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Were TV news bloodhounds called off the chase?

By ERIC DEGGANS

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 12, 1998


Like the mythical Pandora's Box of human ills, a lawsuit filed against WTVT-Ch. 13 by two ex-reporters raises a host of troubling questions, including one that strikes at the heart of modern-day TV journalism:

Is this an example of local TV's growing reluctance to air hard-hitting investigative news pieces?

More specifically: Did management at the Fox affiliate try to water down the stories -- a four-part series on the possible risks of a synthetic growth hormone for dairy cows called Posilac -- submitted by the husband-and-wife investigative team of Steve Wilson and Jane Akre?

According to Wilson's and Akre's suit, filed April 2, WTVT was prepared to broadcast their stories in February 1997, but executives changed their minds at the 11th hour after receiving a threatening letter from attorneys representing Monsanto, the makers of Posilac.

The subject -- a synthetic hormone that increases another substance in milk that some experts say can cause cancer -- was the kind of technical, tough-to-follow story that TV often avoids like the plague.

There's a reason why so much of what passes for investigative journalism on TV these days ignores major corporations with the resources to fund expensive legal battles, and the couple say such concerns prompted WTVT to stretch out the editing process for nine months until the station could fire them.

WTVT has released a statment denying the charges, blaming the stalemate on Akre's and Wilson's unwillingness to check facts and balance the stories.

The truth, as always, lies somewhere in the middle.

WTVT dulls its ax blade

Hired as general manager in March 1997 months after Fox bought the station, Dave Boylan began working at WTVT after the initial decision to hold Akre's and Wilson's story.

From his earliest days in the job, Boylan has emphasized consumer issues and less critical reporting in his vision for investigative work at the station, saying in July, "I'm not so sure all the viewer wants to see is system-failure reporting. You may also want to know what's right with our schools. We don't want an editorial image focused on pointing fingers."

So it's no surprise that a recent WTVT series is titled "What's Right With Our Schools," and a February investigative story by reporter Nathan Lang -- hired in December to replace Akre and Wilson -- offered an inconclusive report on bacteria you might pick up while eating at a restaurant table.

But Boylan now points to a rebuilt consumer investigative team at WTVT, including two reporters, two photographers and three producers, saying he has "changed his position" on the focus of investigative work at the station.

"I could take the resources we have here and match them up against any other station in the market," the general manager adds, saying the unit will need time to assemble quality investigative pieces for the station. "I'd like you to ask me about this issue in a year."

Still, critics fear that the consumer-news-driven investigative reports now seen at WTVT are part of an ongoing trend in TV news, especially at the local level, where pressures to get more stories out of a limited staff, concerns about litigation and a fear of boring viewers have squeezed out investigative reporting at many TV stations.

"What passes for investigative reporting on local TV news these days is often a mishmash of self-serving, superficial reports on consumer rip-offs and government waste," read a report last year in the American Journalism Review, quoting a collection of TV consultants, reporters and executives.

It is this dynamic that Wilson says prompted WTVT to attempt removing the strongest language in the Posilac report, including references to the hormone as "crack for cows" (a widely quoted phrase coined by critics), statements that the substance is banned in Canada and the often-disputed possibility of a link to tumor growth.

"Steve and I felt it would be wrong to withhold information from parents," Akre said at a news conference April 2. "It's a story millions of Floridians have a right to know about."

As Wilson, Akre, Boylan and Fox attorneys sparred over the issue, WTVT's investigative unit -- which had been considered a hallmark of the station, with several producers and photographers -- remained mostly paralyzed for nearly a year.

Monsanto letter gives pause

At the time, it sounded like a perfect move.

Akre, an ex-anchor at WTSP-CH. 10 and a veteran of CNN and WSVN in Miami, would make $149,500 over two years to file short investigative pieces every few days and anchor WTVT's weekend morning newscasts.

Her husband, Steve Wilson, a former top investigative reporter at Inside Edition, would be paid $85,500 over two years for 10 hours of work per week on larger stories for the all-important "sweeps" ratings periods.

Given control of WTVT's non-consumer investigative reporting efforts in November 1996, the couple chose to look at Posilac, also known as rBGH.

Approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1993, Posilac also has been approved by the World Health Organization, American Medical Association and the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization -- all saying milk from Posilac-treated cows is safe.

But Wilson's and Akre's series outlined several criticisms of the hormone, including a concern that one element of rBGH could contribute to tumor growth in some people.

Grocery store chains such as Publix, Albertson's and Food Lion made public statements in 1994 saying they would ask their suppliers to provide milk from Posilac-free cows. But they now acknowledge they don't know what effect, if any, their request had and can't assure customers that their milk is free from the hormone.

