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Synthesis/Regeneration 18   (Winter 1999)

Control of Information

The Akre-Wilson BGH/Fox Saga

by Jane Akre & Steve Wilson, Investigative Reporters

If you were with us at Fontbonne College you already know about the lawsuit we filed against Fox Television on April 2, 1998. After hiring us to do hard-hitting investigative reporting for the network's WTVT in Tampa, we were both ultimately fired for refusing to lie and distort what we learned to be the truth about synthetic bovine growth hormone (rBGH). As we have charged in our suit, pressure from a big-name New York lawyer hired by Monsanto caused Fox to fold like a cheap tent.

Stories that offend advertisers or bring threats of lawsuits from big companies are sometimes just swept under the rug. Not in our case. Fox lawyers and managers decided if they could just force us to air a more Monsanto-friendly version of our rBGH stories, they could have the best of both worlds-the appearance of a tough investigative team without the headaches that sometimes come with telling the cold, hard truth.

Twice we turned down lucrative offers to go away with our pockets filled with nearly $200,000 of Fox cash which we clearly saw as hush money. (Terms of the proposed settlements required us never to tell what we learned about rBGH or how Fox covered up that news.) 83 times we wrote and re-wrote the rBGH story but none was ever acceptable for broadcast. Even after we were told we were being suspended without pay for threatening to tell the Federal Communications Commission what was going on, we kept right on writing and re-writing. Finally, just before Christmas 1997, they lowered the boom and warned us to keep quiet about rBGH because Fox owned that news.

...within days, Steve had nailed down evidence of how Fox had derailed another important story-the issue of the safety of NutraSweet-when the station learned it, too, was a Monsanto product.

It was April 2 of last year that we filed our suit and posted every bit of it including videotape on the World Wide Web (at www.foxBGHsuit.com).

As we've found out during the pre-trial discovery process, Fox loathes the fact that the story we couldn't put on the air in Tampa is now available in great detail for anyone in the world to see.

The power of the Internet is nothing short of amazing. We've heard from folks as far away as Norway, Botswana, Europe and Canada where genetic engineering is facing its toughest tests. What do they know that's been kept from most Americans?

Gaining momentum

When you report a story, you work hard to get the facts straight. No one wants to later discover even one little thing that was inaccurate. With the stakes very high on our rBGH story, that fear was always in the back of our minds. But even as pre-trial depositions continue in our lawsuit, we are finding our work validated in a couple of ways.

As you know, depositions are the legal process where each side gets to ask questions of key witnesses under oath before the trial begins. They are a terrific tool used by the side with the deepest pockets to wear down the opposition long before a case can get before a jury.

In our case, Fox wanted to depose us for four weeks or more. Since our lawyer would need to be present to monitor the questions, our own depositions would have cost us about $50,000. We appealed to the judge who cut the time in half-but Fox lawyers still intend to ask for even more deposition days.

Before he wrote the last checks for our depositions, Steve decided he didn't need a lawyer to ask questions of key witnesses from the other side. Proceeding on his own, pro se as the lawyers call it, he began day after day of questioning Fox folks. Suddenly, with the shoe on the other foot, the Plaintiff ran to court to ask the judge to terminate Steve's right to represent himself. The court refused and within days, Steve had nailed down evidence of how Fox had derailed another important story-the issue of the safety of NutraSweet-when the station learned it, too, was a Monsanto product.

The deposition of the Fox news director has provided the most eye-opening testimony of all. Under oath, Phillip Metlin has admitted there was never any fact in any of our BGH stories, which was found to be inaccurate. So why didn't the story run? Metlin has testified he just got tired of reading re-written versions and decided we were unprofessional when we said we would go to the FCC if ordered to lie on the air.

... Phillip Metlin has admitted there was never any fact in any of our BGH stories which was found to be inaccurate

There was a dramatic turn of events just last Fall when six Canadian government scientists stood up to blow the whistle on political pressure for them to approve Monsanto's BGH when they have serious concerns about human safety. The bombshell here is that these Canadian scientists say the US Food and Drug Administration misreported the key study, which Monsanto has always claimed, as proof its BGH is safe for humans.

As a result of the bold actions by Canadian scientists, US Senators Leahy and Jeffords, both of Vermont, have written Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala. They want to know whether the FDA, the agency she oversees, should share Canada's concerns. And the heat is rising in another important way. At a December 1998 news conference, the Center for Food Safety and a coalition of two dozen consumer groups announced the filing of a demand that FDA remove BGH from the market until further tests prove it is safe. If the government does not respond within 180 days, legal action will follow.


Since we first told our tale in St. Louis, we have been frequent guests of groups around the country who are interested in our story and the lawsuit that has come of it. We frequently speak of how news can and sometimes is deliberately twisted by broadcasters and publishers more concerned with their own special interests than the public interest.

We're inevitably asked, "How has the media reported your story?" Sadly, the answer is usually one of disappointment, especially in the town where we were fired. Tampa reporters have been especially slow to take a thorough look at the important issues we have raised. Local news organizations seldom point fingers at each other.

The Fox reaction? Officials and a couple of newspeople at the Tampa station that fired us have demanded the SPJ award be rescinded.

There has been some good news. Last October, the Society of Professional Journalists, the nation's largest group of professional newspeople, presented us with one of their rare awards for Ethics. We were humbled by the standing ovation at SPJ's national conference and again in November 1998 in Washington where we were honored with a Joe Calloway Award for Civic Courage. That honor is bestowed each year by a trust administered by Ralph Nader and his family. The Fox reaction? Officials and a couple of newspeople at the Tampa station that fired us have demanded the SPJ award be rescinded. SPJ is standing by us.

Sadly, television viewers in Tampa have been the ones to benefit least. After all the media attention, the station made good on its promise to find another reporter to broadcast the same lies and distortions we refused to tell. And just last November, his follow-up was even more lacking in crucial details. The less-experienced reporter who did what Fox apparently demanded has ducked our subpoenas and now is said to have left the station-and the jurisdiction of the court. We've spent a collective 46 years tracking people down…we're pretty sure we can find him, too.

In the string-it-out-as-long-you-can department: Fox has sought to delay the trial until September, a move we strongly opposed. May 10, 1999 is now the new trial date, a two-and-a-half-month extension that will assure a new trial judge for the case.

To us, opening arguments on May 10 will be an incredible irony. It is our daughter's fifth birthday. This is only fitting, we suppose, since she and thousands of other young milk-drinkers have been the primary motivation for pressing our case, even at high personal cost. Now she'll get to watch the proceedings from a front-row seat on her special day. We hope one day to explain to her what drove us to sell our home, become unemployed, destroy the careers we've both loved for years, and end up in a court fight with the biggest media company in the world.

One day, we're sure she'll understand about standing up for the truth. But probably not on May 10.

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