In April, TV news journalists Jane Akre and Steve Wilson were
honored with a Goldman Environmental Prize, one of the world's most
prestigious environmental awards, for their courageous efforts to
expose the potential threat to public health posed by rBGH, the
genetically modified growth hormone American dairies have been injecting
into their cows. What follows is the tale of their battle with Fox
News, which killed their story and fired them.
After three judges, 27 months of pre-trial wrangling and five weeks
of courtroom testimony, the jury finally had its say. On August
28, 2000, it awarded me $425,000 in damages for being fired by TV
station WTVT in Tampa, Florida. WTVT
is a Fox station owned by Rupert Murdoch. The verdict made me the
first journalist ever to win a "whistleblower" judgment in court
against a news organization accused of illegally distorting the
Notwithstanding being vindicated in court, I have yet to collect
a dime of that jury
award. There is no telling how long Fox will drag out the appeals
process as it seeks to have the judgment overturned by a higher court.
Meanwhile, I am still out of work, as is my husband, Steve Wilson,
who was also fired on December 2, 1997, for refusing to falsify a
news story to appease the powerful Monsanto
The story Fox tried to kill involved rBGH milk, which is produced
using Monsanto's recombinant bovine growth hormone. We documented
how the hormone, which can harm cows, was approved by the government
as a veterinary drug without adequate testing of how it affected
the children and adults who drink rBGH milk.
You would think that our jury verdict, with its landmark significance
for journalists everywhere, would spark some interest from the news
media itself. Instead, the silence has been deafening. One of the
biggest names in investigative reporting at one of the best network
newsmagazines took a look at our case--and then decided not to do
a story. Why not? He deemed it "too inside baseball." Translation:
There is an unwritten rule that news organizations seldom turn their
critical eyes on themselves or even their competitors.
This rule is not absolute, of course. Some previous legal challenges
involving the media have received heavy news coverage, including
the battle between 60 Minutes and Vietnam-era Gen. William Westmoreland;
the "food disparagement" lawsuit that Texas cattlemen brought against
talk-show host Oprah Winfrey; and the multimillion-dollar lawsuit
brought against ABC-TV by the Food Lion grocery store chain.
All of those other lawsuits, however, involved conflicts between
a news organization and some outside group or individual. Our lawsuit
involved a conflict within the media, pitting labor (working journalists
Steve and myself) against broadcast managers, editors and their
attorneys who hijacked the editorial process in an effort to remove
all risk of being sued or losing an advertiser.
Prior to my firing at WTVT, I had worked for 19 years in broadcast
journalism, and Steve's career in front of the camera was even longer.
He is the recipient of four Emmy awards and a National Press Club
citation. His reporting achievements include an exposé of
unsafe cars that led to the biggest-ever auto recall in America.
However, we have spent three years off the air, tied up in a seemingly
interminable legal battle. Few people recognize our faces anymore.
The truth is, only Monsanto really knows how many U.S. farmers
are presently using rBGH, which is reportedly now injected into
more than 30 percent of America's dairy herd (rBGH is trade-named
Posilac, and is also known as recombinant bovine somatotropin or
rBST). The company persistently refuses to release sales figures,
but claims it has now become the largest-selling dairy animal drug
in America. The chemical giant's secretive operations were part
of what made the story of rBGH such a compelling one for me to explore
as an investigative reporter.
In late 1996, Steve and I were hired as investigative journalists
for the Fox-owned television station in Tampa. Looking for projects
to pursue, I soon learned that millions of Americans and their children
who consume milk from rBGH-treated cows unwittingly have become
participants in what amounts to a giant public health experiment.
Despite promises from grocers that they would not buy rBGH milk
"until it gains widespread acceptance," I discovered and carefully
documented how those promises were quietly broken. I also learned
that health concerns raised by scientists around the world have
never been settled, and indeed, the product has been outlawed or
shunned in every other major industrialized country on the planet.
Clearly, there is not "widespread acceptance" of rBGH, not in 1996
when I began my research, and not today.
