Prepared Statements of Jane Akre and Steve Wilson

former Investigative Reporters, WTVT-FOX 13 Tampa

 

Thursday, April 2, 1998

 

Jane Akre

Today in Florida state Circuit Court in Tampa we have filed a complaint against Fox Television’s WTVT Channel 13 where my husband and reporting colleague Steve Wilson and I worked until recently.

We are filing this lawsuit and speaking out today strictly as a matter of conscience. As reporters and as parents, Steve and I both felt it would be wrong to continue to withhold this information from other parents and the people of Florida as we have been told to do by Fox television.

Shortly after being hired as an investigative reporter at WTVT in Tampa more than a year ago, I discovered that Florida’s milk supply has been affected—some would say adulterated—by the widespread use of an artificial hormone. Unbeknownst to most people, Florida dairy farmers have been quietly injecting this synthetic drug into their cows that provide milk to schools and markets all over the state.

The hormone is generally known as Bovine Growth Hormone or BGH…and although it is legal to use it in this country, many respected scientists in the U.S. and around the world have strong suspicions there’s a link between drinking milk from rBGH-treated cows and the development of cancer.

Some of you may remember the protests here in Florida and all over the country back when the FDA approved synthetic BGH in 1993. There was such a grassroots outcry, supermarkets including Publix and Albertsons promised they would not buy milk from treated cows until the hormone gained widespread acceptance. There hasn’t been much protest since then because consumers relied on those promises. Florida shoppers who took the grocers at their word and figured there’s still no BGH in local milk have been badly misled. When the grocers learned long ago they couldn’t keep their promises, they kept quiet about. If you ask them now—as I did—every one admits today that the milk they buy comes—to one degree or another—from cows that are being secretly injected with this hidden hormone.

This is a situation you would never find out about by reading the labels on supermarket milk or yogurt or even most cheese and ice cream products. The people who make and use this artificial hormone have lobbied hard to keep from having to disclose it on the label. And even though they insist it poses absolutely no long-term health risk, they have also fought hard to discourage farmers who do not believe it is safe from letting you know with a clear label on their products that they do not use it.

As a mother, I know this is important information about a basic food I’ve been giving my child every day. As a journalist, I know it is a story that millions of Floridians have a right to know. The television station we worked for promised the story would be told. Instead, we spent nearly a year struggling to tell it honestly and accurately and four months after we were fired for standing up for the truth, the station has done nothing but continue to keep this important news secret. Steve and I are speaking out today because we cannot and we will not continue to help cover this up.

We have filed a number of documents with the court this morning and they are available to you here. We’d be happy to answer any questions you may have but first we’d like you to hear a few more details about how this story has been covered up by our former employer.

 

Steve Wilson

If you leave today with nothing else, please understand this:

This is really not about a couple of disgruntled former reporters whining that their editors wouldn’t let them do a story they thought was important. Jane and I have each spent more than 20 years in the news business and all of you know it doesn’t take that long for every reporter to learn that every now and then—usually when the special interest of your news organization or one of its friends is more important than the public interest—stories get killed. That’s bad enough, but that’s not what happened here.

As we explain in our legal complaint, Fox 13 didn’t want to kill the story revealing synthetic hormones in Florida’s milk supply. Instead, as we explain in great detail in our legal complaint, we were repeatedly ordered to go forward and broadcast demonstrably inaccurate and dishonest versions of the story. We were given those instructions after some very high-level corporate lobbying by Monsanto (the powerful drug company that makes the hormone) and also, we believe, by members of Florida’s dairy and grocery industries.

Monsanto hired one of the most renowned lawyers in America to use his power and influence to write Fox news headquarters in New York. As you will see, his letter which is attached to our legal complaint is a thinly veiled threat, especially the part where he wrote: "There is a lot at stake in what is going on in Florida, not only for Monsanto, but also for Fox News and its owner…" Even though our stories had been scheduled to run, even though Fox had bought expensive radio ads to alert viewers to the story, it was abruptly cancelled on the eve of the broadcasts within hours of receiving the letter from Monsanto’s lawyer.

Our suit also details how the following week, the story was reviewed again by the station’s top management who found no factual reporting errors in any of the four parts.

