Fox vs. the media jackals
It's OK to hate Rupert Murdoch, but his local stations aren't the bad guys BY JOHN SUGG


From my fellow travelers on the left, I daily hear the litany: Hate Fox! Fox is evil!

True, it's easy to dismiss the Fox News Channel with its gale-force windbags and McCarthyesque jingoism. But "progressive" media critics are so blinded by their loathing of Fox, they can be just as guilty of distortion as the news organization they despise.

Two examples of critics selling the same smear about Fox:

- The leading lefty press watchdog group, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), publishes a magazine, Extra!, which this month has an article titled "News You Can't Trust" by veteran environmental writer Karen Charman.

- Former CNN and CBS reporter Kristina Borjesson has compiled accounts of reporters getting screwed in a new book, Into the Buzzsaw: Leading Journalists Expose the Myth of a Free Press.

Both Charman's article and Buzzsaw contain paeans to two TV journalists, a husband-wife team, Steve Wilson and Jane Akre. Charman and Borjesson never provide a whiff of skepticism about Wilson and Akre, or the couple's claims in a dispute with Fox.

There are plenty of veteran, respected journalists who know Wilson and Akre aren't the noble warriors for truth that they claim. But enlightened progressives won't ask those who understand the true story because they work for (cross yourself) Fox.

Wilson and Akre stake their fame on claims that the Tampa Fox affiliate, WTVT, tried to force them to print distorted and untrue news about a growth hormone used with cattle. The hormone is made by Monsanto, a corporation that's justifiably almost as high in the left's demonology as Fox.

Wilson and Akre were fired by the station for repeated acts of insubordination. They sued WTVT under a Florida whistleblower law and immediately began a vigorous campaign of fundraising and self-promotion. They implied impoverishment, on their website (www.foxbghsuit.com) telling uninformed do-gooders that "we have decided to put our pride aside and ask all of you who will benefit from our struggle to help shoulder the burden of legal expenses."

The Monsanto hormone story is a big one. But, while Wilson and Akre added to it, the story had been reported long before they discovered it. Whatever their motives, their fight has brought attention to Monsanto and "Frankenfood." And, they've picked up several awards.

To turbo charge their fundraising following defeat of their lawsuit, they claim they'll have to pay Fox's legal costs, as much as $3 million. That's a gross exaggeration. Fox won fees only for the relatively minor portion spent during the appeal of a jury decision.

The media critics didn't seem to notice that the duo had been secretive about their finances. So, when Wilson and Akre late last year quietly purchased a 5,000-square-foot, $1.4 million luxury townhouse near Jacksonville, Fla., the press critics were out to lunch. Creative Loafing obtained records of the townhouse purchase, which showed only a $300,000 mortgage -- indicating a $1.1 million down payment.

When confronted with the records, Wilson last week refused to disclose any accounting of money he collected for the lawsuit. He claimed there were errors in the public records I obtained about the townhouse, but he refused to cite the specific mistakes or even to say whether they were significant. He threatened litigation if I ran the information that he claimed was erroneous. Florida law, as with most states, protects reporting on the contents of public records.

So, if Wilson and Akre are not exactly penniless crusaders or impoverished media martyrs, what were they?

Wilson and Akre were hired by WTVT in Tampa in December 1996 -- before Fox owned the station. The non-Fox news director, who would be fired by the Murdochites, had similar problems with Wilson and Akre as did his Fox replacements. This poses no little problem to the logic of generating hate against Fox, so the media critics simply ignore the fact that Fox inherited a problem.

The duo contended the station had mangled their reporting to appease Monsanto. The station countered the reporters were sabotaging the process. Court documents show Wilson conceded "there's not really a lot of difference between" their script and what was approved by their managers.

So what was the problem? My opinion: The two wanted a meltdown and a very lucrative martyrdom -- from fundraising to book deals.

Florida's whistleblower law protects people who refuse to violate a law, rule or regulation. Wilson and Akre claimed this includes the 1934 Communications Act that expresses a policy against intentional distortion by broadcasters.

In reality, the FCC has never adopted a formal rule on news distortion. For the FCC to Monday-morning quarterback news decisions would be an obvious violation of news organizations' First Amendment rights. Court decisions are clear, as with a 1985 opinion that concluded the FCC will not "inquire why a particular piece of information was reported or not reported."

More important, the Fox station was committed to running a gutsy report on the hormone, and eventually did without Wilson's and Akre's participation. WTVT also wanted to include Monsanto's position for fairness and to protect the station from a libel suit -- standard operating procedure in investigative reporting.

That inclusion is what Wilson and Akre decry as "distortion" or depict on their website as a "lie." Monsanto may well have been deceptive. This is murky science, however. And companies lie to the media all the time. The reporter's job is to provide as much information as possible and let the viewer or reader decide. If the reporter feels a source isn't being candid, the solution isn't to snip the material, but to build a case with facts that expose the deception.