Steve helped me gather and produce a TV report based on the information
we discovered. The investigation began with random visits to seven
farms to determine whether and how widely rBGH was being used in
Florida. I confirmed its use at every one of the seven farms I visited,
and then I discovered what amounted to an ingenious public relations
campaign that seemed to have succeeded in keeping consumers in the
dark. I learned that behind the scenes, those grocers and the major
co-ops of Florida's dairymen had pulled the wool over the eyes of
consumers with what amounted to a clever "don't ask, don't tell"
policy combined with some careful wording to answer any inquiries
about the milk.
In an on-camera interview, the president of one of the two giant
dairy co-ops in the state said that he had written a letter to dairymen
on behalf of grocers requesting that farmers not inject their cows
with the artificial growth hormone. But in response to my questions,
the co-op president made a startling confession. He admitted he
did nothing but write the letter.
"Did the dairymen get back to you?" I asked.
"What was their response?"
"They accepted it, I guess. They didn't respond."
To this day, any consumer who calls to inquire about rBGH gets
essentially the same well-coordinated response from a big Florida
grocer or their dairy supplier: "We've asked our suppliers not to
use it," they say. This is a truthful but incredibly misleading
statement that nearly always produces the desired result, leading
consumers to the false conclusion that their local milk supply is
unaffected by rBGH use.
Even if you ask directly, "How much of your milk comes from cows
injected with an artificial growth hormone?" we discovered that
you are still likely to be misled or lied to.
Steve recently made an inquiry to the dairy co-op that supplies
the milk served to our
daughter and her classmates in their school cafeteria. First he was
told there was "zero percent" rBGH use. Then a woman in the dairy's
Quality Assurance department offered the assurance that rBGH is not
used at all "as far as we know." Pressed further, she said the co-op
"does not recommend it because cows do just fine without," but ultimately
admitted that the co-ops "have no authority to check whether it is
or is not being used." Steve pressed further: "Couldn't you just ask
the dairy farmers who supply your milk whether or not they're injecting
their cows?" A long silence followed. Finally, the reply: "I suppose
we could, but they could just lie to us."
An estimated 30 percent of
American dairy cows
are injected with rBGH, a genetically engineered
bovine growth hormone.
After nearly three months of investigation that took me to interviews
in five states, we produced a four-part series that Fox scheduled
to begin on February 24, 1997. Station managers were so proud of
the work that they saturated virtually every radio station in the
Tampa Bay area with thousands of dollars worth of ads urging viewers
to watch. But then, on the Friday evening prior to the broadcast,
the station's pride turned to panic when a fax arrived from a Monsanto
The letter minced no words in charging that Steve and I had "no
scientific competence" to report our story. Monsanto's attorney
described our news reports, which he had never seen, as a series
of "recklessly made accusations that Monsanto has engaged in fraud,
has published lies about food safety, has attempted to bribe government
officials in a neighboring country and has been 'buying' favorable
opinions about the product or its characteristics from reputable
scientists in their respective fields."
And to make sure nobody missed the point, the attorney also reminded
Fox News CEO Roger Ailes that our behavior as investigative journalists
was particularly dangerous "in the aftermath of the Food Lion verdict."
He was referring, of course, to the then-recent case against ABC
News that sent a frightening chill through every newsroom in America.
The Food Lion verdict showed that even with irrefutable evidence
from a hidden camera--documenting the doctoring of potentially unsafe
food sold to unsuspecting shoppers--a news organization that dares
to expose a giant corporation could still lose big in court.
Confronted with these threats, WTVT decided to "delay" the broadcast,
ostensibly to double check its accuracy. A week later after the
station manager screened the report, found no major problems with
its accuracy and fairness, and set a new air date, Fox received
a second letter from Monsanto's attorney, claiming that "some of
the points" we were asking about "clearly contain the elements of
defamatory statements which, if repeated in a broadcast, could lead
to serious damage to Monsanto and dire consequences for Fox News."
Never mind that I carried a milk crate full of documentation to
support every word of our proposed broadcast. Our story was pulled
again, and if not dead, it was clearly on life support as Fox's
own attorneys and top-level managers, fearful of a legal challenge
or losing advertiser support, looked for some way to discreetly
pull the plug.
