RALPH NADER COMING TO TESTIFY?
JUDGE DENIES FOX MOTION; TRIAL WILL
PROCEED ON CLAIM REPORTERS WERE FIRED
BY FOX FOR REFUSING TO LIE ON THE AIR
TAMPA (October 13, 1999) In a
decision sure to stun Fox Television and its high-priced Washington
lawyers, a second Florida state court judge has refused to dismiss the
whistleblower lawsuit filed by investigative reporters Steve Wilson and
Jane Akre who say they were fired for refusing to lie on the air at WTVT
The latest ruling by Judge
Gaspar Ficarrotta soundly rejects all of the arguments put forth
by the nationís biggest chain of television stations, including
its position that no jury should ever be allowed to decide whether
a station wanted to slant or distort a news report.
Fox contended that only the FCC
has the authority to review and pass judgment on a TV stationís
news decisions and they argued the FCC "never has and never
would" find any licensee guilty of deliberate distortion of
the news in any case remotely similar to that brought by Wilson
The decision virtually guarantees that
the case will go to before a Tampa jury, although an exact trial date
remains uncertain. The trial which has been twice delayed at the request
of Fox was scheduled to start last Monday (October 11) but a crowded
court docket has resulted in an indefinite delay.
The decision is also significant
because it means that broadcasters (at least in Florida) are not
automatically immune from suits brought by their own journalists who,
like Wilson and Akre, claim they were suspended and fired for refusing
to distort the news and for threatening to blow the whistle on a
stationís alleged misconduct. The Tampa plaintiffs say thatís
exactly what happened to them when they tried to broadcast the truth
about bovine growth hormone (BGH) on Channel 13 in Tampa after Fox took
control of the station in early 1997.
Foxís latest effort to
have the case dismissed without a trial was the work of a
beefed-up defense team headed by lawyers from Williams &
Connolly, the D.C. firm that has represented President Clinton in
his Whitewater and impeachment troubles. The Washington
attorneys David Kendall, Bill McDaniels and others were
retained after local counsel Patricia Anderson and
William McGowan in Florida lost both a Motion To Dismiss and the
first Motion For Summary Judgment.
McDaniels and his colleagues submitted
more than eight pounds of paperwork and personally argued before the
court that the reportersí claim was "disconnected from
reality" and should be summarily dismissed. After previously losing
itís argument that there is no law, rule, or regulation against
slanting the news, the broadcasterís latest assault on the
reportersí claim was based on several grounds, all rejected by Judge
"This is another important
victory for the publicís right to know," said plaintiff Steve
Wilson. "Our legal team may not represent the President of the
United States but this ruling shows that with the facts in this case,
our own home team of Tampa lawyers can and ultimately will prevail over
the best legal talent money can buy."
Wilson has represented himself
through most of the pre-trial proceedings, primarily to cut
expenses on the litigation which has already cost Fox more than $1
million according to reliable sources. Akre is represented by
Steve Wenzel (of Wenzel & Fenton) and John Chamblee (of
Chamblee & Johnson). It was Chamblee and Wilson who submitted
written briefs and made the successful oral arguments in
opposition to the Fox motion.
The BGH Bulletin
requested comment from Fox attorneys and their client but a written
request was ignored. Fox lawyer Gary Roberts, who once told the
plaintiffs, "This case will never get to trial," also
refused to comment.
The ruling keeps the case on track for
a trial which was to have begun last Monday but has been delayed
indefinitely due to the Judgeís crowded docket. There have been
indications that the matter might not be heard until next Spring.
The journalists have indicated they
intend to call consumer activist Ralph Nader as an expert on the public
interest. WTVT and all stations that use the public airwaves are
required to operate in the public interest.
Fox has filed motion after motion
designed to limit who can testify and what the jury can hear at trial.
The defendants are seeking to block any testimony by Nader and virtually
all of the other expert witnesses who have been listed to appear and
testify on behalf of the journalists about journalism and science issues
related to the case.
They are also seeking to eliminate any
testimony about the two large cash offers Fox made the reporters long
before they were fired and the suit was filed. Both times the
broadcaster offered the reporters six-figure sums conditioned on a
promise they would never publicly discuss what they discovered about
Floridaís milk supply or the way Fox handled the news story.
Wilson and Akre have both said they
viewed the payments as hush money designed to protect Fox and its dairy
and grocery advertisers, all of whom preferred the truth not be told.
The plaintiffs are opposing all of the motions aimed at hiding the truth
from a jury, too.
"Apparently, if they canít keep
the case out of court altogether, their next strategy is to conceal most
of the relevant information a jury can hear," said co-plaintiff
Akre. "There seems to be no end to the efforts these people will
make to try and cover their tracks and hide what they did. When the
evidence is finally laid out in open courtroom, it will be easy to see
For further information:
Jane Akre or Steve Wilson
Reportersí Attorney (813) 251-4542
Full details of suit and
BGH story available at http://www.foxBGHsuit.com