Ultimately, Florida appellate judges ruled on a simple point of law. The FCC has never codified its policy against news distortion into an enforceable law, rule or regulation. Thus, Wilson and Akre didn't have a whistleblower's case.

There's Fox and then there's Fox. Many at the network's local stations laud the independence granted them -- while flinching at the stridency on the Fox News Channel. Carolyn Forrest, an Atlanta media attorney who represented WTVT, says there are often disagreements about what to put on the air, "but I don't know of a case where the network has intervened for political or advertising reasons."

And, Michael Carlin, who for three decades has guided the stellar investigative reporting team at Atlanta's Fox owned-and-operated affiliate, WAGA, says the station is the best place to do investigative journalism in Georgia. "We're left alone," he said. "We have more resources and more time on the air to tell our stories. ... The change in ownership to Fox hasn't changed our ability to do great investigative journalism."

WTVT in Tampa had a similar tradition, which is why Wilson and Akre were hired. Instead of gut-punching news, however, the station and its former reporters ended up in court three years ago.

Each reporter could have won on two whistleblower points -- that the station had fired them for complaining about news distortion, and that the station had fired them for threatening to go to the FCC.

Wilson lost on both. The jury ruled for Akre on the threatening-to-go-to-the-FCC point. But this year, Florida's 2nd District Court of Appeal ruled the case had no place in the state's courts and reversed Akre's partial victory. Despite that, the two have claimed the earlier trial decision as proof that the Fox stations broadcast false and distorted news.

It just ain't so -- at least in this case.

At the heart of the matter is that Wilson/Akres' rhetoric trumpets that Fox had forced them to distort the news. On their website, Wilson and Akre state: "[The] jury unanimously determined that Fox 'acted intentionally and deliberately to falsify or distort the plaintiffs' news reporting ...'" And, they describe Fox's defense as: "It's not illegal to lie on the news."

The truth? At the trial, the duo made a much narrower claim, that they merely thought Fox was distorting the news. The nuance is important. The jury, said Akre, "reasonably believed [the station-approved script] would violate the prohibition against intentional falsification or distortion of the news ...." Wilson/Akre twist the jury finding to state that Fox actually did distort the news and lie.

Here's a real conundrum for those knee-jerk in adulation of Akre and Wilson. Each of the reporters could have won on two separate issues. Wilson, who acted as his own attorney, lost on both points put to the jury. Noted for ambush journalism, Wilson tried to spy on one of WTVT's lawyers by posing as a flower delivery guy to get into her apartment building. His courtroom style was bullying. I attended the trial, and he wasn't credible on the stand. The jurors didn't believe him either.

Since Wilson and Akre were a team, and the jury ruled on the same points with both, how could the jurors rule against Wilson on all points and for Akre on one? The difference is that Akre, represented by counsel, successfully portrayed herself as a victim. The jurors wanted to give her something -- $425,000 -- and figured Fox could afford it.

If the jurors had known Wilson and Akre were far -- very, very, very far -- from being penniless, I think Akre would have lost too.

The duo's self-serving version of events is eagerly picked up by the Fox haters. Charman, in Extra!, egregiously misrepresents what the Florida appellate court ruled in February. She rhetorically asks what protection reporters have against employers that want them to distort the news, and then says the court's answer is: "None."

"Absent from the court's decision was any recognition that Fox broadcasts on the public's airwaves," she adds, "and in return for that incredibly lucrative privilege, the Communications Act of 1934 requires it to broadcast in 'the public interest, convenience and necessity.'"

Nowhere can you find in the court's decision a statement that reporters have no protections against employers who want to distort the news. It isn't there. Moreover, the Florida appellate court wasn't asked to make any recognition about the "lucrative privilege" of broadcasting, nor is it the role of the court to make such a determination in an employment dispute.

The appellate court did suggest that the proper arena for the fight is the Federal Communications Commission. Wilson and Akre could have challenged WTVT's license. They haven't done so because, I'd argue, they know there is a mountain of FCC opinion that deters the agency from second-guessing broadcast news organizations -- precisely to protect journalists from government stomping on First Amendment rights.

Fox could have settled long ago -- probably for far less money than the jury award. But Fox attorney Ted Russell said, "We couldn't allow that [jury] verdict to stand. Most companies would have been happy to avoid paying money. But we felt we had to stand behind our journalists, whose reputations had been besmirched by Wilson and Akre."

Wilson and Akre, meanwhile, redoubled their panhandling. On their fundraising Web page, they whine that "we were just hoping to get back on our feet." Oh, and pay no attention to that million dollar down payment we just made on our swank digs.

Senior Editor John Sugg previously was editor of CL's Tampa sister paper, the Weekly Planet, where he reported on Fox and Wilson/Akre. Sugg can be reached at 404-614-1241 or at john.sugg@creativeloafing.com.

09.11.03