Anatomy of a Smear  -
    A Critic’s Vicious Attack 

                        By Jane Akre

    
   As journalists who believe the profession must self regulate, we are experiencing a glaring example of a “columnist gone wild,”   who is taking it upon himself to smear us beyond belief.  He has been the only one to regularly chase us, electronically, sending mountains of emails and attacking our ethics, credibility and labeling us ‘cheap, false mart
yrs,” minus any evidence of wrongdoing.  

   This is an upfront look at the smear, how we responded and nonetheless how it continues today.  It might be a valuable lesson to other journalists who believe in ethics and conversely it’s a close up look at how someone devoid of any ethics, acts within our profession.  I’ve never seen anything quite like it myself.

   Under normal circumstances, we would write him off, but with the internet, we find it necessary to refute him and show in his own words the arrogance of a man with a mission. He seems dead set on proving his suspicions and hypothesis -- that we cannot be people who act with conviction and who believe in fairness, thoroughness and working without a preconceived mindset. His is an example of what none of us should strive for.   

    It started out innocently enough.  

   A comment made to an ongoing online list for Investigative Reporters and Editors…An organization Steve and I once belonged to.  In fact, Steve was one of its founding members years ago.

   Freelance journalist Charles Reid posted a friendly comment August  11th with a subject line “Into the Buzzsaw.” Buzzsaw (Prometheus, 2002) is the book that I contributed to after being asked to by editor, Kristina Borjesson. See reviews in Amazon


    Reid writes, 
           
              
"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."

    Buzzsaw is a good book but also an important book.  I can’t recall any effort by a group of journalists who’ve decided enough is enough.  Eighteen of us, give examples of how important stories are kept from the public in a variety of ways.  Each person went out on a limb to publish their experience and all should be commended, least of all me since I was already way out on a limb and unemployed.   Most of these folks are still working somewhere.

   Little did Charles Reid know what he had started.   

  John Sugg is the author of many of the 34 emails he contributed to the list under the subject  
line “Buzzsaw,”over the next two weeks.


Sugg is an editor for a weekly alternative paper in Atlanta called Creative Loafing. 

   He had a similar position at the weekly paper in Tampa, The Weekly Planet,
during the time of our lawsuit against the Fox-owned station, WTVT.  Both
 papers are partially owned by the Cox newspaper chain.

 


Attacker Sugg
Still a Boy Scout?

      Sugg’s weekly column in Atlanta is called “Fishwrapper”—need I say more.  The writer made 
his transition to weekly independent news after working at the daily paper, the Tampa Tribune.  
Depending on who you talk too, the stories about him vary, but they are all cloaked in 
controversy.  

   Sugg is quoted as saying, “I don’t advocate “objective” journalism.”   He seems to have a 
love-hate relationship with his chosen profession—always letting you know what a maverick he 
is by signing off with so-called “Gonzo Journalist,” HunterThompson.   
                                     

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

   I was never a big Thompson fan.  Too much machismo and cigarette smoke for me.

  The back and forth online about Buzzsaw was interrupted with a rather nasty lashing out by Sugg 
the same day.

              “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”

   Sugg then goes on to post a story his Tampa paper ran three years earlier, at the time of our trial.   It’s vicious and inaccurate and highlights how little fact-checking went on at the Tampa weekly paper.  Click here

    ( Sidebar -- In the article, now posted again for all the Investigative Reporters and Editors to read, Sugg recounts how we met with him in March of 1997 to discuss the rBGH story.   Yes, we did want to get the story out and with Fox now weaseling out and beginning the edit saga that was to go on for eight months, it was clear we had to place the story elsewhere.

    I believe we contacted the Miami Herald as well.  The problem became clear that we would run into the same problem if Monsanto started to pressure the Miami Herald, especially if the paper was put on notice in advance of publication that Monsanto wanted it killed.  It became very clear we weren’t going to have anybody else pick up the report.

    In this now three year old article, Sugg defends WTVT saying the station was still trying to work with us despite our “intransigence and arrogant hostility,” a characterization that needs to be attributed to someone with a first hand opinion. Sugg doesn’t bother.  So often he proves himself to be the perfect waterboy for Fox. 

   He also insists that the station wanted to put the story on the air.   All of us did —the news director who was fired by Fox; the general manager—who was fired by Fox.  Unfortunately the people who probably would have been there to help us get the story on the air were all fired, leaving us with an assistant news director who was vying for the ND position, and the Fox lawyers who had a different mandate.   