Planned as WTVT's big investigative story for its February "sweeps" ratings period, the Posilac series had already been promoted on radio advertisements trumpeting an air date of Monday, Feb. 24, 1997.

On the Friday before the package was to be broadcast, WTVT received a five-page letter from Monsanto attorneys that detailed criticisms of the series' premise and reporting techniques used by the couple.

"What has Monsanto concerned . . . is the assault on their integrity . . . blatantly carried on by Ms. Akre and Mr. Wilson," attorney John Walsh said in a letter to Roger Ailes, president of Fox News Corp., dated Feb. 21, 1997, according to documents provided by Akre and Wilson. "In the aftermath of the Food Lion verdict, such behavior would alone be cause for concern."

A month earlier, a jury had ordered ABC to pay Food Lion $5.5-million in damages for a critical story in which the truth of the allegations -- that the grocery store chain repackaged spoiled meat for resale -- was never disputed.

The lesson for journalists was clear: Even a truthful story might not protect you from a painful court decision. When WTVT officials held off on airing the Posilac story, Wilson and Akre feared the worst.

A nine-month war of words ensued, during which the couple say they rewrote the series more than 70 times. As negotiations broke down, WTVT offered the pair a settlement agreement worth about $125,000, suspended them, unsuspended them and finally decided in September 1997 to release them from their two-year contracts, according to Akre's and Wilson's lawsuit.

"A lot of people now are more fearful of doing investigative journalism since Food Lion . . . which is why we have so many lawyers involved," says Phil Metlin, who took over as WTVT's news director in July. "We have to be careful . . . and prudent."

But comments from Boylan in July reveal more. Back then, Boylan admitted that much of the stalemate stemmed from personal conflicts, including battles between himself and Wilson.

"This story has taken on a life of its own because of the personalities involved," the general manager said then, about a month before station officials would decide to fire Akre and Wilson. "What you have here are two disgruntled employees. This could be done in an afternoon if the personalities were resolved."

Boylan denied that the station was responding to any legal threat from Monsanto.

"This gets into . . . a williness to check facts or review a story," the general manager said. "People who have worked in a tabloid environment . . . maybe they're not used to that."

Wilson, the tenacious bulldog

Certainly, Wilson has developed a reputation over the years as a hard-nosed reporter, ready and willing to use in-your-face techniques to get at a story.

In assembling pieces for Inside Edition, he scuffled with a U.S. senator, saw CBS news anchor Dan Rather throw a few choice four-letter expletives his way, and faced an invasion-of-privacy lawsuit after tailing subjects in a rented boat (the suit was reportedly settled in February 1997 without any payment by either side).

But he also produced stories that forced two recalls of faulty door latches in Chrysler minivans and exposed ABC news anchor Sam Donaldson's moves to accept farming subsidies while criticizing them on the air.

"(Wilson) is a dogged and careful investigator . . . (whose) high-decibel level of journalism has probably brought him some small measure of fame," says Howard Kurtz, media critic at the Washington Post, who has written a few stories on the reporter's exploits. "But he often complicates things with his theatrical style . . . which sometimes isn't necessary to get at the story."

Tim Peek, a producer at Dateline NBC, worked with Wilson for three years at Inside Edition. He praised Wilson's journalism skills while noting that in editorial conflicts, "It gets personal a lot quicker with Steve. Steve is incredibly demanding, and everyone finds that difficult to deal with in working with him. He's somebody who will never back off."

'Marketing the news like socks'

Since they both left WTVT, the couple have sold their spacious home in East Lake's ritzy Boot Ranch development. ("When our family income dropped to zero, it seemed prudent," Wilson says.)

Preparing for a possible move to their other home, a ranch in North Carolina, Wilson says the TV news business may have no place for him or his wife -- leaving him convinced that executives are more concerned with selling advertising time than presenting quality stories.

"There's a growing mindset in this business where they're marketing the news like they market socks or any other product," says Wilson, who has promised to use proceeds from any court judgment above $125,000 to establish a foundation for embattled journalists. "Everybody should be concerned about that."

With the personality conflicts and lack of definitive scientific evidence, Wilson's and Akre's case may not be the perfect example to illustrate the trend of increasingly irrelevant reporting in TV news.

But the pointed lack of such reportage elsewhere on the TV dial speaks volumes. Viewers are left to wonder who will watch the corporations that feed, clothe and transport us all if journalists do not.

To reach Eric Deggans, call 893-8521, e-mail deggans@sptimes.com or see the Times Web site at http://www.sptimes.com.



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