The Land of Milk and Money

In Tampa, reporters Jane Akre and Steve Wilson blow the whistle on TV journalism -- and its corporate puppeters.

Those celebrity milk mustaches are not what they seem. That’s one message from reporters Jane Akre and Steve Wilson, fired in 1997 from their jobs with Florida television station WTVT-Tampa, when their investigative series on the effects of hormone additives in dairy production ran afoul of station managers and the Monsanto Corporation.

Monsanto makes Posilac, the trade name of the most widely distributed form of artificially synthesized, “recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone” (rBGH), which is injected into cows to boost milk production. According to Monsanto and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, there is “no significant difference” between milk produced with or without the use of rBGH; according to the series produced by Akre and Wilson but pulled from production by WTVT, the differences are significant enough to get rBGH (also known by its chemical name, rBST) banned in Canada, Western Europe, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand.

Akre and Wilson (who are married) traveled through Texas last month, telling their story and soliciting public support for their whistleblower lawsuit against WTVT, filed in April of 1998 and scheduled for trial this June. The reporters say they were fired because they refused the station’s demands to edit their stories in such a way as to broadcast false or misleading information, which would be in violation of federal law as well as Federal Communication Commission regulations, both of which require broadcasters to operate in the public interest. Under Florida’s whistleblower statute, employees have a right to sue their employers if they believe they were fired for refusing to break the law.

The station’s managers insist that they made a good-faith effort to edit the milk stories, but that Akre and Wilson were uncooperative and their reports remained too “biased and one-sided” for broadcast (in the spring of 1998, a few months after their dismissal, an rBGH series produced by another reporter but partly based upon Akre and Wilson’s previous work was broadcast by WTVT). In their response to the Akre and Wilson lawsuit, the station insists the reporters were fired for “unreasonable and intemperate behavior [which] did not advance [WTVT’s] interests in providing quality news programming to its viewers.” (It’s worth noting, in the context of “quality news programming,” that WTVT is owned by the Fox Network — home to Rupert Murdoch, if-it-bleeds-it-leads local newscasts, and “When Animals Attack.”) WTVT argues that the reporters’ lawsuit is an unconstitutional assault on its editorial freedom, and the station’s lawyers have recruited Don Heider, a former television reporter and currently a U.T.-Austin journalism professor, to testify as an expert witness on the station’s behalf.

So what you get, in the lawsuit now pending before Florida’s thirteenth judicial circuit court, are two stories for the price of one: the adulteration of the public food supply, and the adulteration of public information.

Jane Akre and Steve Wilson opened their recent Austin appearances by displaying a magazine ad photo of Donna Shalala, head of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services — complete with milk mustache, courtesy of “America’s Dairy Farmers and Milk Processors.” “How is it,” asked Wilson, “that the person charged with regulating a product — in this case with checking the safety of milk — should get involved with advertising that product?” To the reporters, the Shalala photo (subsequently discontinued after public criticism) exemplifies the all too common duplicity of government “regulation” of industry. It may not be precisely the fox who is guarding the henhouse, but the fox certainly has very good friends in high places.

That was one of the major thrusts of “The Mystery in Your Milk,” the series that Tampa viewers never saw: that when it came to Monsanto and its chemical wonders, the F.D.A., rather than act as an impartial defender of the public health, effectively collaborated with the company’s determination to get its product on the market before it was demonstrated to be free of negative human health consequences. The major allegations of the series included the following:

Despite serious scientific questions about the possible long-term effects of consuming rBGH-stimulated milk and milk products — including increased risk of breast and colon cancers — the F.D.A. had approved general use of the hormone supplement after superficial and inadequate testing;Florida dairy producers had almost universally adopted Monsanto’s Posilac program, despite evidence that it could cause significant side effects in cows, including health problems that might result in antibiotic and other residues in milk;Major Florida grocers had failed to keep earlier promises to exclude rBGH from their dairy supplies, and because there is no state tracking system, it is essentially impossible for consumers to know if they are buying rBGH-treated milk or other dairy products;Monsanto had used the F.D.A. “approval” and the agency’s “recommended” labeling language as a means of bullying independent dairies across the country to refrain from even letting their customers know if they were not using rBGH in their milk production, and virtually all dairies fell in line.