    Sugg says Steve is guilty of ridicule and intimidation in responding to his reporter’s story at the time.  We did send his reporter a letter about her article.  In it, the reporter repeated an assertion by the Fox attorney, that my husband called me a “dumb bitch,” during my deposition.  The beauty of having a court reporter in the room is that every audible utterance is recorded.  All the reporter had to do was check the record.  She didn’t do so.  The Fox p-o-v was repeated and again repeated here three years later.  No fact checking necessary for the Weekly Planet or Sugg.  Is it laziness or that preconceived mindset again? )

    Steve replies, if Borjesson was snookered, so were many other people who have seen fit to recognize us for our work and courage in journalism. Click here

    Unfortunately, the IRE list discussion disintegrated eventually into a series of strong rants from Sugg, who at one point even called another journalist, Bob Port, a liar for his contribution to Buzzsaw.  Eventually a few independent voices spoke up and asked the nastiness to cease. Click here

    Meanwhile Charles Reid, who had started the IRE discussion about Buzzsaw, published his article on the book.  See http://www.american-reporter.com/

    All was quiet on the IRE list for awhile but Sugg had been stirred up by the support for Buzzsaw and its contributors on the IRE list.  On August 29th, 2003 Sugg began the electronic assault to our personal emails, essentially advising us that he planned to out us as less than honest about the fundraising we had done on our website to help pay for legal costs. Click here

    His premise: we had funded a “luxury lifestyle” by misappropriating funds supporters had sent us to fight what we’ve always considered a lawsuit in the public interest.  His false assumptions:  
1) we’ve made a lot of money from supporters and 2) we must have used that money to pay personal bills or furnish our home.  It’s important to note—he has never identified any fact that would connect the dots, no indication we have misused funds.  Furthermore, no one but Sugg has ever launched such a charge and there is no investigation by anyone, just Sugg’s lone voice.

    We informed Sugg that his facts regarding real estate linked to our names were not accurate.  We told him, whatever he thought he had discovered should be checked with the primary source of public real estate records available, in this case the county property appraisers’ office.  Click here

    His response?   It doesn’t matter if the information is wrong—anything he publishes that is part of a public record—he is covered, bullet-proof from a legal standpoint.   Never mind an honest journalist’s first duty to accuracy, getting your facts correct.   Just make sure you’re covered legally, immune from any lawsuit.  If I were the boss of a reporter like that, I would be very nervous. 

    We thought this rather arrogant—wouldn’t you want to get it right, not just assure you were covered from prosecution?   Instead of correcting his error, he demanded us to correct it for him. Click here

     September 11th—as the rest of the nation mourned and remembered—Sugg’s article was published in Creative Loafing/ Atlanta  in which he slams us even harder.  And even though we wrote him our response in advance of the article—Sugg includes not a word of the response we offered.  Click here

   Tired of the attack, Steve contacts the editor of Creative Loafing to see in what format they would accept a response. The paper’s VP of Editorial affairs responded in the absence of the editor.  See message. After that contact, it was noticeable how Sugg’s demeanor changed. Click here

   The second assault arrives when Sugg e-mails us again with another tirade less than a week later.  Now he is certain we could be facing felony charges and $10,000 in civil penalties for not registering our fundraising activities with the state.  Our fundraising activities consisted on a single page on our website, suggesting three ways supporters could help.  One of them was to make a cash contribution to help pay legal bills. Click here  

   He also accused us of grossly exaggerating the fact that we face $3 million in reimbursement of Fox legal fees if the appellate decision is not overturned. 

   Some background here:   Florida’s 2nd District Court of Appeal last February, when it overturned the jury verdict in my favor, decided we should be on the hook for the legal fees and costs Fox spent on its defense.   We asked Sugg to check with his friends at Fox to see if they plan to withdraw their motion to seek those fees and told him that unless they did so, our estimated liability has never been exaggerated.  

   Then, on September 17, 2003, a little known on-line media site called News Blues decides to get on board Sugg’s assault train.  News Blues calls itself the online outlet for TV News whiners.  In fact, during its heyday, it had a bulletin board where people would post anonymous complaints, accusations and dirty secrets from inside the newsrooms of various stations around the country.  Probably due to legal liability issues, the bulletin board has been taken down and now News Blues is nothing more than its editors speculation, whining, and occasionally a leak from a newsroom that eventually turns out to be, to some degree, true.  As one subscriber told us: About 20% of what’s in there is about 10% true—sometimes.”
   
   Read this article from NewsBlues

  At any rate, we’ve never met the News Blues editor Mr. James or Mona Scott.  And they’ve never contacted us.  I note that Mr. James’ topic during a journalism conference a few months back was: “Forget Journalism—Gossip, Innuendo and Rumor for Online Fun and Profit.”  
  
