reporters. He testified there was a definite decrease in commitment to hard-hitting investigative reporting at the station once Fox took control early last year.
"Steve and I are both confident the jury will see these personal attacks for exactly what they are, efforts by a desperate defendant who has little legitimate defense for what they've done," Akre added.