This Report Brought to You by Monsanto

by Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber

The Progressive magazine, July 1998


Jane Akre and Steve Wilson are bulldog reporters-the sort of journalists who make some enemies along the way. That, according to Florida TV station WTVT, was why it hired the husband-and-wife team with much fanfare in November 1996 to head the station's news investigative unit. But they didn't last long. The station fired them in December 1997 over a story they had prepared on Monsanto and the recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH). Now the Fox network affiliate is accusing Akre and Wilson of theft for independently publishing the script of that story, which the station never allowed them to air.

In a news release, WTVT has attributed the firings to "journalistic differences" that "could not be resolved despite the station's extraordinary efforts to complete this story. In the view of the station's management, the reporters were not willing to be objective in the story nor accept editorial oversight and news counsel."

But Akre and Wilson are fighting back. They are suing WTVT for breach of contract. "This is really not about a couple of disgruntled former reporters whining that their editors wouldn't let them do a story," Wilson said. "Jane and I have each spent more than twenty years in the news business.... It doesn't take that long for every reporter to learn that every now and then- usually when the special interest of your news organization or one of its friends is more important than the public interest- stories get killed. That's bad enough, but that's not what happened here.... Fox 13 didn't want to kill the story. Instead, as we explain in great detail in our legal complaint, we were repeatedly ordered to go forward and broadcast demonstrably inaccurate and dishonest versions of the story. We were given those instructions after some very high-level corporate lobbying by Monsanto and also, we believe, by members of Florida's dairy and grocery industries."

The hormone in question, rBGH, is the flagship product in Monsanto's campaign to take command of the biotechnology industry. Injections of rBGH (sold under the brand name Posilac) induce higher milk production in dairy cows. The hormone's critics warn of potential health risks to both cows and humans.

The Florida dispute offers a rare look at the way stories get killed in the newsroom. It also exposes Monsanto's multi-billion-dollar PR. attempt to stop the news media from reporting the views of rBGH's critics.

Steve Wilson was an Emmy award-winning investigative reporter for the TV news program Inside Edition. He has produced stories that forced two recalls of Chrysler minivans and exposed ABC news anchor Sam Donaldson for accepting farm subsidies even when he criticized them on the air. Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz calls Wilson "a dogged and careful investigator."

Jane Akre has been a reporter and news anchor for twenty years at network affiliates in Tucson, St. Louis, San Francisco, Miami, and at CNN. She has also won a prestigious Associated Press award for investigative reporting.

The couple's contract with the station in Florida stipulated that Akre would be paid $149,500 over two years to file short investigative pieces every few days and anchor the station's weekend morning newscasts. Wilson's contract offered $85,500 for that same two-year period. He was to work ten hours per week on larger stories that would be released for the all-important "sweeps" rating periods.

When the station hired them, it seemed like a good deal. Akre had recently given birth to the couple's first child, and Wilson hoped that signing up with a local station would give him the chance to spend more time at home and less on the road. "Jane and Steve, quite frankly, were only interested in a package deal . . . which suited me. They're both talented individuals who happen to be married," explains former news director Daniel Webster.

A few months after they started work, however, Webster lost his job as part of a management shakeup following Fox's $2.5 billion purchase of WTVT and nine other stations. By then, Wilson and Akre had already received the editorial go-ahead for their first big investigative piece-an expose on possible health risks from rBGH-treated milk. Their reporting documented numerous disturbing claims about Monsanto and its product. Among them:

* The rBGH drug called Posilac was never properly tested before the FDA allowed it on the market. A standard cancer test of a new human drug requires a minimum of two years of testing with several hundred rats. But the rBGH test used only thirty rats for ninety days. Worse, the study has never been published, and the FDA has refused to allow open scientific peer review of the raw data.

* Some Florida dairy herds grew sick shortly after starting rBGH treatment. One farmer, Charles Knight-who lost 75 percent of his herd-says that Monsanto and Monsanto-funded researchers at the University of Florida withheld from him the information that other dairy herds were suffering similar problems.

* Interviewed on camera, Florida dairy officials and scientists, including the lab director for the Tampa Independent Dairy Farmers' Association, refuted Monsanto's claim that every truckload of milk from rBGH-treated cows is tested for excessive antibiotics.

* Also on camera, Canadian government officials described what they called an attempt at bribery by Monsanto, which allegedly offered $1 million to $2 million to gain rBGH approval there. Monsanto calls the allegation a "blatant untruth."

* A visit by Akre to seven randomly selected Florida dairy farms found that all seven were injecting their cows with the hormone. Wilson and Akre also visited area supermarket chains, which two years previously had promised to ask their milk suppliers not to use rBGH in response to consumer concerns. Store representatives admitted that they took no steps to assure compliance with this request.

* Finally, the story looked at concerns raised by scientists such as Samuel Epstein and Consumers Union researcher Michael Hansen about potential cancer risks associated with insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1). Treatments of rBGH lead to significantly increased levels of IGF-1 in milk, and recent studies by Epstein and other scientists have indicated that IGF-1 is a powerful tumor growth promoter.