  
Read this article from Sun Sentinel

  It doesn’t seem to go with the image they portray on their site.  You can read about them here: 

   Read this article from NewsBlues  

   But after some discussion with Sugg, the editor of NewsBlues also decided we are Sham Martyrs and starting writing about us on their site.  BTW- they placed not one call to us.
 
Things get nasty.  Unfortunately, hundreds of people see this little rag.  Some may even believe a fraction of it is true. 

  (Sidebar --  Other inaccuracies here in NB- that our case was thrown out on the basis of news distortion, leaving the impression that Fox was not guilty of such a thing.  False! NewsBlues doesn’t understand the legal technicalities here, nor did they do any research for this report. 

   The appellate decision to overturn our case does not go into what the jury decided after a five week trial---that Fox WAS guilty of news distortion.  The 2nd DCA does not look into the merits of the case at all.  Instead the 3 justices decided that the news distortion we were fighting, does not qualify as a whistleblower issue, therefore the case never should have gone to trial in the first place. 

   Why doesn’t it fall under the definition?  Under whistleblower law, the misdeed the whistleblower reports must be illegal, defined as a violation of a law, rule or regulation.  The basis of our case was that lying, falsifying the news over the public airwaves is illegal in that it violates the Federal Communication Commission’s rules and regulations against news distortion.   The three judges didn’t agree.

   The bottom line is good news for any disreputable news broadcaster---go ahead and lie on the public’s airwaves.  The 2nd DCA has essentially decided that a whisteblower will never be able to blow the whistle on a broadcast station’s misdeeds.  That sounds like a story to me. 

    NewsBlues has so many things wrong, among them that Sugg covered the entire Wilson Akre case when he was editor of Weekly Planet.  False!   Sugg was actually supposed to testify at trial to the chilling effect our run-in with Fox had had on Steve’s career.  Because Sugg was a potential witness, he was barred from most of the trial.  He did have a reporter there for a few days of the five week trial.)  

   We are told by a media attorney there is not much one can do when attacked by an on-line rag.  Lawyers are reluctant to take such cases against such an organization funded by some single malcontent who, as my mother in law likes to say, “doesn’t have a pot to pee in, or a window to throw it out of.”  Lawyers view such cases as business decisions.  All such cases take the same amount of time and effort, so why not concentrate on those cases where the defendants have deeper pockets?

   Nonetheless, Steve wrote to News Blues and asked for a correction.  Click here

   Two days later, News Blues responds not with a correction but a repeat of Sugg’s never-documented hypothesis: we shouldn’t live in a luxury home (complete with the address where our nine year old daughter also lives) and implying Steve is lying when he says we don’t live in a townhouse (we don’t and property records we accessed do not say townhouse). Click here

   Sugg and his friend at News Blues finally figure out the error in the public record and Steve responds. Click here

    Meanwhile, Sugg got back to us to inform us he had erred on another, more important allegation:  he admits we do not have to register with the state as he thought.  (Interesting how his tune changed after we included his bosses in emails, requesting a correction to the Media Jackels story.)  Click here

   Even though we sent Sugg’s admission of his error to News Blues, that gossip sheet never corrected its earlier stories and just quietly dropped the whole issue. Click here

    Assault # ? –are you keeping score?   Now comes a whole new line of attack, however with a more civil tone.   Sugg now wants to know if we really hid money under our mattress as Steve said during a deposition from October of 1999. 

    Now where would Sugg get such an obscure document that was never entered into evidence at the trial?  Who is feeding this stuff to him?  There were at least 20,000 documents entered into evidence in our case and Mr. Sugg has never proven himself to be top heavy in the research department.  Click here

   And the beat goes on.  Also on Sept 19, 2003, Sugg raises another issue for a new assault.   The $3 million in legal fees we are facing, if the Second District Court of Appeal does not reverse its February 2003 ruling in this matter (we have appealed this).  Conservatively, the cost and fees run up by Fox and its high priced attorneys is at least $3 million.  One source we promised not to identify says Fox believes it could be $5 million.  Whatever the number, Murdoch’s henchmen have filed a motion to recover that money from me and Steve.   But never mind the facts, Sugg believes that our estimate is an exaggeration.  Click here

   This brings us to September 25, 2003 when Sugg now has a new line of questioning.   He is inquiring whether the “reasonable belief” standard of a whistleblower is enough to prove that Fox actually did distort and falsify the news. Click here

    Some more Background:   A whistleblower in Florida is someone who a.) fails to participate in or b.) plans to report to authorities what they believe to be his or her employer’s illegal activity.  For example, if my boss tells me to pour sludge into the municipal waterway, I do not have to have a chemical analysis done of the material and research state laws to first determine what amount of petrochemical by-products are allowable under county and state ordinances before I report it.  The law is intended to grant remedy to whistleblowers and not make them jump through that hoop. 

