Hormonal Rage

Steve Wilson and Jane Akre, a husband-and-wife team of investigative reporters for Tampa Bay's WTVT (Channel 13), were proud of their four-part series on Monsanto's bovine growth hormone (BGH). The station, a new Fox affiliate, was proud, too -- it bought radio ads to promote the series. They'd already begun to air when a Monsanto attorney sent a warning letter to the CEO of Fox News.Nine months of postponements, bitter arguments and 73 rewrites followed. The "facts" at issue were as slippery as a just-milked cow. Monsanto's BGH is a genetically engineered hormone injected into dairy cows to boost milk production. The reporters' initial script was full of lively criticism, punctuated by briefer clips of Monsanto denying, correcting, explaining. The science in question is fairly subjective; how you weight the various explanations is also a judgment call. Akre and Wilson leaned toward a handful of renegade critics, not the official regulatory agencies that have approved BGH without long-term testing.But they never expected to lose their jobs over it. Last Thursday, they filed suit against the station, charging that their December firing violated Florida's whistle-blower law.Akre, who once worked here (St. Louis) at KTVI (Channel 2), has nearly 20 years of broadcast experience; Wilson has 25. Both have won awards for their reporting. For their BGH script, the pair had plenty of videotaped interviews and a binder of background material on the genetically engineered hormone's unexplored health risks, its prevalence on Florida dairy farms, the effects on dairy cows and the large grocers who had quietly reneged on a promise not to sell milk from treated cows until BGH won widespread acceptance.The reporters say the series' script had been approved by the local station's news director and scheduled for Feb. 24, 1997, when a letter arrived at the office of Fox News chief Roger Ailes on Feb. 21 from John J. Walsh of Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft, a New York law firm retained by Monsanto. Walsh wanted to notify Ailes that Monsanto officials had sensed bias in the WTVT reporters and doubted their ability to be fair. He suggested that Fox senior executives proceed with caution. "There is a lot at stake in what is going on in Florida," he concluded, "not only for Monsanto, but also for Fox News and its owner."Walsh never suggested censoring the story, of course; he simply urged "a more level playing field" and a more leisurely pace. "While Akre and Wilson spoke of a 'deadline' for submission of these materials," he wrote, "it is inconceivable that treatment of this important subject, which is not a breaking news story, be rushed to fill some pre-designated news programming slot."The series was postponed one week; Akre and Wilson were notified that very afternoon. WTVT fine-combed the story, but, according to the reporters, could find no inaccuracies. It was decided that Akre would offer Monsanto a second interview. When a Monsanto official requested a list of the questions in advance, however, Akre offered a list of topics instead. (It is not standard practice for journalists to provide specific questions.)Walsh fired back a letter saying, "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." He ended by reminding Ailes that the development of the series "requires close, continuing attention from you and/or other senior news executives of Fox."Next came a hellish period of rewriting, documentation, argument. According to the reporters' lawsuit, they were told to include information they knew to be false or misleading. In an April 10, 1997, letter, Fox's legal vice president, Carolyn Y. Forrest, informed Akre and Wilson that they were writing "combative, contentious memoranda" about a story that was being handled no differently than any other. "I am sure you can appreciate that the application of neutral principles will yield different results," she wrote, "depending on the subject matter to which the principles are applied." She tacitly conceded that the Monsanto letter had begun the discussion, but said "subsequent scrutiny of the BGH script has been inspired by the unnecessary risk caused by the lack of fairness and the deficiencies we have found in the story."What deficiencies did the requested rewrite correct? If you compare the scripts posted on the reporters' Web site, the requested version made more deletions than additions, omitting credentials of controversial experts and deleting such quotes as, "We're going to save some lives if we review this now," from a scientist critical of Monsanto's product. The rewrite also deleted the University of Florida's role in the research, promotion and approval of BGH; deleted specific mention of IGF-1, a growth factor that increases in milk from treated cows; and substituted "human health implications" for "cancer." The Florida grocers who had originally pledged not to sell the milk until it won widespread acceptance (they later reneged) were credited with responding to consumer wishes, not protecting their sales.The reporters say they were told to withhold information about Monsanto's previous behavior so it wouldn't look as if they were "building a case" against Monsanto. Meanwhile, they had to fight to keep a colorful "crack for cows" description of BGH first uttered eight years ago by the Massachusetts agricultural commissioner and since quoted by more than a dozen publications. WTVT made their reporters track down the former commissioner and confirm the quote.There were a few additions, though: Akre and Wilson say they were required to include the assertion, "This is the most studied molecule certainly in the history of domestic animal science," which they believed to be untrue. At one point they suggested simply killing the story rather than doing something they considered misleading. "We will not 'kill' the story," Forrest assured them, "but we will review and edit it until it meets our standards.... If you are chafing under the editorial and legal scrutiny, you may find it more useful to actively cooperate in producing a fair and balanced report." If they couldn't live with that, she suggested they say so, "without rancor or bombast, and we will release you from your contract with us. Although we want you to remain a part of our team, please be advised that your failure to adhere to and cooperate with our procedures and directions constitute insubordination and are a breach of your employment agreement."According to the lawsuit, the new WTVT general manager, David Boylan, told Akre and Wilson that 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 April 16, they say, he 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." He 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."They did not accept. But on May 6, they received a separation agreement that would bind them to silence about "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." They refused to sign -- but kept a copy.On May 