The Federal Communications Commission has ended one of the most bitter and protracted media disputes in the Tampa Bay area. In a July 23 ruling, the FCC found that Fox 13, WTVT did not distort the news about a milk additive. Two reporters sought to have the FCC revoke WTVT's license, claiming they were fired from the station after management caved into threats from the additive's manufacturer, Monsanto.
The reporters — a husband-wife team, Steve Wilson and Jane Akre — had been hired by WTVT in 1997. Just about their only work for the station consisted of an investigation into the Monsanto additive, a growth hormone called rBGH. The station insisted on presenting both sides of the dispute — there is considerable scientific debate over rBGH, and the federal Food and Drug Administration approved its use in 1993. Wilson and Akre claimed only their anti-rBGH sources were truthful and that the station, in allowing Monsanto to respond to allegations, distorted the truth.
Within a year, the relationship between the station and the reporters had disintegrated, and their contracts weren't renewed. They sued WTVT in May 1998. In a 2000 trial, Wilson lost on all counts. Akre won a limited verdict, but the Second District Court of Appeal in Lakeland overturned that, ruling the reporters' case had "no merit from its inception." The final denouement of the legal case came in 2005, when Wilson paid WTVT $156,000 for legal expenses.
Following the court losses, Wilson and Akre in January 2005, asked the FCC not to renew Fox's license to operate WTVT. The FCC concluded that the conflict was an "editorial dispute ... rather than a deliberate effort by [WTVT] to distort news."
Wilson, in an e-mail response to CL, complained that the FCC "has been busy giving the broadcast lobby virtually everything it has wanted, including unconscionable media consolidation that serves corporate profit at the expense of true public service. Viewers are smart enough to see the agenda of broadcasters like Fox and are turning away in droves."
The FCC's ruling follows a long history of the agency refusing to second-guess news decisions. To do otherwise would violate the First Amendment, the FCC ruling states. The FCC ruling, however, "admonished" WTVT for misplacing a small number of e-mails related to the case.
Wilson continues to work at a Detroit station, WXYZ, that is owned by another media giant (and Fox rival), the E.W. Scripps Co. Ironically, a report by Wilson resulted in an FCC challenge to WXYZ's license. Wilson had reported that a group of Michigan business and political leaders had consorted with underage prostitutes in Costa Rica. But the reporter admitted on air that "we have no proof" that the named Michigan men had engaged in illicit behavior. That FCC challenge was also denied this month.