Management cleared the four-part series on rBGH, and scheduled it to begin airing on February 24, 1997. As part of the buildup to network ratings sweeps, radio ads were already heavily promoting the story when an ominous letter arrived at the office of Fox News chairman Roger Ailes, the former Republican political operative. The letter came from John Walsh, a New York attorney with the firm of Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft. Walsh accused the reporters of bias and urged the network to delay the story in order to ensure "a more level playing field" for Monsanto's side. "There is a lot at stake in what is going on in Florida, not only for Monsanto but also for Fox News and its owner," Walsh wrote.

"Monsanto hired one of the most renowned lawyers in America to use his power and influence," Wilson says. "Even though our stories had been scheduled to run, even though Fox had bought expensive radio ads to alert viewers to the story, it was abruptly canceled on the eve of the broadcasts within hours of receiving the letter from Monsanto's lawyer."

Initially, the station postponed the story for a week, during which their editors and lawyers combed the reporting but could find no inaccuracies. Akre and Wilson offered to do a further interview with Monsanto and supplied a list of topics for discussion. Walsh fired back another threatening letter: "It simply defies credulity that an experienced journalist would expect a representative of any company to go on camera and respond to the vague, undetailed- and for the most part accusatory-points listed by Ms. Akre. Indeed, some of the points clearly contain the elements of defamatory statements which, if repeated in a broadcast, could lead to serious damage to Monsanto and dire consequences for Fox News."

What followed, according to Wilson and Akre, was a grueling nightmare of repeated delays and station-mandated rewrites- seventy-three in all, none of which proved satisfactory to management.

"No fewer than six air-dates were set and canceled," Wilson recalls. "In all my years as a print and radio and local and national television reporter, I've never seen anything like it."

At one point, their lawsuit claims, WTVT general manager David Boylan told them he "wasn't interested" in looking at the story himself and pressured them to follow the company lawyer's directions, adding, "Are you sure this is a hill you're willing to die on?" On another occasion, Boylan allegedly told them, "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 then notified them they would be fired for insubordination within forty-eight hours and another reporter would make the requested changes.

"When we said we'd file a formal complaint with the FCC if that happened," notes Wilson, "we were not fired but were each offered very large cash settlements to go away and keep quiet about the story and how it was handled." The reporters refused the settlement, which amounted to nearly $200,000. The station ultimately fired them in December 1997.

Regarding its initial proposed financial settlement, Boylan says the station offered "to continue their employment contracts as consultants to the station," and says this offer "can in no way be characterized as 'hush' money." However, Wilson and Akre have retained a copy of the station's proposed separation agreement. It makes no mention of continuing employment, and explicitly states that the plaintiffs' "employment with the company will end." The separation agreement also includes clauses requiring Wilson and Akre "not to disclose or publicly comment upon (1) the terms, provisions of or information regarding this agreement, (2) any discussions that took place between any employees of the station and between any employees of the news report, Monsanto's pre-broadcast objections to the news report, the station's legal review of the news report, and the station's response to Monsanto's objections."

"As a mother, I know this is important information about a basic food I've been giving my child every day," Akre says. "As a journalist, I know it is a story that millions of Floridians have a right to know. Four months after we were fired for standing up for the truth, the station has done nothing but continue to keep this important news secret. Solely as a matter of conscience, we will not aid and abet their effort to cover this up any longer. Every parent and every consumer has the right to know what they're pouring on their children's morning cereal."

In court filings, WTVT says that its "editorial discretion and judgment should not and cannot be the subject of second-guessing by a judge or jury, consistent with the First Amendment."

The station also objects to the fact that Akre and Wilson "conducted two press conferences the day they filed their suit" and "have also created a web site to publicize their issues, where they have posted the complaint and exhibits and where they are soliciting public comments."

The site includes two complete scripts of the rBGH report-one showing how Akre and Wilson wanted to write the story, the other showing how the network wanted it edited. Neither version appeared on television, and the station has no plans to air them. WTVT asserts in court documents that by posting the scripts on their web site, Akre and Wilson "have misappropriated . . . property.... This misconduct by plaintiffs is in itself a material and serious breach of the employment agreements [and] amounts to theft."

Akre and Wilson are hanging tough. "I am risking my career by doing this, and I will probably never work in television again," Wilson says. "But we wanted to get this story out."

Akre and Wilson are currently unemployed. The station has requested a dismissal of the lawsuit, claiming that it would violate the First Amendment to involve the court in arbitrating a newsroom decision..


Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber edit "PR Watch" and are the authors of two recent books with Common Courage Press: "Toxic Sludge Is Good For You: Lies, Damn Lies, and the Public Relations Industry" (1995) and "Mad Cow U.S.A.: Could the Nightmare Happen Here?" (1997). They can be reached at (608) 233-3346, or via their web site at www Further information about the Akre-Wilson lawsuit is available at

Environment watch