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FCC 'no distortion' policy cannot be basis for 'whistleblower' verdict

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FCC ‘no distortion’ policy cannot be basis for ‘whistleblower’ verdict

  • A Florida appeals panel threw out a jury award to a Tampa reporter who said she was fired after she threatened the station that did not run her story that she would report its “news distortion” to the Federal Communications Commission.

Feb. 19, 2003 — The Federal Communications Commission’s policy against news distortion is not a “law, rule or regulation,” a Florida court of appeals in Lakeland ruled Feb. 14 in throwing out a Tampa television reporter’s $425,000 jury award under the state’s whistleblower law.

Jane Akre won the hefty award in August 2000 by claiming that her employer WTVT-TV fired her after she threatened to tell the FCC that it had tried to distort the news. The Florida whistleblower law allows an employee to recover damages when an employer retaliates against efforts to report unlawful behavior.

But the appeals court ruled unanimously that Akre had not described any behavior by her former employer that was unlawful under the state’s whistleblower statute. The FCC, in a series of opinions on licensing broadcasters, had found proven instances of slanting or distorting the news, but that was not a rule or law. Federal agencies can make policy through adjudications but policies are not rules or laws, the court said.

Akre and her husband Steve Wilson, hired as an investigative team by the Fox affiliated television station, began working on a story in 1996 about the use of Monsanto Co.’s synthetic bovine growth hormone in Florida dairy cattle. For eight months they wrestled with station management and its lawyers about what the story should say, claiming that the hormone had dangerous side effects that had led to its ban in Canada and several European countries.

Monsanto’s lawyers complained to Fox management that the hormone was approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration and was not dangerous.

The appeals panel said that each time the station asked the reporters to document statements in the story or change the content, the reporters accused them of trying to distort the story in favor of the manufacturers.

In September 1997 the station fired the reporters and the story never aired.

In April 1998 the reporters sued, claiming they were fired for not distorting the news and for threatening to report attempted distortions to the FCC. The jury agreed that the station had retaliated against Akre but not against Wilson.

Consumer advocate Ralph Nader testified at trial that broadcasters are legally bound to provide public service to their viewers.

(New World Communications of Tampa v. Akre; Broadcast attorneys: William E. McDaniels and Thomas Hentoff, Williams & Connolly, Washington, D.C.) RD

© 2003 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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