By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
“We had no idea it would cost this much and take so long,” Wilson said during a lunch break from a digital-video conference the couple attended last month at the Long Beach Convention Center. “Given the general climate of TV news, it’s highly doubtful anyone will hire us.”
Boylan bristles at any suggestion that he earned his Fox 11 stripes by dumping the reporters.
“I’m still reeling over the accusation I was promoted because of what happened to Steve and Jane,” Boylan said. “Let me just indicate by saying for the last two years [the Tampa Bay station] was named the number-one Fox affiliate for its performance.”
But Boylan’s arrival has brought little joy to serious journalists at Fox 11. As one staffer puts it, news under Boylan “is organized like the Mickey Mouse Club.”
Fox is challenging the Akre decision on the grounds that the jury was asked to find that Akre had a “reasonable good faith” belief that the station was slanting the news, not that there was an actual news distortion; that the Florida Whistle Blower Act does not apply, and that the damage award was unjustified. Wilson is also trying to vacate his verdict, citing a jury instruction that the FCC threat had to be the sole basis for his firing.
BGH, a synthetic hormone that boosts milk production by as much as one-third, was approved by the FDA in 1993, but banned in Canada and Europe because of suggestions from scientists, contested by Monsanto, of links to cancer. In 1997, Akre and Wilson discovered that Florida grocers had broken a promise to keep BGH out of the state milk supply, and prepared a four-part series for sweeps week.
Days before the series was to begin, a Monsanto lawyer sent a letter of warning to the station. Fox management pulled the story. Akre and Wilson testified that they re-edited the story more than 80 times (Fox lawyer Ted Russell says the number is “misleading”), but balked at including information they considered untrue, such as Monsanto’s assertion that BGH milk was the same as regular milk. Akre also testified that Boylan told her, “We paid $3 billion for these television stations. We will decide what the news is. The news is what we tell you it is.” (Boylan remembered it as “When you can own your own TV station . . . you can do it your way.”) The reporters’ contracts were not renewed in 1997, and their series never ran, although a BGH story by another WTVT reporter was broadcast after Wilson and Akre filed suit.
During the trial, Fox portrayed the reporters as fractious malcontents who refused to be edited. After the trial, Fox somehow managed to spin the verdict as a victory that cleared the station of news-distortion charges. But, in fact, jurors were instructed to find for Akre only if they were convinced that “a reasonable person” would have believed that WTVT’s news management made efforts to intentionally falsify the news report.
OffBeat believes there are unfailingly pleasant investigative reporters, but we don’t know many. We also know that some reporters are biased. But we wonder, if the story was so bad, why didn’t Fox simply kill it? Or were they afraid of the fallout if Akre and Wilson went public with the dispute?
Clearly, different philosophies of investigative reporting were at work. Says Fox lawyer Russell: “The story was not that milk was unsafe; the story was there’s a controversy over the milk.” Counters Wilson: “They wanted us to put both sides out there and let the viewers decide; but if I have evidence that what one side says is untrue, I’m going to put it in.” Unfortunately, a St. Petersburg News headline may have provided the epitaph for the whole affair: “Verdict is not expected to affect TV news.”