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Reporter wins suit over firing

Jurors accept Jane Akre's claim that she was wrongfully fired by Channel 13 in a dispute over a story.

By SARAH SCHWEITZER

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 19, 2000


TAMPA -- Ending a lengthy and often bitter trial, a jury Friday awarded $425,000 to a former WTVT-Ch.13 reporter who claimed the station fired her for threatening to alert federal regulators to a news report she said was slanted.

The jury of three men and three women deliberated nearly six hours before finding that Fox affiliate Channel 13 had retaliated against Jane Akre for a story about a controversial hormone manufactured by the Monsanto Corp.

However, jurors refused to give any money to Akre's husband, Steve Wilson, an Emmy-winning reporter who also worked on the story.

And the jury did not believe the couple's claim that the station bowed to pressure from Monsanto to alter the news report.

Despite the limited victory, Akre and Wilson found vindication in the verdict.

"When you're talking about a public health issue, you don't just cash out and walk away," Akre said. "You just don't walk away from a story like this anymore than you walk away from a story about faulty tires." Fox 13 officials also claimed victory.

"This is a wonderful day," said Phil Metlin, the news director of Fox 13. "The jury realized that Fox never told anyone to lie, distort or slant the news."

Metlin said Fox will appeal the damages awarded to Akre.

Akre, 47, and Wilson, 48, were fired in 1997 after a falling-out over the hormone story.

They later sued, claiming they were wrongfully fired for refusing to include misleading information in their report, and because they had threatened to report the station to the Federal Communications Commission.

Fox 13 claimed they had been fired for insubordination and that the report the station eventually aired was fair and balanced.

Fox was represented by Williams & Connolly, which defended President Clinton during his impeachment, and St. Petersburg attorney Pat Anderson. Her firm, Rahdert, Anderson, McGowan & Steele, sometimes represents the St. Petersburg Times.

Wilson, a veteran of tabloid television shows such as Inside Edition, and Akre, a former WTSP-Ch.10 reporter, were hired by Fox in 1996. They began work on a story about the use of Posilac, a hormone manufactured by Monsanto and better known as bovine growth hormone, or BGH.

In 1993 the FDA approved the hormone, which can increase milk production by as much as a third when injected in cows. But several scientists raised concerns about the safety of milk from cows treated with BGH, and some Florida grocers requested that farmers not use it.

Akre and Wilson found that at least seven Florida farmers were continuing to use BGH, suggesting that Florida grocers could not claim their milk was BGH-free.

The Friday before the story was to air in February 1997, Fox received a threatening letter from Monsanto, saying the reporters were biased and that the story would damage the company.

Wilson and Akre claimed that Fox responded by requiring the inclusion of statements they considered lies. The station claimed it did not bend to Monsanto's letter and wanted to air a hard-hitting story with a number of statements critical of Monsanto.

Wilson and Akre protested and the story never aired. After the couple were fired, for what the company termed insubordination, the station assigned another reporter to do a story that eventually aired.

The couple sued for breach of contract and retaliation. The case went to trial on July 17 before Circuit Judge Ralph Steinberg.

Ralph Nader, the Green Party presidential candidate, testified about the FCC's rules requiring accurate and fair reporting. Wilson brandished his Emmy award in court.

On Thursday, Steinberg dismissed Akre's contract breach claim and Friday morning he placed the case in the hands of jurors.

Akre and Wilson did not specify a damage award in court papers, but had said before trial that the award could run as high as $2-million.

The couple are now unemployed. Akre was working as a fill-in anchor for Bay News 9, but said she has gotten no calls from the station since the start of the trial. They are pessimistic about working in broadcast again. Wilson said prospective employers now ask whether he would ever sue them.

"At the time, (the case) was a no-brainer," said Akre. "But I had no idea this case would eat up our savings and cost us our careers."

Wilson said he was not fazed by his loss, and instead was reveling in his wife's victory.

"This jury believed that they fired a reporter because she was about to go to the FCC and blow the whistle," said Wilson, who acted as his own lawyer in the case. "I really hope this victory sends a message to those who call themselves journalists."

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