Reporter wins in milk suit

The battle between former WTVT(TV) Tampa, Fla., reporters Steve Wilson and wife Jane Akre and the Fox-owned station proved as contentious following the trial as during and preceding it.

Akre won a $425,000 judgment on one of four claims against the Fox-owned station surrounding a story about the dangers of a hormone used in milk production. Wilson and Akre, who were fired from the station, claimed wrongful termination, saying they were penalized for threatening to take to the FCC their charges that FOX bowed to pressure from hormone maker Monsanto and wanted them to slant the story. They had refused to make changes.

FOX has denied the claim, saying the pair was let go for insubordination, and plans to appeal the judgment. Wilson and Akre plan to complain to the FCC.

But did the jury actually find that the station tried to distort the story? When asked if Akre had been fired in violation of Florida's whistle-blower law after threatening to tell the FCC "of a false, distorted, or slanted news report which she reasonably believed would violate the prohibition against intentional falsification or distortion of the news on television," it said yes. Asked if she'd been fired "because she opposed or refused to participate" in such a broadcast, the jury said no. It said no to both questions as applied to Wilson.

Wilson and Akre said that language makes clear the jury agreed with their long-fought charge that FOX tried to pressure them to slant the news, and they claimed victory. But FOX contended that the verdict vindicates it from charges of slant and distortion.

FOX lawyer Ted Russell said that the jury reference to "false, distorted, or slanted news" cannot be separated from Akre's reasonable belief. The jury, he said, was instructed to determine whether the plaintiff thought the story was false and misleading, not to determine whether it actually was. "The jury form could have been clearer," he said. Wilson and Akre called that interpretation "spin."