29, according to the lawsuit, Forrest told them she didn't think their story was "worth going to court and to trial spending a couple hundred thousand dollars to fight Monsanto." The reporters say she made it clear that "it doesn't matter if the facts are true"; what mattered was whether the station could quickly and easily defend itself from a possible lawsuit by Monsanto.By June 19, the reporters say they had rewritten the script as directed. They still contended that the changes were misleading or inaccurate. Akre says she was told to be available for other work starting June 23 and was assigned to report on the vandalism of a vacant house, a "news story" not covered by any other station. The BGH series, meanwhile, was rescheduled to air July 28. The reporters met with the new vice president for news, Philip Metlin, and say he agreed that some of the changes didn't work. They modified the changes, but Fox lawyers didn't like their modifications. The broadcast was rescheduled, then rescheduled again.The couple left on a long-planned vacation -- and returned in September to a letter notifying Wilson of possible termination three months hence. (Akre's letter apparently went astray in the mail.) In October, they say, they were suspended without pay ("as an act to evidence good faith and to evidence willingness to continue to work on the BGH story") and locked out of their offices, where computers contained much of their research. During their suspension, they were told to complete two versions of the script, theirs and the requested one.On Dec. 2, Akre and Wilson were fired. On April 2 of this year, they filed a civil suit against the station. (If they win, they plan to give whatever's left after legal fees to a journalism organization to fund journalists in similar predicaments.) When we called Boylan, the station manager, for comment, we were furnished with an official statement blaming "journalistic differences": "The reporters were not willing to be objective in the story nor accept editorial oversight and news counsel ... The station stood by its standards of fairness and balance in its reporting despite the reporters' threats of retaliation." The station also says its rejected offer to pay Wilson and Akre to work as "consultants" in exchange for their silence "can in no way be characterized as 'hush' money."The "science" of BGH milk is a muddle of corporate interests, subjective interpretations, blithe approvals and persistent accusations first addressed by the RFT four years ago ("Udder Madness," Jan. 19, 1994). Critics of BGH cite higher levels of antibiotic residue in milk from treated cows, because superproducers are vulnerable to mastitis (udder infections). Monsanto biotech spokesman Gary Barton points to a two-year study that Monsanto contracted six months after BGH hit the market, which showed no increase in antibiotic sales or residues. But, according to Wilson, the sampling and screening process is inadequate for a wide array of antibiotics. "The lab director for the Tampa Independent Dairy co-op is the only man who routinely tests every single load of raw milk that comes from farms in this area," notes Wilson. "In an on-camera interview, he admits he tests for dangerous and illegal antibiotic drug residue only in the penicillin family."Another point of contention is IGF-1, a substance that increases in milk from treated cows and has been shown to speed tumor growth in other contexts. Monsanto attorney Walsh wrote that "there is no increase in the level of IGF-1 in the milk," but Barton says the potential exists for a slight increase that still falls within a "normal" range. (Some estimate a 25 percent increase, some say 2-20 times as much, some say roughly 10-fold.) Barton says the levels occurring naturally in the human body are far higher than the negligible increase in the milk, and he groans over a recent flurry of calls about a January report in Science linking high IGF-1 levels to prostate cancer. "That's interesting," he says, "but it had nothing to do with milk."Dr. Michael Hansen, a research biologist at the Consumer Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., who was one of the reporters' sources, says "what is important is the hormones' local concentration. You don't measure globally throughout the body. Hormones are often active at incredibly low levels, and there is often an exquisite balance." Hansen agrees that normally, "IGF-1 would degrade fairly rapidly," but he says "the presence of casein, the major protein in milk, appears to help it survive digestion."These issues are still new enough, and complex enough, that what you believe is ultimately a matter of whose research and interpretation you trust. Most regulatory groups have agreed with Monsanto. But economics play a part in the emerging consensus, too. And Akre feels justified in her skepticism about official reassurances of safety: "Monsanto owned the studies they contracted out with universities."Akre and Wilson are convinced that, despite repeated assurances that the story was important, the station never wanted to air it after that first Monsanto letter. The station claimed that the problem was one of insubordination, yet even after they fired the reporters, "they did nothing to get the story on the air with a reporter they could trust," observes Wilson. "Their local reporter was out trying to find out which pizza parlor put the least cheese on their pizza."The recipient of the initial letter, Ailes, was unavailable for comment after undergoing hip surgery. Pat Anderson, the attorney representing WTVT, says all Ailes did was "pass the letter down the food chain," because the station is owned by Fox Television Stations Inc., not Fox News. "I don't exactly understand the corporate structure -- it is truly complicated," she adds. "But eventually it filtered its way down to the station."Fast filtering: The reporters say they were notified of the postponement the afternoon of the day Ailes received the letter. Still, Anderson says the real problem was that the series couldn't pass the company lawyers' libel review. "Prepublication review is a normal thing," she points out. "What was not normal about this was the reporters' refusal to include Monsanto's side of the story. I think what happened is, the reporters became convinced; they became advocates."And the lines between advocacy, truth, integrity and insubordination thin to pencil width when an expensive lawsuit's in the offing.Meanwhile, back at corporate headquarters, Barton says it's not Monsanto's fault the story was never broadcast. "I don't know why they couldn't get their story on the air," he remarks lightly. "All we've ever asked from journalists is to be as fair as possible. We never stopped answering their questions. All of a sudden, they just stopped calling. I always wondered what happened."The reporters' allegations are posted on their Web site: www.foxBGHsuit.com.


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