August 17, 2000
The Weekly Planet (Tampa, FL)
By John F. Sugg
In early March 1997 I got a phone call that promised a great exclusive
news story. Intrigue, skullduggery, ruthless corporations.
Journalistically speaking, I salivated.
The caller vowed to give me the scoop on nasty chemicals that were
poisoning milk, and how there was an insidious cover-up keeping the news
from the public. Further, the caller breathlessly hinted, there was a sexy
Adding credibility to the promised uncovering of truth was that the
tipster was a journalist. He said he would explain why he was clueing me
into the story if I would have lunch with him and his partner.
So, a few days later, on March 14, 1997 - the date is significant - I
first met Steve Wilson and Jane Akre, his wife and professional partner,
at Landry's Seafood House on the Courtney Campbell Causeway.
The restaurant was appropriate because I felt afterward as if I had bitten
hard on a hook. The two journalists had certainly done a good job at
offering me bait I found difficult to resist. Once they had me on the
line, I found out things weren't quite as promised.
The two were working for WTVT-Ch. 13, a.k.a. Fox 13. Hired in December
1996 to become the investigative team, Wilson was paid $40,000 a year for
a backbreaking 10 hours a week of work, and Akre got $70,000 for more or
less a full-time job that included light duties as anchor. Not a bad gig.
Wilson and Akre had been working on a story about rBGH, a growth hormone
used to stimulate milk production in cows. rBGH, trade named Posilac, is
manufactured by Monsanto Co., an outfit that is, without dispute, a
corporate thug and one that exemplifies the worst fears about what happens
when you mix a hunger for profits with the science of tampering with
Wilson and Akre sued Ch. 13 in April 1998, claiming they were wrongfully
fired. They say Florida's "whistleblower" law protects people who refuse
to violate a law or official regulation - in this case the 1934
Communications Act that prohibits broadcasters from beaming a false
signal. The trial began July 17 and is still crawling toward a conclusion
in Hillsborough County Circuit Court.
The reporting duo claim their never-broadcast series contained explosive
material that Monsanto wanted buried. In truth, the rBGH story wasn't
exactly news. A WTVT lawyer, Greg Jones, testified in the last week that
at least two station news executives had become concerned over the
originality of the Wilson-Akre report after the first draft was submitted
in February 1997.
I had concerns like that myself. On returning to my office from my first
lunch with Wilson-Akre, I found in my rather haphazard files on
genetically engineered food two articles - from In These Times, Nov. 11,
1996; and Mother Jones, January 1997 - that pretty much said all that
Wilson and Akre had told me.
But exposing Monsanto wasn't why the reporters had sought the meeting. The
first draft of their proposed series on rBGH had been submitted Feb. 14 -
less than a month before they first called me. At the time we met, the
station was still trying to work with Wilson and Akre to get the report on
the air - despite, according to testimony at the trial, their
intransigence and arrogant hostility.
Jones, the WTVT lawyer who tried to get the Monsanto series in shape for
airing, testified last week that "instead of a balanced piece of
investigative journalism," the Wilson-Akre piece was "an attack...This
wasn't news; this wasn't balanced."
Investigative journalists - I consider myself one - know the catechism of
dealing with editors and lawyers. It isn't always pretty, but it's
necessary. The idea is to make a story bulletproof, and the simplest
tactic is to include fully the position of those targeted. Sure, very
often people lie to the press. But the idea of fair reporting is to
present both sides, even if the reporter suspects one side is dissembling.
The concept is to present the evidence and let the reader or viewer
decide. The Wilson-Akre claim that WTVT was attempting to force them to
air lies is cowshit, with or without rBGH added.
Back to my first lunch with the duo. It seemed to me that they intended to
push things until an irreparable rupture occurred with the station. That's
because although the two couched their mission in terms of crusading
against the use of rBGH, their real goal appeared to be to expose that
WTVT had caved in to Monsanto's pressure. At the time I thought they were
driven mostly by their conniving to create the appearance that they were
As I learned with some disgust, the whole purpose of the meeting was to
prep me for when they ejected from WTVT so that the Weekly Planet could
carry their water. While they still had me bluffed that our meeting was to
disclose some real story about Monsanto, I had agreed to hold off printing
anything until they left the station.
It struck me at the time that the reporters were clearly violating the
confidentiality clause of their employment contract with the station.
That was their business, I concluded. However - and this is important - it
reinforced my observation that their claims to be working with the station
to get the series on the air were bogus. My observation is that they had
no intent to do anything but create a crisis.
Wilson and Akre weren't very shrewd reporters, or they would have known
that at that time the Planet and WTVT had several informal relationships,
including sharing stories. I wasn't about to let their claims go unvetted.
Not giving away where I had heard the story, I asked WTVT journalists
about the dispute. The staff's opinions of Wilson and Akre were pretty
unanimous - the husband-wife team was hellish to deal with, and what they
were trying to do with the Monsanto story had more to do with propaganda
than good journalism.
"Believe me, we're trying to get the story on the air," the then news
director, Daniel Webster, told me at the time. I did believe him - then
Still, I waited. I occasionally talked to Wilson and Akre, and in fairness
to them reserved final judgment. In March 1998, we hired Lynn Waddell, who
is pretty savvy on media issues. I set up a lunch and introduced her to
Wilson and Akre. After that, I've let Waddell report as she sees fit.
Typically, Wilson resorts to ridicule and intimidation in responding to
Waddell's reports. That's not surprising for a guy who, as we reported,
once referred to his wife as a "dumb bitch," and who once claimed to be
delivering flowers in order to gain entry to a WTVT lawyer's condominium
so that he could spy on the attorney.
Nonetheless, we generally have given a pretty positive spin to Wilson and
Akre's case. Wilson posts the favorable stories on his Web site but
excludes those that he doesn't like - a good comment on how he approaches
He sent me an e-mail after Waddell's last story, which appeared July 27,
grousing that her story had "no quotes" (untrue) and that she "had called
the plaintiffs paranoid" (an understatement on our reporter's part).
I've held off writing - biting my tongue because many of my "progressive"
friends have been snowed by the Wilson-Akre propaganda machine. (The duo
has the gall to link to our articles from their Web site, framing our
reports under a banner that panhandles for donations for Wilson and Akre.)
The reason for my silence is that both sides had subpoenaed me, but
neither ended up calling me. While under subpoena, I was not allowed to
attend the trial.
Wilson wanted me to testify that when, several months ago we were
advertising to hire an investigative reporter, we didn't hire him because
WTVT had ruined his reputation as a journalist. That was untrue, and I
wasn't about to perjure myself for him. The real story was that we
received 100 or so responses to the ad, which stated that we required a
resume and samples of work. Every respondent complied - except one, Wilson.
WTVT lawyer Jones remarked at the trial that Wilson didn't want to do
journalism, but "wanted to tell viewers what to think." Similarly, Wilson
wanted to tell me what to say, and I wouldn't. So he didn't call me.
So, to my friends who truly want to fight "Frankenfood" and companies such
as Monsanto, count on the Planet as an ally. But, please, stop prostrating
yourselves in front of these cheap, false martyrs.
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