The station where we worked recently had been purchased by Fox,
and we soon discovered that the new management had a radically different
definition of media responsibility than anything we previously had
encountered in our journalistic careers. As Fox took control, it
fired the station manager who originally hired us and replaced him
with Dave Boylan, a career salesman without any roots in journalism
and seemingly lacking the devotion to serve the public interest
that motivates all good investigative reporting.
Not long after Boylan became the new station manager, Steve and
I went up to see him in his office. He promised to look into the
trouble we were having getting our rBGH story on the air. But when
we returned a few days later, his strategy seemed clear. "What would
you do if I killed your rBGH story?" he asked. What he really wanted
to know was whether we would tell anyone the real reason why he
was killing the story. In other words, would we leak details of
the pressure from Monsanto that led to a coverup of what the station
had already ballyhooed as important health information every consumer
It was suddenly and unmistakably clear that Boylan's biggest concern
was the concern of every salesman, no matter what product he peddles:
image. He understood that it could not be good for the station's
image if word leaked out that powerful advertisers backed by threatening
attorneys could actually determine what gets on the six o'clock
news--and what gets swept under the rug.
Boylan was in a jam. If he ran an honest story and Monsanto's threatened
"dire consequences" did materialize, his career could be crippled.
On the other hand, if he killed the story and the sordid details
leaked out, he risked losing the only product any newsroom has to
sell: its own credibility.
To resolve this dilemma, Boylan offered us a deal. He would pay
us for the remaining seven months of our contracts, in exchange
for an agreement that we would broadcast the rBGH story in a way
that would not upset Monsanto. Fox lawyers essentially would have
the final say on the exact wording of our report, and once it aired,
we were free to do whatever we pleased--as long as we forever kept
our mouths shut about the entire ugly episode.
As journalists, Steve and I wanted to get the story on the air
more than anything. A buyout, no matter how attractive, was out
of the question. Neither of us could fathom taking money to shut
up about a public health issue that absolutely and by any standard
deserved to see the light of day.
The remainder of 1997 was a tense standoff, with the station unwilling
to either kill or run the story. Fox attorney Carolyn Forrest was
sent in to review our work, with a mandate from Fox Television Stations
President Mitch Stern to "take no risk" with the story. "Taking
no risk" meant cutting out substance, context and information. Boylan
told us to "just do what Carolyn wants" with the story, but what
Carolyn really wanted to do was destroy it. We rewrote the story,
rewrote it and rewrote it again, trying to come up with a version
that would both remain true to the facts and satisfy the station's
Nearly a full year passed as we wrangled over this important public
health story. After turning down the station's buyout offer, we
ended up doing 83 rewrites of the story, not one of which was acceptable
to Fox lawyers, who were fully in charge of the editing process.
At the first window in our contracts, December 2, 1997, we were
both fired, allegedly for "no cause." However, an angry Forrest
made a major legal mistake when she wrote a letter spelling out
the "definite reasons" for the firing, and characterizing our response
to her proposed editorial changes as "unprofessional and inappropriate
conduct." But just what is the "professional and appropriate" response
that reporters should make when their own station asks them to lie
On April 2, 1998, we filed a whistleblower lawsuit against Fox
Television. Under Florida state law, a whistleblower is an employee,
regardless of his or her profession, who suffers retaliation for
refusing to participate in illegal activity or threatening to report
that illegal activity to authorities. We contended that we were
entitled to protection as whistleblowers, because the distortions
our employers wanted us to broadcast were not in the public interest
and violated the law and policy of the Federal Communications Commission.
Going to court against a powerful conglomerate like Fox is a daunting
experience, and Fox knows how to intimidate people. Prior to our
dismissal, Boylan had flaunted the company's wealth in an attempt
to make us back down. "We paid $3 billion for these stations," he
told us on one occasion. "We'll tell you what the news is. The news
is what we say it is!"
