February 27, 2003, 1400 PST (FTW) -- Last year FTW reported
on an encouraging lower court victory by two TV reporters
who had been fired by a Florida FOX affiliate for refusing
to air a story containing false and inaccurate information.
The story, describing the dangers of widespread growth
hormone use by dairy farmers, was ultimately slanted
by FOX to protect its advertising revenues.
An Organic Consumers report now brings us the saddening
news that a Florida Appeals court has overturned the
original ruling on the grounds that there is absolutely
nothing illegal about lying, concealing or distorting
information by a major press organization. --
Accepting a defense rejected
by three other Florida state judges on at least six separate
motions, a Florida appeals court has reversed the $425,000
jury verdict in favor of journalist Jane Akre who charged
she was pressured by Fox Television management and lawyers
to air what she knew and documented to be false information.
In a six-page written decision
released February 14, the court essentially ruled the
journalist never stated a valid whistle- blower claim
because, they ruled, it is technically not against any
law, rule, or regulation to deliberately lie or distort
the news on a television broadcast.
In the lawsuit filed in
1998, Akre claimed she was wrongfully terminated for
threatening to blow the whistle to the FCC. After a five-week
trial that ended August 18, 2000, a six-person jury was
unanimous in its conclusion that she was indeed fired
for threatening report the station's pressure to broadcast
what jurors decided was "a false, distorted, or
slanted" story about the widespread use of growth
hormone in dairy cows.
In overturning the jury
on what amounts to a legal technicality, the court did
not dispute the heart of Akre's claim, that Fox pressured
her to broadcast a false story to protect the broadcaster
from having to defend the truth in court, as well as
suffer the ire of irate advertisers.
Nonetheless, the station
aired a report in wake of the ruling saying it was "totally
vindicated" by the verdict.
The "threshold issue," the
court wrote-and all it ruled upon--was whether the technical
qualifications for a whistleblower claim were ever met
by Akre. In Florida, to file such a claim, the employer's
misconduct must be a violation of an adopted law, rule
or regulation. Fox argued from the first-and failed on
three separate occasions in front of three different
judges-to have the case tossed out on the grounds there
is no hard, fast, and written rule against deliberate
distortion of the news.
In essence, the news organization
owned by media baron Rupert Murdoch, argued the First
Amendment gives broadcasters the right to even lie or
deliberately distort news reports on the public airwaves.
In its opinion, the Court
of Appeal held that the Federal Communications Commission
position against news distortion is only a "policy," not
a promulgated law, rule, or regulation. The court let
stand without comment the jury verdict that awarded nothing
to Steve Wilson, Akre's husband and co-plaintiff in the
case. He aggressively represented himself at trial, paving
the way for Fox attorneys to suggest he was as aggressive
in the newsroom as he was in the courtroom and perhaps
that was why he was fired.
Akre and Wilson were meeting
with their attorneys to discuss a possible appeal of
the ruling to Florida's Supreme Court and are expected
to have an announcement and further comment soon. For