Sugg starts rant

Borjesson made a valuable contribution. But she was snookered in the Fox/Monsanto/Steve Wilson/Jane Akre story. It's real easy to believe almost anything bad about Fox and Monsanto, which the two reporters relied on in their self-promotion. I and my paper had considerable first-hand experience in reporting on the story. My opinion: The real story is that the reporters manufactured a crisis.

Below is a column I wrote at the time of the trial.


In early March 1997 I got a phone call that promised a great exclusive news story. Intrigue, skullduggery, ruthless corporations. Journalistically speaking, I salivated. The caller vowed to give me the scoop on nasty chemicals that were poisoning milk, and how there was an insidious cover-up keeping the news from the public. Further, the caller breathlessly hinted, there was a sexy local angle.

Adding credibility to the promised uncovering of truth was that the tipster was a journalist. He said he would explain why he was clueing me into the story if I would have lunch with him and his partner.

So, a few days later, on March 14, 1997 - the date is significant - I first met Steve Wilson and his wife and professional partner, Jane Akre, at Landry's Seafood House on the Courtney Campbell Causeway.The restaurant was appropriate because I felt afterwards as if I had bitten hard on a hook. The two journalists had certainly done a good job at offering me bait I found hard to resist. In the finest tradition of both anglers and used car hucksters, once they had me on the line, I found out things weren't as promised. The two were working for WTVT-TV Ch. 13, or Fox 13. Hired in
December 1996 to become the investigative team, Wilson was paid $40,000 a year for a backbreaking 10 hours a week of work, and Akre got $70,000 for more or less a fulltime job that included light duties as anchor. Not a bad gig.

Wilson and Akre had been working on a story about rGBH, a growth hormone used to stimulate milk production in cows. rGBH, trade named Posilac, is manufactured by Monsanto Co., an outfit that is, without dispute, a corporate thug and one that exemplifies the worst fears about what happens when you mix a hunger for profits with the science of tampering with genetics. Still, the rGBH story wasn't exactly news. In fact, Chris Ford, the respected WTVT producer who was then responsible for herding Wilson and Akre, would later express concerns over Wilson's ethics - that his reporting was lifted from a mishmash of old newspaper articles.

Upon returning to my office from the lunch, I found in my rather haphazard files on genetically engineered food two articles -
from In These Times, November 11, 1996; and Mother Jones, January 1997 - that pretty much said all that Wilson and Akre had told me.
But exposing Monsanto wasn't why the reporters had sought the meeting. The first draft of their proposed series on rGBH had been submitted Feb. 14 - less than a month before they first called me. At the time we met, the station was still trying to work with Wilson and Akre to get the report on the air - despite their intransigence and arrogant hostility. Their attitude is now at the heart of a trial that's been in progress in Hillsborough County Circuit Court since July 17. Wilson and Akre sued Channel 13 in April 1998, claiming they were wrongfully fired.

They say Florida's "whistleblower" law protects people who refuse to violate a law or official regulation - in this case the 1934 Communications Act that prohibits broadcasters from beaming a false signal. Greg Jones, a WTVT lawyer who tried get the Monsanto series in shape for airing, testified last week that "instead of a balanced piece of investigative journalist," the Wilson-Akre piece was "an attack..This wasn't news, this wasn't balanced." Investigative journalists - I consider myself one - know the catechism of dealing with editors and lawyers. It isn't always pretty, but it's necessary. The idea is to make a story bulletproof, and the simplest tactic is to fully include the position of those targeted. Sure, very often people lie to the press. But the idea of fair reporting is to present both sides, even if the reporter suspects one side is dissembling. Present the evidence and let the reader or viewer decide.

 The Wilson-Akre claim that WTVT was attempting to force them to air lies is cowshit, with or without rGBH added. Back to my first lunch with the duo. They clearly intended to push things until an irreparable rupture occurred with the station. The two couched their plan in terms of crusading to expose Monsanto, and to expose that WTVT had caved into the food conglomerate's pressure. But at the time I thought they were driven mostly by conniving to create the appearance that they were martyred journalists. As I learned with some disgust, the whole purpose of the meeting was to prep me for when they ejected from WTVT so that the Weekly Planet could carry their water. While they still had me bluffed that our meeting was to disclose some real story about Monsanto, I had agreed to hold off printing anything until they left the station. It struck me at the time that the reporters were clearly violating the confidentiality clause of their employment contract with the station. That was their business, I concluded.

