Verdict is not expected to affect TV news
By LARRY DOUGHERTY
Revised September 6, 2000
© St. Petersburg Times, published September 5, 2000
TAMPA -- Last month, a state court jury awarded $425,000 to TV investigative reporter Jane Akre after she cried foul about corporate censorship at a local station.
It's tempting to imagine the verdict will prompt newsrooms to loosen the leashes on reporters whose stories threaten powerful interests.
That's not what's happening, though, according to a sampling of local news executives, media lawyers and ethics experts. They say they haven't changed their operating practices as a result of the suit Akre and her husband/collaborator Steve Wilson brought against Fox-owned WTVT-Ch. 13.
"That case has not affected our thinking in terms of how to go forward with investigative reporting," said Dan Bradley, vice president of news at WFLA-Ch. 8.
About the only people who see journalistic revelations are Wilson and Akre themselves. The indifference of local editors is another sign that the media "does not criticize itself," Akre said.
Wilson and Akre sued the station after they were released early from their contracts in 1997. They claimed Fox management and lawyers buckled to pressure from Monsanto Co. to distort Wilson's and Akre's report about the use of a Monsanto hormone in Florida's milk supply. Ultimately, Fox did not air the couple's report.
While being careful to note that he had no first-hand information about the case, Bradley said what he perceived was two reporters' "resistance to vetting."
"One of the points I read is that they were concerned about putting Monsanto's lies in their report," Bradley said. "I mean, if that's the case, you put Monsanto's comments out there, and add the attribution to show it's a lie. ... If a target of a story wants to lie about the facts, you have a responsibility to show that, and the other side."
The jury awarded Akre $425,000 in damages after concluding the station retaliated against her for threatening to blow the whistle on a false or distorted news report. The jury decided, however, that the station had not wronged Wilson in the same way.
Both Fox and Wilson are appealing the verdict.
Some journalism experts said the case seemed more about a problem in management than a problem in newsgathering.
"It's not a watershed case," said Al Tompkins, a broadcast news expert at the Poynter Institute, the journalism school that owns the St. Petersburg Times. "It's not like a Prime Time Live/Food Lion case."
"It seemed like a matter between Fox and its reporters," said Neil Brown, managing editor of the Times. "I don't see a lot of larger lessons."
Tompkins and the two fired reporters agree there is a novel legal development out of the trial. It may be the first time a television reporter has won a whistleblower claim by citing the Federal Communications Commission's policy against deliberate news distortion. (There's no analogous policy that applies to print reporters.) But they disagree on its value.
"Other reporters, if they feel they are being pressured to slant a story, may seek protection under the whistleblower law," Akre said. "That really opens the door for a lot of people."
Tompkins doesn't think much of this wrinkle. In his own career, he said, he would have quit a reporting job had an editor ordered him to produce a slanted story. But the possibility of a news organization facing a lawsuit from one of its own reporters, about a story's content, troubles him. "As a former news director, I would have to say it would be a very difficult position not to be able to control the editorial content of the stories you are charged with controlling."
Tompkins said that when he ran a television investigative unit in Nashville, it was normal practice for 20 to 30 percent of the investigative stories never to air.
"Sometimes you know (the story) is right, but you don't ever get it on TV because you don't have the goods," he said. "I told people that if every story you're working on works out, you're not working on tough enough stories. . . . You're just picking the low-hanging fruit."
- Larry Dougherty can be reached at (813) 226-3337 or email@example.com.
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