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Monsanto and Fox: Partners in Censorship
by Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber
By all accounts, Jane Akre and Steve Wilson are tough, bulldog reporters--the sort of journalists you'd expect to 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." Now, in the wake of their firing barely a year later, the Fox network affiliate is accusing them of theft for daring to independently publish the script of the story that they were never allowed to air.
"This is really not about a couple of disgruntled former reporters whining that their editors wouldn't let them do a story they thought was important," Wilson said in announcing that he and Akre are suing WTVT for breach of contract. "Jane and I have each spent more than 20 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 revealing synthetic hormones in Florida's milk supply. 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 (the powerful drug company that makes the hormone) and also, we believe, by members of Florida's dairy and grocery industries."
The hormone in question is genetically-engineered recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), the flagship product in Monsanto's campaign to take command of the ultra-high-stakes biotechnology industry. Injections of rBGH (sold under the brand name Posilac®) induce higher milk production in dairy cows, but critics warn of potential health risks to both cows and humans.
The Florida dispute offers a rare look inside the newsroom at the way stories get spun and censored. It is also cracks the facade that Monsanto has erected through a highly effective, multi-million-dollar PR offensive aimed at preventing the news media from reporting the views of rBGH critics.
The Dairy Coalition
Coordinated by the DC-based PR/lobby firm of Capitoline/MS&L, the pro-rBGH campaign brings together drug and dairy industry groups in an ad hoc network called the Dairy Coalition, whose participants include university researchers funded by Monsanto, as well as carefully selected "third party" experts; the International Food Information Council, an industry funded coalition that attacks health and safety concerns about food as unwarranted and unscientific; the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, representing the top executive of every department of agriculture in all fifty states; the American Farm Bureau Federation, the powerful right-wing lobby behind the movement to pass food disparagement laws like the one under which Oprah Winfrey was sued in Texas; the American Dietetic Association, the national association of registered dietitians which hauls in large sums of money advocating for the food industry; the Grocery Manufacturers of America; the Food Marketing Institute; and other dairy and food associations at the state and regional levels
Immediately after FDA approval of rBGH, attorneys for Monsanto sued or threatened to sue stores and dairy companies that sold milk and dairy products advertised as being free of rBGH, to make sure that any dissenters within the well-organized food industry would be frightened into towing the industry line.
Extensive media monitoring and aggressive intervention and punishment of offending journalists has been critical to the media management campaign. As early as 1989 the PR firm of Carma International was hired to conduct a computer analysis of every story filed on rBGH, ranking reporters as friends or enemies. This information was used to reward friendly reporters while complaining to editors about those who filed reports that were deemed unfriendly.
Leaked internal documents from the Dairy Coalition reveal how journalists who do not toe the line are handled. In January of 1996 dairy officials wrote Mary Jane Wilkinson, assistant managing editor of the Boston Globe, to complain about an upcoming food column by Globe writer Linda Weltner. "On February 23rd, [Dr.] Samuel Epstein . . . made unsupported allegations linking milk and cancer. We're concerned that Ms. Weltner will give Epstein a forum in the Boston Globe to disseminate theories that have no basis in science." The letter invoked carefully cultivated contacts to smear Epstein as a scaremonger with "no standing among his peers in the scientific community and no credibility with the leading health organizations in this country." It noted that "others in the news media who attended Epstein's press conference or reviewed his study--such as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and the Washington Post--chose not to run this 'story.' . . . USA Today was the only newspaper to print these allegations and we recently held a heated meeting with them."
Another internal dairy industry document bragged about the handling of USA Today health reporter Anita Manning, whose balanced article on the subject offended the rBGH lobbyists. "On Wednesday representatives of the Dairy Coalition met with reporter Anita Manning and her editor at USA Today. When Manning said that Epstein was a credible source, the Dairy Coalition's Dr. Wayne Callaway pointed out that Epstein has no standing among the scientific community. . . . When Manning insisted it was her responsibility to tell both sides of the story, Callaway said that was just a cop-out for not doing her homework. She was told that if she had attended the press conference, instead of writing the story from a press release, she would have learned that her peers from the Washington Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and the Associated Press chose not to do the story because of the source. At this point Manning left the meeting and her editor assured the Dairy Coalition that any future stories dealing with [rBGH] and health would be closely scrutinized."