However - and this is important - it reinforced my observation that their authoring different versions of the Monsanto script, ostensibly to please the
station's editors and managers, was a sham. They had no intent to do anything but create a crisis. Wilson and Akre weren't very shrewd reporters, or they would have known that the Planet and WTVT had several informal relationships, including sharing stories. I wasn't about to let their claims go unvetted. Not giving away where I had heard the story, I asked WTVT journalists about the dispute. The staff's opinions of Wilson and Akre were pretty unanimous - the husband-wife team was hellish to deal with, and what they were trying to do with the Monsanto story had more to do with propaganda than good journalism. "Believe me, we're trying to get the story on the air," the then news director, Daniel Webster, told me at the time. I did believe him - then and now. Still, I waited. I occasionally talked to Wilson and Akre, and in fairness to them reserved final judgment. In March 1998, we hired Lynn Waddell, who is pretty savvy on media issues. I set up a lunch and introduced her to Wilson and Akre. After that I've pretty much let Waddell report as she will.

Typically, Wilson resorts to ridicule and intimidation in responding to Waddell's reports. That's not surprising for a guy who, as we reported, once referred to his wife as a "dumb bitch," and who once claimed to be delivering flowers in order to gain entry to a

WTVT lawyer's condominium so that he could spy on the attorney. Nonetheless, we generally have given a pretty positive spin to Wilson's and Akre's case. He sent me an email after Waddell's last story, which appeared July 27, grousing that her story had "no quotes" (untrue) and that she "had called the plaintiffs paranoid" (an understatement on our reporter's part). I've held off writing - biting my tongue because many of my
"progressive" friends have been snowed by the Wilson-Akre propaganda machine. (The duo has the gall to link to our articles from their Web site, framing our reports under a banner that panhandles for donations for Wilson and Akre). The reason for my silence is that both sides had subpoenaed
me, but neither ended up calling me.

Wilson wanted me to testify that when, several months ago we were advertising to hire an investigative reporter, we didn't hire him because WTVT had ruined his reputation as a journalist. As with most that comes from Wilson, it was untrue, and I
wasn't about to perjure myself for him. The real story was that we received 100 or so responses to the ad, which stated that we required a resume and samples of work. Every respondent complied - except one, Wilson. WTVT lawyer Jones remarked at the trial that Wilson didn't
want to do journalism, but "wanted to tell viewers what to think." Similarly, Wilson wanted to tell me what to say, and I wouldn't. So, he didn't call me. So, to my friends who truly want to fight "Frankenfood" and companies such as Monsanto, count on the Planet as an ally. But, please, stop prostrating yourselves in front of these cheap, false martyrs.

"Absolute truth is a very rare and dangerous commoditye
in the context of professional journalism."
-- Hunter S. Thompson

John Sugg
Senior Editor
Creative Loafing
750 Willoughby Way
Atlanta, Georgia 30312
404-688-5623 ext 1043

-----Original Message-----
From: Discussion of Investigative Reporting Techniques and
[mailto:IRE-L@PO.MISSOURI.EDU] On Behalf Of Charles J. Reid
Sent: Monday, August 11, 2003 7:12 PM
Subject: Into the Buzzsaw

Hi, Folks!

Have you heard of the book, "Into the Buzzsaw" edited by
Kristina Borjesson? It covers a number of major investigative stories, including the Monsanto case in Florida, TWA 800, Gary Webb's "Dark Alliance," Time/CNN nerve gas story, and others.

I'm working on a belated review of the book, but I'd be
interested in the thoughts of anyone who's read it. All messages I receive will be confidential, unless you provide explicit permission to use your remarks, and I decide to do so. If you don't mind having your comments included, please identify your relationship to investigative reporting: e.g., reporter, professor, editor, etc. If you have additional information to one or another of the pieces in Borjesson's
book, by all means include it -- again, confidential, unless permission to use is granted.

I raise the question only to find out what some of the
practitioners of investigative reporting think of Borjesson's effort. For the record, I've had personal contact in the past with two of the authors, and done media pieces on their stories.

Many thanks.