Ex-Reporters Challenge WTVT License
By John Eggerton -- Broadcasting & Cable, 1/3/2005 7:12:00 AM
Two former Fox journalists are taking the fight against their one-time TV-station employer to the Federal Communications Commission.
Investigative reporters Jane Akre and husband Steve Wilson are filing a challenge to the station license of Fox-owned WTVT-TV Tampa, Fla., charging that the station "deliberately broadcast false and distorted news reports."
They also charge that the station failed to properly keep viewer complaints and comments on file, saying no trace of the dispute over the hormone story was found in station files.
Monday was the deadline for filing license challenges to stations in Florida.
Saying the station had received the petition and was preparing its response to the FCC, WTVT VP and GM Bob Linger said: "I expect to be vindicated by the FCC as we have been by the courts. We are committed to fair and balanced reporting."Saying the station had received the petition and was preparing its response to the FCC, WTVT VP and GM Bob Linger added: "I expect to be vindicated by the FCC as we have been by the courts. We are committed to fair and balanced reporting." In February 2003, a Florida District Court of Appeal overturned a 1998 $425,000 jury award to the couple. They had claimed WTVT fired them after they refused to allow their investigation of cattle growth hormone BGH to be distorted under pressure from station executives and drug manufacturer Monsanto. At the time, they pledged to take their case to the FCC.
Wilson and Akre claimed that after promoting them as hard-hitting investigative reporters, the station fired them for refusing to include misleading information on a story that said Florida dairy cows were being fed a potentially dangerous hormone.
Monsanto and Fox denied the charges and Fox countered that Wilson and Akre were uncooperative employees, were committed to an unfair piece, and refused suggestions that would have improved the piece.
The lower court had concluded the report that ultimately aired was distorted, but the appeals court said the FCC's news-distortion policy was not in the necessary form of a law or regulation, and that, alternately, the couple had failed to make a claim under federal whistle-blower protections.
"Although Fox has always denied it ever ordered deliberate distortions, the jury found the reports at the heart of the dispute were “false, distorted, or slanted,” the couple said Monday in filing their FCC complaint.
"While the appellate court ruling that reversed the jury called the journalists’ suit “without merit from its inception,” the couple said Monday, "that finding was based solely upon the court’s finding on the threshold issue that the Whistleblower law did not apply in this particular case. No court has ever disputed the jury’s conclusions about the news reports themselves.
"The public expects the FCC to exercise its authority on complaints of indecency on the public airwaves and it has in cases like Janet Jackson and here locally with Bubba The Love Sponge," said Akre and Wilson of their complaint. "Certainly no less important is the public’s expectation that the airwaves they own will not be used to lie and mislead them on issues of public importance."
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press was keeping its distance from the petition.
"We are not in the business of trying to get TV stations in trouble with the government," said Lucy Dalglish, Reporters' Committee executive director.
"The First Amendment right belongs to the TV station. If the station does not want to publish a story, it has the right to not broadcast the story. The reporter also has the absolute right to disassociate themselves from something they don't agree with."
Besides, says Dalglish, "we have a long and rich history of not getting involved with personal disputes."
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