Jun 1 1998

‘We Paid $3 Billion for These Stations. We’ll Decide What the News Is’

Steve Wilson and Jane Akre, a husband-and-wife investigative reporting team at WTVT, Fox‘s Tampa Bay affiliate, thought they had a dynamite story: Despite promises to consumers, supermarkets in Florida were selling milk produced with rBGH, a synthetic growth hormone developed by Monsanto that boosts milk production. The use of rBGH causes udder infections in cows, requiring increased use of antibiotics, but the monitoring of antibiotic residues in milk was inadequate, Akre and Wilson found.

Most ominously, the Fox reporters found that some scientists believe that rBGH-boosted milk contains heightened levels of IGF-1, a hormone associated with increased risk of cancer (Science, 1/23/98). Despite Monsanto’s claim that rBGH is “the most studied molecule certainly in the history of domestic animal science,” no thorough studies exist on whether milk produced with rBGH is carcinogenic.

These are vital facts for consumers in Florida–and around the country–to know. But the story never aired on WTVT, and Wilson and Akre are now out of a job and suing Fox–because of Fox‘s efforts to alter their story to make it acceptable to Monsanto.

On February 21, 1997, days before the first installment of the rBGH story was scheduled to air, Monsanto sent a letter to Roger Ailes, the head of Fox News. (Ailes was a campaign adviser to Ronald Reagan and George Bush, and the executive producer of Rush Limbaugh’s TV show.) The letter questioned Akre and Wilson’s “objectivity and capacity for reporting on this highly complex scientific subject,” and charged that the reporters “have prejudged the safety of [rBGH] and the corporate behavior of Monsanto.” The letter urged Ailes to involve himself directly in an effort to “get the facts straight” about rBGH, hinting none-too-subtly that the alternative would be a massive lawsuit: “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.”

That same day, Akre and Wilson were told that their story was being postponed, and an endless round of revisions, cuts and conferences with lawyers ensued. (The pressure only intensified after Monsanto sent Ailes a second letter warning of “dire consequences for Fox News.”) Fox‘s attitude was made clear by in-house counsel Carolyn Forrest, who reportedly told Akre and Wilson, “I don’t think this story is worth going to court and to trial spending a couple of hundred thousand dollars to fight Monsanto.” Her position, the reporters say, was that “it doesn’t matter if the facts are true”; what mattered was that no story air that could result in a Monsanto lawsuit that wouldn’t be immediately dismissed.

In a memo, Akre and Wilson assured station management that they were willing to work with lawyers to produce a balanced and accurate story that would be legally unassailable, but insisted that they could not take part in airing a program that was false or misleading. In response, the reporters allege in their lawsuit against Fox, they were told by station manager David Boylan: “We paid $3 billion for these television stations. We will decide what the news is. The news is what we tell you it is.”

After dozens of rewrites, the journalists and the station still couldn’t agree on a version of the report that everyone was happy with. Fox didn’t seem to want to kill the piece, but that appears to have been more about fear of bad PR than about a commitment to report the news: At one point the station offered to pay Wilson roughly $125,000, if he would just go away and never tell anyone how the story had been handled. He turned down the offer.

After Keystone Kops-like personnel maneuvers in which the couple were variously suspended without pay, suspended with pay and forbidden to work out of the studio, Fox eventually notified them by fax that they were both fired on November 30, 1997. The station never aired any version of the story they had produced.

All this has come to light because of Akre and Wilson’s lawsuit against the Fox affiliate, charging breach of contract and violation of Florida’s whistleblower protection act. How far the suit will get is unclear: Courts have been rightly reluctant to second-guess news judgments made by media owners. But regardless of its outcome, the filing of the suit has shed light on the cowardice and compromise often exhibited by news outlets in the face of corporate pressure.

Many of the central documents in the case are on a website posted by Akre and Wilson (www.foxbghsuit.com). Rachel’s Environment & Health Weekly has an excellent summary of the scientific questions about rBGH posted at www.monitor.net/rachel/r593.html.

Please ask your local news outlets to cover the health effects of rBGH, and Monsanto’s efforts to suppress such questions.