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From AJR,   March 1999  issue

Controversial Tampa TV Story Goes to Court   


By Kelly Heyboer
Kelly Heyboer is a reporter at the Star-Ledger in Newark, New Jersey.      

A husband-and-wife reporting team and its former employer are gearing up for a May showdown in court. The legal battle is raising questions about the commitment of local television news operations to tough investigative pieces and how hard reporters should fight for a story--not to mention whether the explosive accusations in a disputed report are solid.

Jane Akre and Steve Wilson filed a lawsuit last April against their one-time employer, Tampa's WTVT-TV, jeopardizing their careers as TV journalists in the process. The suit represents a continuation of their campaign to establish the veracity of their controversial report on the alleged dangers of bovine growth hormones in milk. As the trial date nears, the combatants are harshly critical of each other's journalistic standards.

Initially, Akre and Wilson's story--on what they depicted as the dangers of artificial hormones that boost milk production in cows--was to air during the February 1997 sweeps. But nearly three months later, the reporters had rewritten the piece dozens of times, lawyers for the Fox-owned station were reviewing the script, and the editing battle had grown nasty and personal.

Both sides say their main sticking point was whether to say use of the hormone adversely affects the milk consumers drink. The manufacturer is adamant it does not.

Then came the offer: The station would buy Akre and Wilson out of their contracts. The reporters say that as a condition of the buyout, they were asked to go along with changes to the story their editors wanted and to leave the station quietly. (Station officials agree they were offered a buyout but dispute that these conditions were attached.)

"It was tempting," says Akre, 46, who was earning $70,000 for the first year of a two-year contract as an investigative reporter and weekend anchor when the buyout was offered in May 1997. "We made the decision to stick with our idealism. When we turned [the buyout] down, that was a turning point."

At the end of the year, Akre and Wilson's contracts were not renewed. They sued WTVT for allegedly asking them to lie on air, then dismissing them when they refused. The lawsuit further alleges the station pulled the milk story at the last minute after Monsanto, the company that manufactures the growth hormone, had its lawyers send threatening letters to Fox News Channel Chairman and CEO Roger Ailes.

"This is not about us thinking we have the right to have this story told," says Wilson, 47. "We were asked to lie, and we wouldn't do that."

WTVT executives deny they ever asked the reporters to lie and maintain Akre and Wilson were shoddy journalists who refused or were unable to substantiate and desensationalize their report.

Monsanto cooperated fully with Akre and Wilson's report, company spokesman Gary Barton says. The company's attorneys sent letters to Fox executives not to kill the story, he adds, but to request balance.

Claims that Wilson and Akre were fired in a grand scheme to cover up anything is absurd, says David Boylan, WTVT's vice president and general manager. "We just exercised a right not to renew their contract," he says, adding the station is still committed to airing several investigative pieces a week.

Akre began looking into the synthetic growth hormone rBGH soon after she was hired by the station in 1996. Two months later, she was joined by Wilson, who was hired at $40,000 a year to work 10 hours a week on investigative pieces to air during sweeps periods.

The pair said their reporting showed the hormone was getting into Florida's milk supply and could "promote" cancer in humans. In addition, Akre and Wilson say, local supermarket chains admitted reneging on public pledges not to buy milk from farmers who inject their cows with the hormone.

Monsanto maintains that the cow hormone does not affect the milk or the health of the people who drink it. "It's not us saying that. It's regulatory agencies around the world," Barton says.

Despite the controversy, Akre and Wilson have picked up a Society of Professional Journalists Ethics in Journalism Award for taking a stand against WTVT. They've also garnered support, through phone calls and e-mails, from fellow journalists who learned about their case through their Web site (www.foxBGHsuit.com).

But suing their former employers has come with a price. Their legal bills should top $100,000, Akre says. They have not started a legal defense fund to help pay their lawyers. "We're a couple of unemployed reporters. They are essentially the richest media company in the world," Wilson says, referring to the Rupert Murdoch empire.

Akre, with 20 years of television experience including a stint at CNN, is home caring for the couple's 4-year-old daughter and occasionally filling in on the anchor desk at Bay News 9, the local Time Warner 24-hour cable operation. (Akre also sued her previous employer, St. Petersburg's WTSP-TV, after her contract was not renewed in 1994 a few weeks before her daughter's birth. The case was settled out of court, and Akre says she can't discuss the terms.)

Wilson, an Emmy-winning reporter who spent five-and-a-half years as a senior investigative reporter at "Inside Edition" and worked for ABC and CBS, is now running his own business selling telephone calling cards. "I said when I filed this suit I never expected another news organization to hire me," Wilson says.

That may be for good reason, says Sue Kawalerski, Akre and Wilson's primary editor on the cow hormone piece. "I never got the basic journalism from these reporters," says Kawalerski, the assistant news director overseeing WTVT's investigative unit at the time. During months of editing, Kawalerski felt that Akre and Wilson repeatedly failed to come up with solid proof for claims made in their script. She was troubled by allegations that the hormone was "cancer-causing" and "crack for cows," says Kawalerski, who left WTVT in October 1997 and now owns a Miami agency representing television managers.

Another reporter reworked the bovine growth hormone piece, which aired in three parts totaling 28 minutes in May 1998, Boylan says. That version did not allege that supermarkets misled their customers and didn't make any conclusions about whether what was in the milk was good or bad.

"It was definitely a toned-down version," says Eric Deggans, the St. Petersburg Times television critic who is covering the lawsuit.

Less than a month after Wilson and Akre were asked to rewrite their script, they met with Deggans. They were worried that the story might be killed and asked him to write about it if that happened, he says. Deggans did not write a story until months later, after the reporters filed the lawsuit.

As their court date nears, the couple are using their Web site and every public appearance to urge other reporters to write about bovine growth hormones. (ABC's "World News Tonight" did air a piece December 15 that elicited cries of unfair reporting from Monsanto. Three on-camera critics questioned the safety of bovine growth hormone, while ABC read a statement from Monsanto but did not interview a company executive on air.)

Akre and Wilson say they've heard stories from reporters all over the country who say they've had pieces on various topics killed or altered to appease lawyers or jittery editors afraid to take on a large corporation.

Back in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area, Deggans says, the jury is still out on whether Akre and Wilson or WTVT was the wronged party in the messy case. "I think there are a lot of people in the TV industry locally," he adds, "who have not decided whether these are two disgruntled employees."