A February 1996 internal document of the Dairy Coalition notes that "The Coalition is convinced its work in educating reporters and editors at the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post and the Associated Press led to those organizations' dismissal of Samuel Epstein's pronouncements that milk from [rBGH] supplemented cows causes breast and colon cancer. They did not run the story."
The same document brags of knocking prominent New York Times food reporter Marian Burros off the beat entirely: "As you may recall, the Dairy Coalition worked hard with the New York Times last year to keep Marian Burros, a very anti-industry reporter, from 'breaking' Samuel Epstein's claim that milk from . . . supplemented cows causes breast and colon cancer. She did not do the story and now the NYT health reporters are the ones on the [rBGH] beat. They do not believe Epstein. Marian Burros is not happy about the situation."
Given this climate of systematic intimidation and capitulation by news media management, the remarkable fact about the case in Florida is not that the story was killed. What makes this case unique is the dogged persistence that Akre and Wilson have shown in standing by their story.
The Deal that Soured
Steve Wilson is an Emmy award-winning former top investigative reporter for the TV news program "Inside Edition." His past work has produced stories that forced two recalls of faulty door latches in Chrysler minivans and exposed ABC news anchor Sam Donaldson's moves to accept farming subsidies while criticizing them on the air. Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz calls Wilson "a dogged and careful investigator" with a "high-decibel level of journalism." Jane Akre has been a reporter and news anchor for 20 years and has won a prestigious Associated Press award for investigative reporting.
The couple's contract with the station stipulated that Akre would be paid $149,500 over two years to to file short investigative pieces every few days and anchor the station's weekend morning newscasts. Wilson's contract offered $85,500 for 10 hours of work per week on larger stories that would be timed for the all-important "sweeps" rating periods.
At the time of their hiring, it seemed like a good deal for all concerned. Akre had recently given birth to the couple's first child, and Wilson hoped 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," explained news director Daniel Webster.
A few months after their hiring, however, Webster was shown the door as part of a management shakeup following a $2.5 billion package deal in which WTVT and nine other stations were sold to the Fox network. By then, Webster had already given Wilson and Akre the editorial go-ahead for their first big investigative piece--an exposé about possible health risks of rBGH-treated milk, which also provided solid documentation of numerous disturbing facts about Monsanto and its product:
- Posilac® was never properly tested before FDA allowed it on the market. A standard cancer test of a new human drug requires two years of testing with several hundred rats. But rBGH was tested for only 90 days on 30 rats. Worse, the study has never been published, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has refused to allow open scientific peer review of the study's raw data.
- Some Florida dairy herds grew sick shortly after starting rBGH treatment. One farmer, Charles Knight--who lost 75% of his herd--says that Monsanto and Monsanto-funded researchers at University of Florida withheld from him the information that other dairy herds were suffering similar problems.
- Interviewed on camera, Florida dairy officials and scientists 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 offered $1 to $2 million to gain rBGH approval in Canada.
- 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. In reality, store representatives admitted that they have taken no steps to assure compliance with this request.
- Finally, the story dwelt heavily on concerns raised by scientists such as Epstein and Consumers Union researcher Michael Hansen about potential cancer risks associated with "insulin-like growth factor-I" (IGF-1). Treatments of rBGH lead to significantly increased levels of IGF-1 in milk, and recent studies suggest IGF-1 is a powerful tumor growth promoter.
The resulting story, a four-part series, was cleared by management and scheduled to begin airing on Monday, February 24, 1997. As part of the buildup to network ratings sweeps, the story was already being heavily promoted in radio ads when an ominous letter arrived at the office of Fox News chairman Roger Ailes, the former Republican political operative who now heads Rupert Murdoch's Fox network news. The letter came from John J. Walsh, a powerful New York attorney with the firm of Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft, who 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 of the story. "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 cancelled on the eve of the broadcasts within hours of receiving the letter from Monsanto's lawyer."
Initially, the story was postponed for a week, during which station editors and lawyers fine-combed the story but could find no inaccuracies. Akre and Wilson also offered to do a further interview with Monsanto and supplied a list of topics to be discussed. In response, Walsh fired back an even more 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 next, according to Wilson and Akre, was a grueling nightmare of perpetual delays and station-mandated rewrites--73 in all, none of which proved satisfactory to station management. "No fewer than six airdates were set and cancelled," 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 48 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, and ultimately were fired in December 1997.
