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Friday, July 28, 2000 FULL SHOW | HEADLINES | PREVIOUS: Showdown in Minneapolis: The Battle Over Genetic...
2000-07-28

Fox Network On Trial

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We now turn to an update of a story that we covered a couple of years ago on Democracy Now! It’s the story of fired Fox news reporters Steve Wilson and Jane Akre. [includes rush transcript]

In 1997, they were working for Fox owned TV station WTVT Fox 13 in Tampa, Florida where they were hired to do hard-hitting investigative reports. They discovered that the milk in Florida and throughout the U.S. was being affected by Bovine Growth Hormone (BGH). The Fox station was promoting the story aggressively until the night before it was scheduled to air when the Monsanto Corporation threatened Fox. Fox then demanded that Akre and Wilson change their story. They put them through 83 re-writes and eventually fired them just before Christmas 1997.

Well, last week the two veteran investigative journalists took Fox to court and say they are ready to prove how Fox television managers and lawyers at WTVT Fox 13 ordered them to deliberately distort news reports and then fired them for resisting those directives.

The landmark whistleblower lawsuit is believed to be the first time any journalist has ever filed a claim against their own news organization and offered evidence of behind-the-scenes manipulation of the news.

Guests:

  • Steve Wilson, one of the fired Fox reporters currently suing the network.
  • Jane Akre, one of the fired Fox reporters currently suing the network.

Related Link:

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to stay on the issue of biotechnology, because we’re going to turn now to fired Fox News reporters Steve Wilson and Jane Akre. In 1997, Jane Akre and Steve Wilson were working on a story for Fox-owned TV station WTVT, Fox 13 in Tampa, Florida, where they were hired to do hard-hitting investigative reports.

They discovered milk in Florida and throughout the US was being affected by Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH). The Fox station was promoting the story aggressively, that they were going to be doing, until the night before it was scheduled to air, when the Monsanto Corporation threatened Fox. Fox then demanded that Akre and Wilson change their story. They put them through eighty-three rewrites and eventually fired them just before Christmas of ’97.

Well, last week these two veteran investigative journalists took Fox to court and say they’re ready to prove how Fox TV managers and lawyers ordered them to deliberately distort news reports, then fired them for resisting those directives.

Steve Wilson and Jane Akre join us now from their home in Florida. Welcome to Democracy Now!

STEVE WILSON: Thank you.

JANE AKRE: Hello.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, tell us how this case is going.

STEVE WILSON: You know, before we start, I must say, listening to the last interview with absolutely no disrespect intended, I love to hear these biotech industry folks talk about how they welcome public discussion — certainly was not our experience.

What happened, as you said, was we were pressured by Fox, after Fox was in turn originally pressured by Monsanto, to either not tell the story or to tell it in a way that was just flatly wrong. They wanted us to broadcast information that we knew to be false and misleading, and that led to a yearlong fight and eventually our termination.

And we’ve spent the last two weeks now in court, trying to convince a jury that we are whistleblowers, under the Florida law that protects people who refuse to do things that are illegal. We say it’s illegal to go on radio or television and broadcast deliberately distorted news reports. And interestingly enough, this company, which calls itself News Corporation, is now arguing, that, "You know, technically," they say to the judge, "there is no law, rule or regulation to prevent broadcasters from deliberately distorting the news; it’s just a policy of the government."

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Steve, we’ve reported on Democracy Now! numerous times about the efforts of Monsanto around the world to quash any kind of public discussion of some of the activities it’s involved in, but I know as a fellow journalist, it must have been a big step on yours and Jane’s parts to actually go to court and risk being branded throughout the profession and the industry for taking your employers to court. Can you talk a little bit, Jane, perhaps, about how you decided to take this step?

JANE AKRE: Well, you know, one of the things Steve didn’t mention is that they had offered us a rather attractive buyout if we would just either (a) do what the lawyer said in putting the story on the air, or (b) just shut up about it, because there was a confidentiality clause in our contract that would prevent us from talking about anything we learned while we were employed by the station. And it took Steve and I about, you know, five seconds to say, "No! This is a public health issue. This needs to be discussed."

