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Reporters Sue Fox TV - Inside Story - by Steve Wilson and Jane Akre

by Steve Wilson and Jane Akre

I used to think there was nothing worse than seeing a good story killed because the special interest of a news organization (or one its friends or
advertisers) was more important than the public interest. I just found out the hard way that I was wrong. There is something much, much worse -- and it's something that should concern all of us because as corporate owners control more and more newsrooms, it will happen again.

The investigative report produced by me and my reporting colleague Jane Akre was not killed by Fox Television. Instead, as we explain in a lawsuit we filed this past week, Fox managers and their lawyers ordered us to distort, twist, and slant a story and threatened us with immediate dismissal if we would not broadcast material we knew to be false and misleading.

Some of you may remember I posted a note here asking for objective advice about what to do months ago when we were doing the same kind of soul-searching I know some of you have been through. (I couldn't identify the reporters or the news organization back then.) Most of you said, "Resist those kinds of instructions!"

As we detail in our lawsuit, when we did just that. Fox threatened to fire us within 48 hours and we were told they'd just get another reporter to do it after we were gone. When we said we'd file a formal complaint with the FCC if that happened, 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_all of these details and written documentation including scripts, contracts, settlement offers, EVERYTHING in our legal complaint you can read for yourself at

Fox managers refused to kill the story because word might leak out they bowed to pressure applied by Monsanto and the dairy and grocery industry, we explain in our suit. Monsanto directed its efforts to kill the story to former Republican operative and now-Fox News chief Roger Ailes. Then, over the course of nine months last year, we were ordered to write and re- write the scripts again and again-more than 73 times in all.

You should know there was never any claim that we or anyone working with us ever acted outside the highest ethical standards of good investigative reporting. There are no issues about trespass or hidden cameras or pretending to be somebody else to get inside information.

More importantly, at no time ever was even a single error of fact found in our reporting. We provided literally binders chock full of solid documentation to support virtually every sentence and to show how some of what we were ordered to report was demonstrably wrong. Little of that mattered as we were repeatedly told "it's not whether the facts are true, it was how they are presented"_and, as we also quoted the Fox General Manager in our lawsuit, "We paid $3 billion for these television stations, we'll decide what the news is. The news is what we tell you it is."

After we stood up to being fired, turned down the easy money, and all those re-writes didn't wear us down, we were told we were being suspended without pay but ordered to keep re-writing scripts even though we found ourselves locked out of our offices and the computers that held much of our information. We did write those final two scripts-the honest version we wanted to report, and the version Fox insisted on telling. Both are attached to our suit and available on the web along with our objections detailed point-by-point in the Fox-mandated script.

Finally, after a year struggling nearly a year to tell the story fairly and honestly, we were advised we were being dismissed without cause pursuant to a window option in our contract. Fox's own lawyer contradicts that phony claim in a letter (you can also review on the web) where she writes that although Fox had the right to dismiss us without cause, "_there were definite reasons for the decision that was made." She goes to explain we were really dismissed due to our "pattern of responding to direction with rancor, argument and personal attacks on the lawyers and editors". Our legal claim is that the "rancor and argument" which ensued when we were ordered to lie on television -- along with our statement to Fox management that we would complain to the FCC if the station resorted to illegal conduct in broadcasting news known to be false and misleading -- those were the reasons we were ultimately fired. Fortunately, Florida has a whistle-blower law that makes that illegal.

In any event, all of us in the news business should consider that this kind of conduct by business people masquerading as journalists could well be the next step down the road to journalism nobody can trust or rely upon. These are issues that we ought to be discussing in our conferences and seminars. How will you handle a similar situation if it ever comes up? What, if anything, can be done to stop this kind of thing? And what kind of support could you expect if you put your career on the line over something like this?

Jane and I would be happy to share anything we have with any of you who want to pursue the original story we were trying to tell (our scripts are on the web) or just want to share your opinions and suggestions about any of this. We invite you to visit the web site, post a message there if you like, or contact us directly by e-mail.

Steve Wilson Jane Akre