FIRED TV REPORTERS SUE
OVER DERAILED MILK-HORMONE SERIES
Published: Saturday, April 4, 1998
FT. LAUDERDALE SUN-SENTINEL
By LARRY LEBOWITZ Staff Writer
Two former TV reporters who tried to tell Florida milk consumers about the hormone-injection debate say their bosses at a Fox-owned affiliate bowed to pressure from a chemical manufacturer and effectively killed their series.
In a lawsuit filed this week, the husband-and-wife team of Jane Akre and Steve Wilson accuse Tampa's WTVT-Ch. 13 not only of squashing their series on bovine growth hormone and its disputed links to cancer, but also of ordering factually inaccurate rewrites.
The station categorically denied ever asking the reporters to include false information. General Manager David Boylan said WTVT wanted a fair, balanced story and when the reporters refused, they were legally terminated.
WTVT news managers reviewed the series and scheduled it to air starting Feb. 24, 1997. But on the eve of broadcast, Monsanto Co., which manufactures the hormone under the trade name Prosilac, hired a powerful New York attorney, John J. Walsh of Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft, to complain to Roger Ailes, the former Republican operative and current chairman and CEO of Fox News.
WTVT delayed the series despite extensive February sweeps promotions. Station lawyers and managers reviewed the reports, found no errors in the reporting, rescheduled them to air a week later and offered Monsanto the opportunity to be interviewed a second time, the suit says.
Instead, Walsh responded with another series of complaints to Ailes. The series was derailed again. Over the next four months, Akre and Wilson say they revised the script 76 times.
The suit alleges Boylan refused to kill the story for fear word would leak out that the station bowed to pressure from special interests. The reporters allege Boylan ordered them to air a version containing false information, and he threatened to fire them within 48 hours if they refused.
Instead, Boylan offered a buyout. According to the unsigned agreement, contained in court papers, the reporters had to finish the series to the satisfaction of WTVT management and abide by a confidentiality agreement. They refused and ultimately were fired in December.
Akre and Wilson say their broadcast careers are over. They sold their house and are collecting unemployment. Wilson said they are not trying to bilk Fox for millions of dollars.
They say they are entitled to the final year's salary and benefits –about $150,000 combined--that they were contractually due when they were fired, plus attorneys' fees. Anything else they might win will be donated to a journalism foundation, Wilson said, adding:
"When media managers who are not journalists have so little regard for the public trust that they actually order reporters to broadcast false information and slant the truth to curry the favor or avoid the wrath of special interests, that is the day any responsible reporter has to stand up and say, `No way.' "
Boylan sees it differently: "The station ended the employment of the Wilson-Akre team when it became apparent that their journalistic differences could not be resolved despite the station's extraordinary efforts to complete the story. . . . The reporters were not willing to be objective in the story nor accept editorial oversight and news counsel."
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