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News leads TV through an ethical maze

By ERIC DEGGANS 

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 7, 1998 


Two slants on a dairy hormone 

When investigative reporters Steve Wilson and Jane Akre were fired by Fox affiliate WTVT-Ch. 13 last year, the journalists (who are husband and wife) said the station was trying to take the teeth out of their report on Posilac, a hormone made by chemical giant Monsanto and given to cows to spur milk production. 

In early April the couple sued WTVT, saying executives ordered them to lie in stories about the hormone and fired them when they threatened to tell the Federal Communications Commission about inaccuracies that management insisted that they edit into the story. 

WTVT aired a series on Posilac on May 20, 21 and 22 assembled by its new investigative reporter, Nathan Lang -- an effort station managers said refuted any allegations that they tried to bury the story. 

But Wilson and Akre maintain that Lang's evenhanded report did exactly what they had resisted, toning down allegations of unethical practices by Monsanto and the dairy industry to reduce the likelihood of litigation. 

"It's good that WTVT raised this issue," offers Wilson, who says he still plans to file a complaint with the FCC over material in Lang's stories that the station knew was incorrect (broadcasting material that you know is false is a violation of FCC rules). "But (Lang) did many of the things we refused to do." 

Indeed, there are several charges in the Akre-Wilson stories that Lang's series did not mention: information that Monsanto had sued to stop ecologically conscious companies from labeling its milk as free from the synthetic hormone; allegations that grocery chains misled customers about their efforts to avoid selling milk from treated cows; and Monsanto's history of manufacturing government-approved products that later proved harmful, such as Agent Orange. 

Lang's report took a different slant, detailing the concerns of both the hormone's critics and supporters. 

Phil Metlin, vice president of news for WTVT, says Lang had trouble verifying some aspects of the Akre-Wilson report and did not offer a definitive conclusion on the issue because there isn't one. 

"We're covering both sides here . . . (because) there is no smoking gun," Metlin says. "People should be made aware of this substance, but nobody knows" if it is dangerous. 

In the end, it may take a court of law and the FCC to decide who's right. One hopes that, for milk drinkers everywhere, the conclusion doesn't come too late. 

To reach Eric Deggans, call 893-8521, e-mail deggans@sptimes.com or see the Times Web site at http://www.sptimes.com. 


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