   The jurors in my case said YES to the fact that Fox was guilty of pressuring me to falsify the news.  There was no doubt about whether I merely reasonably believed the story was “false, distorted, or slanted.”  When you look at the actual jury verdict form, the jury determined it was actually false, distorted, or slanted.  In fact, if jurors did not accept that premise, they could not have gone on to find in my favor and award me $425,000.  Here is the Verdict Form for Jane Akre from our trial of July-August 2000.

       "Do you find that the Plaintiff Jane Akre has proven, by the greater weight of the 
evidence,   that the Defendant, through its employees or agents, terminated her employment
or took other retaliatory personnel action against her , because she threatened to disclose to the Federal Communications Commission under oath, in writing, the broadcast of a false, distorted, or slanted news report which she reasonably believed would violate the 
prohibition against intentional falsification or distortion of the news on television, if it were aired?”
  

    YES,” the jurors checked. 

   September 30, 2003: Back to an earlier issue that is still very much alive with Sugg.  It’s the “mattress question” again.  The fact that Steve testified in a 1999 deposition—undoubtedly fed to Sugg by Fox attorneys—that Steve once removed $5,000 from the Citizens Fund for the Right to Know.   

   Sugg wants to know if we used this money for our own good.  Steve answers that this was done at a time we caught private investigators, likely sent by Fox, picking up our garbage at the curb, looking for private papers and evidence to support their defense.  Steve had truthfully testified that the lawsuit had distracted him from completing our tax returns on time.  Our accountant advised that if Fox were to use that information by reporting us to IRS, the government could freeze our bank accounts.  This would not only make it difficult to pay the light bill, we would not be able to continue to finance the lawsuit.  Since, in our minds, it was not a stretch to believe the defendants might try such a tactic, Steve withdrew the money and held it outside the bank.  He took it in the form of a cashier’s check and never cashed it.  It was held only until the return was filed weeks later, then re-deposited back into the same Citizens Fund account.

    Sugg essentially wants to know if that is the right way to treat the IRS, or were you lying in your deposition? See message  Steve asks to see his deposition, which Sugg supplies only in what he says are the “relevant parts,” but later agrees to submit the entire document.

    Since Sugg asked me the same questions about $5,000 and it no doubt came up in my deposition as well during 1999, I ask him for the transcript of my testimony as well.  He refuses.  Click here

    Steve issued a final statement hoping to put the “money under the mattress” statement to rest (no pun intended).   Click here

    Steve finally relents and offers Sugg proof positive in the form a bank statement which shows the re-deposit of the $5,000, exactly as he previously represented it to Sugg. Click here

    But even that doesn’t quiet our relentless columnist.  He now insists even if he saw the statement, it would not prove how that re-deposited money was eventually spent.  This is madness—and it is clear Sugg will not be content until he sees every private record he wants to peruse.   He suggests he may need even more documentation in the future.  Steve has had it. 
  Click here

    Steve does what any investigative reporter does when he wants to get to the truth.  He picked up the phone and called Sugg directly October 7th at his office in Atlanta. It went something like this: 

Steve:  “How long are you going to keep trying to pound this square peg into a round hole?” 

Sugg:  Who is this?”

Steve:  This is Steve Wilson” (long silence)

    What followed was what they call at the U-N a “free and frank discussion between the parties.”  A few minutes in, Steve asked Sugg: “By the way John, are you recording this conversation? “  There was a long pause, then Sugg continues with a previous point.  Steve interrupts and repeats the question.

   John, I asked if you were recording this conversation.”  Another long pause,  Sugg replies that it certainly would not be illegal to do so since he is in a state that does not legally require notification of such a recording.

    Steve hangs up the phone.  A few minutes later, he calls Sugg back to explain why he does not trust Sugg as a man or a journalist.  Steve explains many reporters record calls.  The honest ones admit it when asked.  Sugg claims now he is not, and was not, recording.  Steve has doubts but doesn’t care if the conversation is recorded.

