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 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 manof Akre and Wilson. As Akre and Wilson tell it, they cooperated with every attempt 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 hormonetreated and untreated milk. Twice, they say, they were offered dition 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 WilThe 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.” and d Wilson have received much public support, nation ally 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 outserver, 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 stanof 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 sta 14 THE TEXAS OBSERVER MARCH 17, 2000
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