Journalists, not Activists

Liane Casten

Jane Akre

If any more proof was need­ed that we live in an upside-down world, the saga of TV news reporters Steve Wil­son and Jane Akre serves as the defin­i­tive case study.

Hus­band and wife, Wil­son and Akre are exhaust­ed emo­tion­al­ly and finan­cial­ly, but also relieved. Their eight-year strug­gle – known to many from the 2004 doc­u­men­tary, The Cor­po­ra­tion – with WTVT, a Tam­pa, Fla. Fox affil­i­ate, has come to an end. After two major court cas­es, and more angst than any two reporters should have to endure, Wil­son and Akre set­tled their case by FedEx­ing near­ly $200,000 to the net­work giant in May. They lost their appeal, hav­ing unsuc­cess­ful­ly fought a large cor­po­ra­tion with very deep pockets.

It began when Fox fired the reporters in 1997, after they tried to air a sto­ry about the bovine growth hor­mone, rBGH. The report exposed its wide­spread use by U.S. dairy farm­ers, despite stud­ies link­ing rGBH con­sump­tion to prostate and breast can­cer. Mon­san­to, the pro­duc­er of rBGH, threat­ened a law­suit and demand­ed the elim­i­na­tion of sig­nif­i­cant, ver­i­fi­able infor­ma­tion from the sto­ry. Even­tu­al­ly, WTVT caved, despite Wil­son and Akre’s efforts to rewrite the sto­ry more than 70 times to redress the complaints.

The cou­ple sued Fox under Florida’s Whis­tle Blower’s Act. In a jury tri­al, Akre and Wil­son were award­ed $425,000. (The reporters knew not to spend it too soon.) In 2001, they were award­ed the Gold­man Envi­ron­men­tal Prize for their out­stand­ing reporting. 

In an appeal, how­ev­er, Fox argued that the FCC pol­i­cy against dis­tor­tion of news did not qual­i­fy as law,” and that there­fore Akre and Wil­son were not pro­tect­ed under the Flori­da act, which only pro­tects those report­ing an employer’s vio­la­tion of a law, rule or reg­u­la­tion.” The court accept­ed this argu­ment, rul­ing for WTVT. 

More appalling than the rever­sal were the five major media out­lets that filed briefs of ami­ci curi­ae in sup­port of Fox’s posi­tion. Their state­ment said, The sta­tion argued that it sim­ply want­ed to ensure that a news sto­ry about a sci­en­tif­ic con­tro­ver­sy regard­ing a com­mer­cial prod­uct was pre­sent­ed with fair­ness and bal­ance, and to ensure that it had a sound defense to any poten­tial defama­tion claim.” 

Com­pound­ing the indig­ni­ty of the rul­ing, Fox demand­ed $3.1 mil­lion to pay its legal fees and tri­al costs. The puni­tive sum would have bank­rupt­ed the reporters. A judge decid­ed that the sum was indeed dra­con­ian and reduced the dam­age to a lit­tle more than $175,000. But this did not include the years of per­son­al and legal expens­es – hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars – incurred by Wil­son and Akre dur­ing the two ear­li­er trials.

Wil­son says that his scrap­py” tri­al lawyers, John Cham­blee and Tom John­son, almost lost their prac­tice, because they were so invest­ed in the case. Even after we were tapped out,” Akre says, they chose to stay with us.”

Today, the cou­ple lives near Jack­sonville. Hav­ing been unable to find a local report­ing job, Wil­son com­mutes back on week­ends from Detroit, where he is the top inves­tiga­tive reporter for WXYZ – a Scripps Howard-owned TV sta­tion. Akre is still look­ing for a full-time report­ing job, but takes on assign­ments as they come. The two are now work­ing on both a book and a screen­play about their expe­ri­ences. The idea of a film was always in the back of our minds,” Akre says. The whole expe­ri­ence had so many great char­ac­ters in it.” 

But they haven’t left the fight for jour­nal­is­tic integri­ty. In Jan­u­ary, they filed a peti­tion with the FCC to deny WTVT a renew­al of its broad­cast license. They’ve asked for a hear­ing based on news dis­tor­tion, and Akre met briefly with FCC Com­mis­sion­er Jonathan Adel­stein at the recent Nation­al Con­fer­ence for Media Reform. We’re ques­tion­ing whether they have a sol­id enough char­ac­ter to own that license,” she says. Whether we won or lost the court case, we knew this was some­thing we were going to pursue.”

Akre still con­sid­ers her­self a jour­nal­ist. If I’m an advo­cate or activist, it’s for the public’s right to know,” she says. But she believes shin­ing light in dark places is get­ting hard­er as those in pow­er con­trol the free flow of infor­ma­tion. That’s why it’s more impor­tant today to be a jour­nal­ist than any oth­er time. If those in pow­er call you an activist, maybe you’re just a real­ly great journalist.”

Liane Cas­ten is the founder of Chica­go Media Watch.
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