Lost in the fog of war, the fiery trail of Columbia, orange "alerts," and the continuing deterioration of our civil liberties was a verdict on February 14 handed down by the Court of Appeals of the Florida Second District. In that verdict the court in essence said technically it is not against any law, rule, or regulation to deliberately lie or distort the news on a television broadcast.
The three judge panel thus reversed the previous $425,000 jury verdict in favor of journalist Jane Akre who charged she was pressured by FOX Television management and lawyers to air what she knew and documented to be false information concerning the widespread use of the Monsanto manufactured rBGH hormone.
In a companion decision the court also ruled that Akre and her journalist husband Steve Wilson, a former FOX Television (WTVT-13) investigative team, also had to pay the legal costs and fees the broadcaster incurred defending itself in a landmark whistleblower case the reporters filed in 1998. The journalists estimate FOX spent over a million dollars on its defense. The couple have appealed the latter ruling.
Akre and Wilson had prepared a WTVT/FOX13 documentary on how Florida dairymen had been secretly injecting the genetically engineered rBGH into their cows and how Florida supermarkets quietly reneged on promises not to sell milk from treated cows until the hormone gained widespread acceptance by consumers.
In their subsequent lawsuit the reporters charged in detail FOX Television owned by Rupert Murdoch's multi-national News Corp, strongly pressured by Monsanto, with violating the state's whistleblower act by firing the journalists for refusing to broadcast false reports and threatening to report the station's conduct to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
Although the Florida jurors concluded she was pressured by FOX lawyers and managers to broadcast what the jury agreed was "a false, distorted or slanted story" and was fired for threatening to blow the whistle, that decision was reversed on a legal technicality when the higher court agreed with FOX that it is technically not against any law, rule or regulation
In setting the jury verdict aside, the appeals court ruled that in order to be protected by Florida's Whistleblower Act, the alleged misconduct must violate a written law. The court said the FCC's prohibition against news distortion is merely a policy. Fox lawyers had made the same argument on at least six occasions and it was rejected each time by three different judges in the trial court proceedings.
"First, the jury's decision is overturned on a technicality and a very narrow reading of the Whistleblower protection law, then the court sets the stage for FOX to destroy us financially," Wilson said. "This cannot be consistent with the intent of state lawmakers who wrote a Whistleblower law to encourage and protect people who have the courage against all odds to stand up and call attention to wrongdoing."
"Nothing in the decision that reversed the verdict at trial absolved FOX of what the jury found to be misconduct in pressuring a reporter to go on the air with a false story just to protect its advertisers," said Akre.
"The truth is Rupert Murdoch and the big-money Washington law firm that represented FOX here have forced us to make another difficult decision about appealing these decisions that set a dangerous precedent in two important areas," Akre continued.
It should also come as no surprise that the attorneys for FOX who argued that point came from the highly connected Washington, D.C. law firm of Williams & Connolly. Yes, the same firm which defended former President Bill Clinton during his impeachment trial and who also unsuccessfully defended two Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) executives in their lysine price-fixing trial, where the nation's largest grain processing company was fined $100 million and the executives were sent to federal prison.
"Our lawyers have told us there are ample grounds to appeal the decision that overturned the jury verdict. Left to stand, no other journalist can ever prevail even when, as in this case, he or she is pressured to deliberately lie on the air," said Akre. "What will that mean for honesty in future broadcasts when unethical station owners and managers put their own interests ahead of honest reporting?
"In essence," she adds, " the news organization owned by media baron Rupert Murdoch, argued the First Amendment gives broadcasters the right to even lie or deliberately distort news reports on the public airwaves."
Akre recalls: "Prior to our dismissal, Station Manager Dave Boylan, a career salesman without any roots in journalism and seemingly lacking the devotion to serve the public interest that motivates all good investigative reporting, had flaunted the company's wealth in an attempt to make us back down. "We paid $3 billion for these stations," he told us on one occasion. "We'll tell you what the news is. The news is what we say it is!"
In addition to the fact that FOX Television and the Florida Court of Appeals sought to obfuscate the jury verdict favoring Akre by giving it a spin favorable to the corporation, the nation's mainstream media meanwhile shamefully and scandalously has totally ignored her and her husband's important suit and trial.
To ignore the lessons learned about our media in the Akre/Wilson trial, however, belies the all too common patriotic rhetoric we currently hear about protecting the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
One of those lessons can be seen at the outset of the Court of Appeals opinion for there listed as listed as Amicus Curiae ("Friends of the Court") are attorneys for the Florida Chamber of Commerce and media corporations Belo Corp., Cox Television, Inc., Gannett Co., Inc., Media General Operations, Inc., and Post-Newsweek Stations, Inc.
A.V. Krebs is director of the Corporate Agribusiness Research Project, P.O. Box 2201, Everett, WA 98203. He publishes a free e-mail newsletter, The Agribusiness Examiner; email firstname.lastname@example.org; web site www.ea1.com/CARP/