The Fox legal strategy was woven tightly from day one and helped
by a well-coordinated team effort. They claimed that we had turned
our backs on the story and were using the whistleblower claim as
a "tactic." We missed deadlines, they said, and had told managers
and lawyers we were "going to get Monsanto." They also claimed that
we became convinced that rBGH milk causes cancer, and that we became
advocates instead of objective reporters of the controversy.
None of that was true. Our story did bring forth information that
had been suppressed for far too long: that a spin-off hormone in
the altered milk has been linked to tumor proliferation; that consumers
did not have the benefit of labeling at the grocery store shelf
because Monsanto had sued two small dairies to block it; and that
the FDA's Center for
Veterinary Medicine, which reviewed the drug, did not do long-term
human toxicity tests. The cancer questions to this day remain unanswered.
The human effects are, in essence, being tested on consumers in
The Fox effort, though united, was not flawless. Fox News Vice
President Phil Metlin told the six-person jury that if he ever learned
a news organization was trying to eliminate risk by using a threatening
letter as a "road map" to craft a story, such news would "make me
want to throw up." But just days later, on the stand, a local attorney
for Fox admitted he did just that, using Monsanto directives to
help craft the rBGH story. Metlin actually turned white. He also
didn't score any points with his bosses when he admitted that he
found no errors in our reporting of the rBGH story, and he saw no
reason why our final version of the story could not be aired.
Fox attorney Bill McDaniels earned the nickname "Thumper" from
our team because he made an audible noise with his foot whenever
he got nervous. There was a lot of thumping during the presentation
of our case, particularly when Ralph Nader took time from his presidential
campaign to serve as an expert witness. Fox had tried unsuccessfully,
through objections, to have Nader eliminated as a witness.
Nader told jurors what the FCC has repeatedly said, that it is
"a most heinous act" to use the public's airwaves to slant, distort
and falsify the news. "A reporter has a legal duty to act in accordance
with the Communications Act of 1934 in addition to their professional
responsibility to be accurate, not to be used as an instrument of
deception to the audience," Nader testified.
McDaniels also objected vehemently to Walter Cronkite's inclusion
as an expert on our side. "Mr. Cronkite is not an expert in the
pre-broadcast review of a story," said the Fox counsel. I couldn't
believe my ears. For 30 years Cronkite was the managing editor of
the CBS Evening News. During Cronkite's deposition, McDaniels
had asked the 83-year-old anchorman whether he was a lawyer and
suggested to Cronkite that he couldn't be an expert in the pre-broadcast
review of a story unless he was an attorney.
In his deposition, Cronkite said that an ethical journalist should
resist directives that would result in a false or slanted story
being broadcast. "He should not go a microinch toward that sort
of thing. That is a violation of every principle of good journalism,"
The jury awarded me with $425,000. Fox immediately announced that
it would appeal. The network argued to the judge that he should
vacate the jury's verdict. During the trial itself, McDaniels had
claimed that Fox merely wanted "to get our good name back" and repair
the damage to its credibility that we had inflicted by telling our
story on a Web site (www.foxbghsuit.com)
and speaking to groups around the world. During the motion to vacate,
however, McDaniels seemed to toss the network's credibility in the
garbage by making an argument that any legitimate news organization
would be embarrassed to voice. "There is no law, rule or regulation
against slanting the news," he told the judge.
The judge denied the motion, but years of appeals lie ahead. Every
indication we have received suggests that the network plans to continue
its efforts to wear us down with time-consuming, tedious and expensive
legal maneuvers. Fox will appeal first to the 2nd District Court
of Appeals, then the case could go to the Florida Supreme Court
and eventually the U.S. Supreme Court. All the while, we won't see
a cent of our winnings.
They have the financial wherewithal to do this, whereas we have
been out of work for more than three years with no immediate job
offers on the horizon. Somehow we will have to find a way to house
and feed ourselves and our daughter, while simultaneously continuing
to wage a full-time battle against a media giant.
Jane Akre and Steve Wilson recently formed a production
company to expose environmental and health news ignored by mainstream
media. A version of this article originally appeared in PR Watch