The Perfect Case
Notwithstanding the dramatic issues and allegations at stake for reporters everywhere, the lawsuit has generated almost no national media attention and only a few stories in the Florida press--most of which are couched in timid "he said, she said" language that is sure to please Monsanto. One editorialist could not resist putting quotation marks around the word "facts" in discussing the case: "The 'facts' at issue were as slippery as a just-milked cow. . . . And the lines between advocacy, truth integrity and insubordination thin to pencil width when an expensive lawsuit's in the offing."
"Is this an example of local TV's growing reluctance to air hard-hitting investigative news pieces?" asked Eric Deggans of the St. Petersburg Times before concluding that "The truth, as always, lies somewhere in the middle." After examining "the personality conflicts and lack of definitive scientific evidence" about rBGH, Deggans concludes that "Wilson's and Akre's case may not be the perfect example to illustrate the trend of increasingly irrelevant reporting in TV news."
Actually, the case is a perfect example to illustrate that trend. In fact, Deggan's response to the case shows how corporate interests have succeeded in dramatically shifting the terms of acceptability in journalistic discourse.
Good journalism--in particular, good investigative journalism--is almost always controversial and accompanied by "personality conflicts." In dealing with technologically novel products like genetically-engineered hormones, "lack of definitive scientific evidence" is part of what makes the story controversial.
"Is there smoking-gun, iron-clad evidence available today that drinking milk from hormone-treated cows will lead to cancer in you or your children?" asks Wilson. "No. Many scientists will tell you because this is a drug injected into animals and not directly into humans the testing of its effects on milk-drinkers has never been thorough enough to know for sure. But ask yourselves this: how long did it take us all to learn about the effects of tobacco while the special interests insisted there was no evidence of any harm? Was it wrong to raise those issues before the link was indisputable? Or how about Agent Orange, dioxin, PCBs--all Monsanto products, by the way, all approved by the government, sworn by Monsanto to be safe. Was it wrong to raise those issues before we knew for certain?"
In reality, journalistic reluctance to discuss hypothetical, as-yet unproven health risks is driven more by fear of corporate lawsuits than by a desire to be "responsible." One such lawsuit by the Food Lion grocery store chain resulted in a $5.5 million judgment against ABC-TV in January 1997--just one month prior to Monsanto's threatening letter aimed at killing the Akre-Wilson story. It was a verdict that Monsanto's attorney made sure to mention in his letter to Roger Ailes. "What has Monsanto concerned . . . is the assault on their integrity . . . blatantly carried on by Ms. Akre and Mr. Wilson," Walsh wrote. "In the aftermath of the Food Lion verdict, such behavior would alone be cause for concern."
"A lot of people now are more fearful of doing investigative journalism since Food Lion . . . which is why we have so many lawyers involved," admits Phil Metlin, who took over as WTVT's news director in July 1997. "We have to be careful . . . and prudent."
The result, of course, has been that attorneys rather than reporters are empowered to make journalistic decisions.
For its part, WTVT insists that this system of institutional self-censorship must be defended in order to avoid "chilling the give-and-take essential in any newsroom in getting the news on the air in a timely and responsible manner." In legal court filings, the station insists 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."
WTVT 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." Worse yet, the website includes two complete scripts of their controversial rBGH report--one version showing how they wanted to write the story, and the other showing how the network wanted it edited. Neither version has ever aired. In fact, its filings in court claim that by posting the scripts on their website, 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."
Theft it may be, in some strange legal sense, but Akre and Wilson don't care at this point. "I am risking my career by doing this, and I will probably never work in television again," Wilson said, "But we wanted to get this story out."
"As a mother, I know this is important information about a basic food I've been giving my child every day," Akre said. "As a journalist, I know it is a story that millions of Floridians have a right to know. The television station we worked for promised the story would be told. Instead, we spent nearly a year struggling to tell it honestly and accurately, and 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. It is not right for the station to withhold this important health information, and 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."
Postscript: In May 1998, a month after Wilson and Akre filed suit, the station aired an rBGH story by the investigative reporter who was hired to replace them. His story, predictably, omitted many of their criticisms of Monsanto.
A version of this article appeared in the June 1998 issue of The Progressive magazine. Further information about the Akre-Wilson lawsuit is available on their website at <http://www.foxBGHsuit.com>.