FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Thursday, September 10, 1998

 

For more information, contact:
Jane Akre or Steve Wilson (727) 799-7559
Steve Wenzel, Attorney (813) 224-0431
Mary Nash Stoddard (214) 352-4268

The abrupt and unexplained cancellation of a news broadcast earlier this week about the suspected dangers of America’s most popular artificial sweetener has prompted subpoenas for a WTVT anchorwoman and two Fox news producers at the network’s Tampa station.

Former Fox investigative reporters Jane Akre and Steve Wilson say they suspect the cancelled interview is yet another example of Fox television stations refusing to broadcast news reports critical of the Monsanto company, maker of NutraSweet.

The network is presently fighting a lawsuit filed earlier this year by Akre and Wilson who charge they were fired by Fox for refusing orders to broadcast false and misleading stories about another controversial Monsanto product, a synthetic bovine growth hormone linked to cancer. According to the complaint filed by the veteran journalists, their investigative reports about BGH had been well promoted and scheduled to air until Fox News chief Roger Ailes received a letter from a Monsanto attorney and the story was pulled on the virtual eve of the broadcast.

The subpoenas were served at Channel 13 this morning (Thursday, September 10, 1998) on anchor Kathy Fountain and producer Angela Schultz. A subpoena for producer Cindy Simmons has been issued and is in the process of being served. The three Fox employees are being directed to provide testimony under oath September 21 in the Akre-Wilson suit.

"We need to know—and more importantly viewers need to know—to what extent news broadcasts are shaped and information deliberately withheld when news might reflect badly on an advertiser or potential litigant as big as Monsanto," said Steve Wilson.

Here’s what happened to the NutraSweet interview originally set for Tuesday’s mid-day broadcast:

Mary Nash Stoddard of the Aspartame Consumer Safety Network was scheduled weeks ago to appear on Fountain’s noon broadcast to discuss unresolved health concerns which have plagued the sweetener for years. (NutraSweet is the leading brand of aspartame artificial sweetener.) After flying to Tampa from her home in Dallas, she received a call less than two hours before the broadcast from producer Schultz assigned to deliver the message the interview was cancelled.

Stoddard says the WTVT producer told her Fox legal people got involved because Fox was having problems with Monsanto. She quotes the apologetic producer as telling her that the station had "tried to do a story about BGH, another Monsanto product, and we had problems so we don’t want any more problems with Monsanto."

The activist says the producer told her that she and her newsroom colleagues argued for nearly an hour to get approval to air the interview because it concerned an important public health issue but station officials refused to allow the segment to proceed after Monsanto’s involvement was discovered.

WTVT had promoted the interview and its abrupt cancellation left Fountain and her producers scrambling to fill the time slot with an impromptu discussion about baseball.

Fountain’s mid-day broadcasts are not formatted as a debate. Guests are usually invited to express their views without another guest appearing on the same show to defend a company or express an opposing view. Stoddard says producers never mentioned any concern about balance nor mention they may wish to re-scheduling her appearance for a future date.

Wilson says he confirmed Stoddard’s account with independent sources. When he called the station as a viewer to inquire about the missing segment, he was told it was cancelled "for technical reasons."

"Through the testimony of these newspeople and others, we believe the facts will eventually show a pretty clear pattern here," Wilson said. "We believe the testimony will show this same broadcasting company which ordered us to slant the news and even lie on television, frequently selects stories and shapes its broadcasts based on its own interests and not the public interest as viewers have a right to expect."

"Angering a sponsor or irritating some corporate giant isn’t always best for the bottom line," added Wilson’s co-defendant Jane Akre. "But news consumers and the FCC certainly ought to know when a broadcaster using the public airwaves deliberately withholds important information or slants the news just to add to his own profits."

In addition to their suit, the two fired reporters have said they are also preparing an official FCC complaint based on their experience and WTVT’s ultimate broadcast about the Monsanto hormone. The journalists say after they were fired, the station eventually responded to persistent questions about why the story never aired by assigning another reporter to broadcast some of the same information they documented to be false and distorted and refused to broadcast.

The pre-trial discovery process in the Akre-Wilson civil suit is continuing and the case is scheduled for trial in Circuit Court in Tampa February 22, 1999.

 

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