This last item is particularly intriguing, because it puts the lie to a favorite argument of the corporate anti-regulation lobbyists: that informed consumers naturally regulate the free market by refusing to purchase products they don’t want. Monsanto, with the help of the F.D.A., has done its best to ensure that consumers know as little as possible about the contents of the “free market’s” most widely distributed dairy products. Not coincidentally, this was also the successful strategy of Monsanto’s lawyers in its approach to the reports prepared by Akre and Wilson. Rather than defend its product clearly and succinctly on camera (as the reporters attempted to let the company do), on the eve of airdate Monsanto approached the station and its corporate parent, Fox, with thinly veiled threats of litigation if the network should broadcast the stories.

Actually, the threats weren’t that veiled. On the Friday before the reports were scheduled for broadcast in February of 1997, Monsanto’s New York law firm delivered a long, angry letter to Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes, denouncing Akre and Wilson as unqualified, biased, and engaging in “scaremongering” by associating rBGH in any way with human health risks, and specifically with cancer. “It is difficult to imagine a claim,” wrote the corporate attorneys, “that could be more damaging to Monsanto, to its good name and reputation….” In response to the letter, station management temporarily held the story and re-reviewed it, deciding to go forward a week later, until a second letter from Monsanto’s lawyer — warning of “serious damage to Monsanto and dire consequences for Fox News” — got the desired response. WTVT pulled the story, and then began a nine-month series of increasingly acrimonious “edits” (with the station undergoing a Fox-initiated management change in the meantime), ending in the December firing of Akre and Wilson.

As Akre and Wilson tell it, they cooperated with every attempt to revise the reports (even when they disliked the results) as long as they were not asked to misrepresent the facts as they knew them or to tell outright lies — most specifically, to make an uncontroverted statement that there is “no difference” between hormone-treated and untreated milk. Twice, they say, they were offered large severance packages (nearly $200,000), but only on the condition they agree never to discuss in public the dispute nor the rBGH story, in any way. After they refused the offer a second time, they were fired. Wilson says the station manager was astounded at their refusal of the money. “I don’t get you people,” he says their manager told them. “What is the problem? All I want, are people who just want to be on TV.” (The station denies Wilson’s version of the events.)

The reporters insist that it was always within the authority of the station to kill the story outright, but that managers apparently didn’t want to appear as though they had surrendered to Monsanto’s external pressure. The station points to its subsequent broadcast of a version of the rBGH story, and insists that the courts cannot interfere with broadcasters’ First Amendment freedoms from outside interference. The reporters answer that their lawsuit is not about the First Amendment at all. “This lawsuit,” said Wilson, “is about whether a person can be fired for being ordered to do something that’s illegal. They asked us to lie on the air. That’s against the law — the Communications Act and F.C.C. regulations. It comes down to whether it was an editorial dispute, or were they asking us to lie. The truth is, and the facts are, they were asking us to lie.”

Akre and Wilson have received much public support, nationally and internationally, in their fight with the station, and in the wake of the dispute in 1998 received a special Award for Ethics from the Society of Professional Journalists (to the outrage of WTVT management). But at least one professional observer, U.T.’s Don Heider, remains unconvinced. Heider had ten years’ experience in television news before moving to teaching. Asked by WTVT’s lawyers to review the dispute and the various versions of the rBGH story, he agreed to act as an expert witness on behalf of the station. Although he’s being paid for his work (a standard arrangement), Heider insists he accepted the case as a matter of principle: “I tell my students they have to stand up for what they believe, so I have to do the same.”

