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WTVT trial gives fired reporters 1st punch
By SUE CARLTON
© St. Petersburg Times, published July 18, 2000
TAMPA -- Already, one reporter has brandished his Emmy award before the jury, while his former employer has used words like "arrogant" and "sensationalist."
Today, television reporter Jane Akre takes the witness stand to accuse her former employer, WTVT-Ch. 13, of giving in to corporate pressure on an investigative story about milk.
Akre and her husband, Steve Wilson, a former Inside Edition reporter, are suing the Fox station. They say they were fired three years ago after they refused to lie in a report called "The Mystery in your Milk," a story about a controversial hormone being used on Florida dairy cows.
Attorneys for the Fox station contend that Akre and Wilson, hired as a hard-hitting and unusual husband-and-wife investigative team, turned out to be difficult employees who resisted attempts to bring fairness to the story.
As opening statements began Monday, the jury watched slick TV ads touting Akre and Wilson as the tough new investigative reporters in town, walking down a darkened alley surrounded by fog.
After they were hired, Akre full time and Wilson part time, they worked on a story about Posilac, a genetically engineered hormone injected into cows to increase milk production.
Though the FDA approved its use on cows, some scientists voiced concerns, claming its use is linked to higher levels of a growth factor suspected of promoting tumors. The report dealt with the possible effects on humans who drink milk, with local grocers who sell that milk and with the Monsanto Corp., the company that makes Posilac.
Akre and Wilson claim their bosses started having problems with the story, scheduled to run during sweeps week, after lawyers for Monsanto Corp. sent a sharply worded letter days before the story was to air in February 1997. But an attorney for WTVT said concerns about fairness were raised before that letter arrived.
In the end, the editing process dragged on for months and included more than 80 versions of the script. A story about Posilac did finally air, but it was done by a different reporter after the two had been dismissed.
The couple say Fox ordered them to include statements in the story they believed were lies, which would violate FCC rules.
Though Akre has a lawyer, Wilson is representing himself in court. Monday, he held up one of his Emmy awards during his opening statement.
The trial, which is expected to take several weeks, resumes this morning before Circuit Judge Ralph Steinberg.
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