Let me add another very important point here: at no time in the entire review of all 73 versions of this story did Fox or its lawyers ever find a single inaccurate fact in our reporting. Time and again when we provided examples and documentation that showed what they wanted us to say was clearly false or deliberately misleading, they would not relent.

You should also know there was never any serious allegation that we as reporters or anyone working with us ever crossed the ethical line of good investigative reporting practices generally accepted by the best news organizations.

In February more than year ago, it was decided—and we agreed—to offer Monsanto officials who had already been interviewed another opportunity to be interviewed again in case they wanted to add anything to their previous statements. That offer only gave notice to Monsanto that it had not succeeded in killing the story…and that’s when the chemical giant’s lawyer wrote a second, even-more-threatening letter predicting "dire consequences" if the story was broadcast.

That started this nearly 10-month-long ordeal in which we were ordered to re-write and review and re-write the stories again and again…more than 70 times in all. Those various versions were mandated by Fox management and its lawyers who constantly insisted on deleting relevant facts or putting an industry-friendly spin on virtually every bit of information. We couldn’t report the threat of cancer…they insisted we say there were concerns about a "long-term human health risk". The warning label listing all sorts of dangerous side effects of the Monsanto hormone (required by the government for all drugs) became a Monsanto "product insert". You get the idea.

It is one thing not to be able to tell a story. It is quite another for a reporter to be told to go on television and knowingly lie and distort the truth. As we contend in our lawsuit, that is exactly what happened in this case. And when we refused to it, we were both threatened with immediate dismissal and Mr. Boylan made it clear he would simply assign another reporter to do it after we were fired. We told him we would file an FCC complaint immediately if anyone broadcast information known by the station to be false.

Two weeks later, Fox offered each of us a cash settlement to leave and keep quiet about the hormone-in-your-milk story and how it was handled at WTVT. After we declined to accept the settlement, we were ordered to begin writing and reviewing and re-writing the story over and over.

Months later when we still insisted on reporting the truth and re-asserted our rights to file an FCC complaint, we were told we were being suspended without pay and if we wanted to keep our jobs we’d write two final versions of the story while suspended. We were expected to do that after the station manager locked us out of our offices and the station computers that held much of our research.

Nonetheless, we wrote those last two versions—both are attached to our complaint and I urge you to read the story we felt was fair and accurate and balanced…and the one Fox management insisted we report. That one is marked with our objections documented in red so you can see the kind of things we were opposed to. Some of them, standing alone, are not worth putting your career on the line for, but I urge you to look at them all in the context of the whole story. You don’t slant the truth with one sentence…you sprinkle the entire story with little elements here and there and as we claim in our complaint, that is exactly what was done here.

No fewer than six airdates were set and cancelled. In all my years as a print and radio and local and national television reporter, I’ve never seen anything like it.

Now the station’s position is that we were ultimately dismissed without cause during a window in our contract. The truth, as we see it and as evidenced by a letter from Fox’s own lawyer: we were fired for refusing to go along with a scheme to broadcast a false and slanted story simply to avoid trouble or curry favor with some very powerful interests who also happen to be advertisers.

I don’t know of anyone who became a reporter to hide the truth.

To tell you the truth, I’m a little afraid that some of you might characterize us as crossing the line from reporters to activists on some kind of a anti-BGH consumer crusade. I may not be working as a reporter but I still consider myself to be a journalist. My only crusade is for people to know about issues like these so they can draw their own conclusions.

Is there smoking-gun, iron-clad evidence available today that drinking milk from hormone-treated cows will lead to cancer in you or your children? No. Many scientists will tell you because this is a drug injected into animals and not directly into humans the testing of its effects on milk-drinkers has never been thorough enough to know for sure.

But ask yourselves this: how long did it take us all to learn about the effects of tobacco while the special interests insisted there was no evidence of any harm? Was it wrong to raise those issues before the link was indisputable? Or how about Agent Orange, Dioxin, PCB’s…all Monsanto products, by the way, all approved by the government, sworn by Monsanto to be safe. Was it wrong to raise those issues before we knew for certain.

As they like to say over at the Fox News Channel….we report, you decide—but that won’t work if the reporting is slanted and tailored to the liking of whatever special interest is powerful enough to demand it.



Copyright 1999 Target Television Enterprises, Inc.