    After this conversation, Sugg sends another email clarifying what was said on the phone.  
Click here


   Creative Loafing had promised us space for a correction.  Instead of writing it out, Steve decided what was most important was a correction of all the errors the paper allowed Sugg to publish.  He spent most of two days listing and compiling documentation of the falsity of just those things that were beyond dispute.  He ignored Sugg’s speculation and clear statements of opinion, no matter how baseless they were.  Click here

     But what we ended up with was merely a “Clarification” buried so deep in the paper’s online version it was—and remains—nearly impossible to find.  Almost all professional news organizations agree with journalist ethics codes and standards which say corrections should be swift and displayed as prominently as the original error.  

    Steve writes to CL’s editorial V-P, Neil Skene, asking what happened? See message

     Although Sugg has published more than 2,000 words smearing us, we are  given no more than 500 to respond.  How much can you say with 500 words?  Not much.  Click here

    Mr. Skene seems to recognize the error in not making a correction/clarification prominent on the website. Click here  But we were disappointed that he did not seem to personally review the points for a correction that Steve documented.  He apparently wrote off the whole dispute to the difference between a home or a townhouse.

    And even as we come to the end of this saga, Creative Loafing finally does run Steve’s Letter to the Editor in its October 9th issue. 
See:
http://www.atlanta.creativeloafing.com/2003-10-09/letters.html

   At this writing, we have asked the corrections and the Letter to the Editor to be displayed as prominently as the first Media Jackels piece.  CL did attach the “Clarification” to the bottom of its on line edition for all to see. http://www.atlanta.creativeloafing.com/2003-09-11/fishwrapper.html

   We are still waiting for the Letter to the Editor to be as easy to access on line. After all, it’s only fair, not to mention adheres to the professional standards set forth for all credible publications and broadcasts.  

   Goodbye and hopefully goodnight.

   See more on Ken Edelstein, editor of CL and Neil Skene

   One must know when to quit and when enough is enough.  But it is very interesting to be on this side of a smear when so many irrefutable facts are on your side and mostly what you get in return is a wall of arrogance.  I can’t help but believe our profession would be so much healthier if journalists would listen and dig beyond what is necessary to fill the pages fuelled with their own wild speculation.  

   Steve is presently doing investigative work for the ABC television station in Detroit.  Sugg, or someone carrying his water, even went so far as to tip off the radio-TV columnist for the Detroit paper, apparently hoping he might extend the trashing to the mainstream media.  Fortunately, the Detroit writer was more of a journalist in discerning what was a strong story worth publishing than those we dealt with at CL or NewsBlues. He failed to find Sugg’s baseless speculation newsworthy.

   But in responding to an inquiry the Detroit paper made of Steve, I think my former reporting partner summed up the whole experience pretty well when he wrote this:

    “You know the real story here, if there is one?  It is how such an attack on someone who makes a living questioning others, as we do, can be a powerful reminder of the importance of checking facts and being fair to everyone who is the target of an investigation. 

   “Without trying to sound too self-serving, I have always done my very best to put accuracy and fairness above all else when producing my own reports...but this is a vivid reminder of why it is so important to be both accurate and fair.  As personally painful as it is, I wonder if every investigative journalist ought not to get such a reminder at least once in his life.”

Post script—by Jane Akre

    
   I had hoped this would be the end, even a madman gets tired.  But unfortunately Sugg has struck again.  This time writing for the Fishwrapper’s sister publication in Tampa, The Weekly Planet.

    I can’t help but wonder that the readers in Tampa surely deserve a paper that serves up substance and facts about their community, not the ranting of a columnist gone wild.   See it at :  http://www.weeklyplanet.com/current/news_feature.html

   Again, it is filled with so much commentary, so much of it based on nothing but hypothesis and conjecture.  I almost wouldn’t mind as much if it were labeled as commentary—but it isn’t.  Also omitted was our “clarification,” and the Letter to the Editor which should both be displayed prominently, even though it is a different publication.   The Weekly Planet did not even contact us before berating us in their paper.  Apparently they left the entire editorial content up to Sugg, which is a major mistake.

    Sugg lies to readers when he says “Wilson acknowledged he has no basis for the $3-million figure…..”  Wilson has told him he does have a basis for the fees we could be on the hook for, that estimate coming from courtroom insiders who followed our case.  In other words Sugg has been, as lawyers would say, “put on notice,” that this statement is false.  Are his editors asleep at the wheel?  Can this be anything else but malicious?  Can you say Jayson Blair?   See the emails here. Click here

    And as a dutiful puppy, once again NewsBlues jumps on the trash bandwagon, this time labeling us as “Deceitful Crusaders,” who keep money under the mattress.  Again no attempt to ever contact us by NB. See message