Heider says he believes that the dispute is at bottom an editorial disagreement, and therefore news managers — who, he emphasizes, are also journalists — must be free to make editorial decisions free from outside interference. “There are other journalists involved in this story…. People with good reputations in the business. To look at it the other way — that these reporters are getting screwed by the big company, I couldn’t jump on that bandwagon.”

In Heider’s view, Monsanto’s last-minute attempts to quash the story were unsurprising, and the threatening tone of the company’s letters was simply “grandstanding.” He says such letters from corporations are common in the news business, and these only served to “focus the attention” of the news directors. Heider insists the editors made a good-faith effort to get the story on the air, but that “trust broke down” almost immediately between the managers and the reporters, making it impossible to establish a good working relationship necessary to get the story done. “I really felt like from Fox’s perspective,” Heider told the Observer, “this was a question of, ‘Where are we opening ourselves up to libel, and where are we not? And can we negotiate a set of scripts that satisfy the reporters and still get on the air?’ I don’t think that’s unreasonable, I think that’s the balance that mainstream news organizations have to walk every day.”

Heider considers the eventually broadcast version of the story, produced by reporter Nathan Lang, as evidence that the Tampa station did not buckle to outside pressure. Akre and Wilson respond that the Lang version is a badly watered-down, incomplete, and fundamentally dishonest report that portrays Monsanto as a well-meaning corporate citizen and its opponents as scientifically unqualified extremists. Heider disagrees, insisting that while Lang “goes the extra mile to get Monsanto’s viewpoint … it’s hard to say the viewer will feed good about BGH after seeing Lang’s report.” He calls the differences between the two versions largely “stylistic: the Akre and Wilson pieces are more investigative, with a harder edge, and Lang’s are more scientific, or what I call explanatory.” Akre and Wilson describe Lang’s report as “false and misleading,” and believe it was broadcast at least in part to provide the station with a legal defense. (The first segment ends with an anchorperson’s dismissive reference to the reporters as “disgruntled former employees.”) In legal documents, Akre and Wilson call the Lang report “a pretty clear picture of an attempt to make it appear the issue is being fairly and accurately covered while actually avoiding doing so.”

Heider is clearly uncomfortable with being perceived as a defender of big corporate power, which he acknowledges has too big a commercial interest in mainstream news. “I think if you frame the story as Fox vs. Jane and Steve, that already puts a spin on the story. But if you think about it as a dispute between two reporters and station managers at a Fox-owned station, that’s probably more accurate.” Based primarily on his own experience in television news, he is convinced that neither Monsanto nor Fox forced the station to retreat on the story, and that a courtroom is no place to edit journalism. He admits to some sympathy for Akre and Wilson’s position, but considers their lawsuit a poor tactic to attack corporate domination of the news. “I do worry about reporters and their ability to deal with tough stories. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. But the F.C.C. has not been any great champion of reporters’ rights. I question whether this is the way they’re going to get those reporters’ rights.”

In Akre and Wilson’s eyes, the lawsuit is not just about their rights as journalists, but about the future of journalism. “Television is not what it was even ten years ago in this country,” Wilson told his Austin audience. “At one time, news was a sacrosanct public service. Now those people are dead and gone…. Big corporations are doing to the news business what they do to every other business. They are in business to make money. Their primary goal is, ‘How much money can we make, and how fast can we make it?’

“News decisions are now based on money. When a story has the potential, as this one did, to prompt a lawsuit that might cost them two or three or four hundred thousand dollars to defend, or to upset the milk producers so they were going to pull all those nice moustache ads, or the grocers, because we were going to point out that they never kept their promises, and they might pull the grocery ads — suddenly, the decision about what we’re going to tell you about what’s in your milk, is made based on what it’s going to cost the station…. ‘How are we going to get the most people to watch, charge the advertisers the highest rates we possibly can, keep everybody happy and make money?’ This kind of story won’t do that. This kind of story will make people mad.”

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Published at 12:00 am CST