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Reporters sue WTVT, say story suppressed

By ERIC DEGGANS

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 3, 1998


TAMPA -- It was touted as a match made in TV news heaven when husband-wife reporting team Steve Wilson and Jane Akre signed on with Fox affiliate WTVT-Ch. 13 to head its highly publicized "Investigators" unit.

But more than a year later, the broken partnership has ended up in court, with the reporters suing the station, saying executives ordered them to lie in stories about health concerns over a hormone used in milk production.

The couple's suit also accuses the station of violating the state law protecting whistle-blowers when it fired them in December after they threatened to complain to the Federal Communications Commission about Fox's handling of their stories.

In separate news conferences in Tallahassee and Tampa Thursday, Akre and Wilson said WTVT dragged its feet for months in editing a four-part report on the use of the artificial growth hormone rBGH. In their series, the reporters said Florida supermarket chains did little to avoid selling milk from cows treated with the controversial hormone, despite assuring customers publicly years ago they would resist selling such products.

WTVT officials denied the couple's claims, issuing a two-page news release that said, in part, "The station categorically denies that it ever asked Wilson or Akre to include false information in the piece. The reporters were not willing to be objective in the story."

The couple maintains WTVT eventually fired them for fighting attempts to water down the stories, which repeated criticism of the rBGH product Posilac and cited concerns from some experts that milk from such cows raises risks for breast cancer, colon cancer and tumors in women who breast-feed.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved use of the hormone in 1993. Monsanto, the chemical manufacturing giant that makes Posilac, has denied that use of the hormone harms milk in any way.

"The television station we worked for promised the story would be told," said Akre, handing out an inches-thick binder containing the suit filed in Hillsborough Circuit Court, along with correspondence from the Fox networks and WTVT and scripts for the proposed stories.

"Instead, we spent nearly a year struggling to tell it honestly and fairly," she said. "Four months after we were fired, the station has done nothing but continue to keep this important news secret."

Standing in front of a dairy case at the Nature's Harvest natural foods store in Tampa, Akre and Wilson accused WTVT executives of acting in fear of potential litigation from Monsanto. The couple's lawsuit maintains WTVT executives and a Fox network attorney encouraged inclusion of statements from Monsanto representatives that the reporters knew were false and later offered to pay their salaries for the balance of their two-year contracts -- an amount topping $120,000 -- to buy their silence on the issue. To date, WTVT has not aired the stories.

The suit also accuses WTVT of breaching their employment contracts by its actions. Akre and Wilson have asked for a number of judicial remedies, including reinstatement of employment or about $125,000 in pay the couple would have earned in the second year of their contract.

WTVT General Manager David Boylan declined to comment further, referring questions to attorney Pat Anderson. Anderson, whose firm also represents the Times on First Amendment issues, said adjudicating the lawsuit might require a judge to decide whether WTVT exercised correct editorial judgment -- a decision she said would be prevented by the First Amendment.

"This is a reverse Oprah case," Anderson added, referring to a recent lawsuit in which talk show host Oprah Winfrey was accused of maligning the beef industry on her show. "Oprah was accused of broadcasting a sensationalized, one-sided story. It appears what they're taking issue with, is that (WTVT) refused to broadcast a one-sided, slanted story."

A Publix spokeswoman also strongly denied the chain ever misled customers about its ability to provide milk from cows that have not been treated with the artificial hormone.

In a script from one of the stories, the reporters say Publix and Albertsons made statements to the press in 1994 to assure customers they would try to keep such milk off their shelves.

"We contacted our milk suppliers and told them, until there was further public acceptance, we would prefer to receive milk that doesn't contain (the hormone)," said Jennifer Bush, director of media relations for Publix, who acknowledges she doesn't know if dairy farmers or milk suppliers ever complied with the request.

Back when Akre and Wilson were hired in November 1996, WTVT -- which once built its reputation on investigative work -- touted Akre's experience as a former anchor for WTSP-Ch. 10 and Wilson's award-winning work as an investigative reporter for the syndicated newsmagazine Inside Edition.

But conflicts over the Posilac story, which was originally scheduled to air in February 1997, soured relations between the couple and station management -- eventually paralyzing much of WTVT's investigative unit for nearly a year.

"I don't expect to ever work in TV news again," Wilson said Thursday. "But this is a good story. And people should know about it."


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