Hormonal rage

A chemical manufacturer bullies a TV station, killing a report on Florida dairy dangers

Steve Wilson and Jane Akre, 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 and is widely used on Florida dairy farms.

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The reporters' initial script was full of lively criticism, punctuated by briefer clips of Monsanto denying, correcting, explaining. Akre and Wilson, a husband-and-wife team, leaned toward a handful of renegade critics, not the official regulatory agencies that have approved use of bovine growth hormone (BGH) without long-term testing. But they didn't expect it to cost them their jobs. After it did, they filed suit against the station this month, charging that their firing violated Florida's whistle-blower law. And the station never aired the series.

Critics of BGH cite higher levels of antibiotic residue in milk from treated cows, because superproducers are vulnerable to mastitis (udder infections). Monsanto points to a two-year study it ordered after BGH hit the market that showed no increase in either antibiotic sales or antibiotic residues.

The reporters' series was based on interviews and background material on BGH'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.

Wilson and Akre say the script had been approved by the station's news director and scheduled when a letter to Fox News CEO Roger Ailes arrived from John J. Walsh, an attorney retained by Monsanto. Walsh notified Fox that Monsanto had sensed bias in the WTVT reporters. He suggested that Fox 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; he simply urged "a more level playing field" and a more leisurely pace. The series was postponed one week. WTVT fine-combed the story, but, according to the reporters, could find no inaccuracies.

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. Comparing the scripts posted on their web site (www.foxBGHsuit;.com), the requested version made more deletions than additions, omitting credentials and quotes of controversial experts. It 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.

At one point the reporters suggested killing the story. "We will not ‘kill' the story," Fox's legal vice president assured them, "but we will review and edit it until it meets our standards. If they couldn't live with that, the official said they could be released from their contracts: "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, WTVT's general manager pressured Akre and Wilson to follow the company's lawyer's directions. On April 16, they say, he notified them they would be fired for insubordination and another reporter would make the requested changes. "When they threatened to file a complaint with the FCC, 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 the settlements. Then on May 6, they were offered (but refused to sign) a separation agreement that would have bound them to silence. The broadcast was rescheduled, then rescheduled again.

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In September, the couple returned from a vacation to find a letter notifying Wilson of possible termination. (Akre's letter apparently was lost in the mail.) In October, they say, they were suspended without pay and locked out of their offices. On Dec. 2, they were fired, and on April 2, they filed the civil suit.

Akre and Wilson are convinced that the station never wanted to air the series after the first Monsanto letter. The station claims that the problem was one of insubordination.

"I don't know why they couldn't get their story on the air," Monsanto's Barton says. "We never stopped answering their questions. All of a sudden, they just stopped calling.

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I always wondered what happened."

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