If this was about some minor two-bit player on some minor story, I think that we would have probably parted ways, but, no, this was a public health issue, and that is essentially what made us continue with this story, as opposed to walk away. It is a public health issue; it deserves to be discussed. And so, we stuck with it. And we kept trying to get the story on the air, for months and months and months. And ultimately we were unsuccessful, and they fired us.

STEVE WILSON: You are quite right. I mean, we’ve been told by friends at various levels that we’ll never work in mainstream journalism again. Those days are over, for having the audacity to stand up and take your employer to court. People — as recent studies have shown, people in newsrooms just keep their mouths shut. You apparently have to check your ethics at the door these days, and you keep your head down if you want to keep your job.

AMY GOODMAN: Ralph Nader, Walter Cronkite, they’re on your witness list for the trial?

STEVE WILSON: Ralph Nader’s already been to town. He’s been in the courtroom. There was a huge fight. The Fox attorneys, who, I might mention, are the same attorneys who are from the law firm that represents President Clinton. Fox has now hired, after losing efforts to derail the case — about a year or so ago, they hired attorneys from Williams & Connolly, and they argued ferociously to keep Nader out.

The judge allowed him in as an expert witness, and we wanted him there. And he did a wonderful job, I thought, of explaining to the jury how television businesses are different than any other business, that because they operate using a license and the public airwaves, which is a very scarce public resource, they have a duty, a legal obligation to operate in the public interest. And that makes them somewhat different. And that’s what they didn’t do, we argue, in this case.

AMY GOODMAN: And why Walter Cronkite?

STEVE WILSON: Walter Cronkite was called to talk about the pre-broadcast review process: who gets to make the final choice on news stories. The lawyers are hired by the broadcasting companies to protect the broadcasting companies, and there’s been evidence in this case that the president of Fox Television instructed the lawyers, "Take no risks."

And what happens when you have lawyers who want to do investigative — you know, risk-less investigative reporting, which is an oxymoron — that can’t ever happen — and journalists who have testified that they wanted to tell the truth? Who gets to decide? And Mr. Cronkite’s testimony deals with the fact that in good news organizations, those decisions are made by journalists, when they gather the truth and can document that it’s true.

JANE AKRE: And you have to love the irony here, because here’s Fox arguing that Mr. Cronkite is not an expert in the pre-broadcast review process. And they’re going to try to get him — his testimony thrown out of court. You know, there are comic moments here.

JUAN GONZALEZ: When Fox, of course, didn’t even exist when Cronkite started in the business.

JANE AKRE: Yeah. You know, home of When Animals Attack and Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire. Of course, that’s not their news programming, but that’s kind of where they’re coming from.

STEVE WILSON: Well, their news programming is which local pizza parlor puts the most cheese on your pizza. That’s their news programming, locally.

AMY GOODMAN: I guess the question is, "Is there bovine growth hormone in that cheese?" Now, one last question. That is, I remember when we had you on in debate with Fox a while ago when this first happened, and one of the edits you went through, they told you to take out that Monsanto, which is the maker of bovine growth hormone, had also been involved with the making of, was it, Agent Orange — dioxin.

JANE AKRE: Actually, that part was left in, but what we had uncovered was that there was an EPA investigation into the way Monsanto brought PCBs, polychlorinated biphenyls into the marketplace. And the EPA had concluded that Monsanto was fraudulent in the way it did that. And that came out.

STEVE WILSON: Well, more than fraudulent, that they were guilty of a pattern of deliberately distorting the science that led to the approval of PCBs in the first place. And there are those who say that’s exactly what they tried to do with bovine growth hormone. Well, they didn’t want — the lawyers — didn’t want any parallels, even any mention of the fact that these folks had been found guilty of a similar pattern in the past.

JANE AKRE: That would be defamation by implication.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, what do you hope to get out of this — we have about ten seconds — out of this trial?

STEVE WILSON: I hope it to be over. Win, lose or draw, I think we’ve made our point. And, you know, I would hope that people will stand up for reporters who refuse to lie on television, because once reporters start buckling under to corporate pressure to tell what corporations want known, as opposed to the truth, it’s all over for decent journalism.

AMY GOODMAN: You have a website?

STEVE WILSON: We do. It’s www.foxbghsuit.com.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s www.foxbghsuit.com. I want to thank you very much for being with us. We’re going to get back in touch with you, as this trial continues, the lawsuit Steve Wilson and Jane Akre have brought against Fox.

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