Journalists, not Activists
Steve Wilson, Jane Akre &
by Liane Casten
In These Times magazine, July
If any more proof was needed that we live
in an upside-down world, the saga of TV news reporters Steve Wilson
and Jane Akre serves as the definitive case study.
Husband and wife, Wilson and Akre are
exhausted emotionally and financially, but also relieved. Their
eight-year struggle-known to many from the 2004 documentary, The
Corporation-with WTVT, a Tampa, Fla. Fox affiliate, has come to
an end. After two major court cases, and more angst than any two
reporters should have to endure, Wilson and Akre settled their
case by FedExing nearly $200,000 to the network giant in May.
They lost their appeal, having unsuccessfully fought a large corporation
with very deep pockets.
It began when Fox fired the reporters
in 1997, after they tried to air a story about the bovine growth
hormone, rBGH. The report exposed its widespread use by US. dairy
farmers, despite studies linking rGBH consumption to prostate
and breast cancer. Monsanto, the producer of rBGH, threatened
a lawsuit and demanded the elimination of significant, verifiable
information from the story. Eventually, WTVT caved, despite Wilson
and Akre's efforts to rewrite the story more than 70 times to
redress the complaints.
The couple sued Fox under Florida's Whistle
Blower's Act. In a jury trial, Akre and Wilson were awarded $425,000.
(The reporters knew not to spend it too soon.) In 2001, they were
awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize for their outstanding
In an appeal, however, Fox argued that
the FCC policy against distortion of news did not qualify as "law:'
and that therefore Akre and Wilson were not protected under the
Florida act, which only protects those reporting an employer's
violation of a "law, rule or regulation. " The court
accepted this argument, ruling for WTVT
More appalling than the reversal were
the five major media outlets that filed briefs of amici curiae
in support of Fox's position. Their statement said, "The
station argued that it simply wanted to ensure that a news story
about a scientific controversy regarding a commercial product
was presented with fairness and balance, and to ensure that it
had a sound defense to any potential defamation claim."
Compounding the indignity of the ruling,
Fox demanded $3.' million to pay its legal fees and trial costs.
The punitive sum would have bankrupted the reporters. A judge
decided that the sum was indeed draconian and reduced the damage
to a little more than $175,000. But this did not include the years
of personal and legal expenses-hundreds of thousands of dollars-incurred
by Wilson and Akre during the two earlier trials.
Wilson says that his "scrappy"
trial lawyers, John Chamblee and Tom Johnson, almost lost their
practice, because they were so invested in the case. "Even
after we were tapped out:' Akre says, "they chose to stay
Today, the couple lives near Jacksonville.
Having been unable to find a local reporting job, Wilson commutes
back on weekends from Detroit, where he is the top investigative
reporter for WXYZ-a Scripps Howard-owned TV station. Akre is still
looking for a fulltime reporting job, but takes on assignments
as Ilk they come. The two are now working on both a book and a
screenplay about their experiences. "The idea of a film was
always in the back of our minds:' Akre says. "The whole experience
had so many great characters in it'
But they haven't left the fight for journalistic
integrity. In January; they filed a petition with the FCC to deny
WTVT a renewal of I ' its broadcast license. i They've asked for
a hearing based on news distortion, and Akre met briefly with
FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein at the recent National Conference
for Media Reform. "We're questioning whether they have a
solid enough character to own that license:' she says. "Whether
we won or lost the court case, we knew this was something we were
going to pursue:' Akre still considers herself a journalist. "If
I'm an advocate or activist, it's for the public's right to know:'
she says. But she believes shining light in dark places is getting
harder as those in power control the free flow of information.
"That's why it's more important today to be a journalist
than any other time. If those in power call you an activist, maybe
you're just a really great journalist."
Liane Casten is the founder of Chicago
Broadcast Media watch
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