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Former television reporter wins wrongful termination claim

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From the Fall 2000 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 37.

From the Fall 2000 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 37.

One of two television reporters who sued their former employer won a wrongful termination judgment when the jury decided a Tampa, Fla., television station breached the state “whistle-blower” law protecting employees who report management wrongdoing.

The law, which by its terms is meant to apply to public employees, was applied to a television station because the reporters alleged they were fired for threatening to complain to the Federal Communications Commission about their employer’s actions, and because witnesses testified that the communication law’s “public interest” requirements for broadcasters should make them subject to such public interest laws.

The verdict in favor of Jane Akre in September came nearly three years after the station fired her for what it maintains was insubordination. The jury did not award damages to Akre’s husband, Steve Wilson, who made the same claim against WTVT, a Fox affliate.

An expert witness at the trial, Ralph Nader, the Green Party presidential candidate, testified that broadcasters have a heightened obligation to serve the public interest because the airwaves they use belong to the public. Lawyers for Fox, on the other hand, claimed the television station did not deliberately and intentionally distort the underlying news story in the case, and only the FCC, not Nader or a jury, can determine what qualifies as public interest.

The lawsuit centered on a story Akre and Wilson reported about a hormone injected into cows to make them produce more milk. Many scientific studies link the controversial hormone to cancer. The genetically engineered hormone is produced by the pharmaceutical company Monsanto. Akre and Wilson claim the chief executive of Fox News, Roger Ailes, spiked their story three days before its scheduled broadcast after Ailes received a letter complaining about the story from an attorney for Monsanto. The station never aired the story.

Akre and Wilson sued their employer in 1998 under the state “whistle-blower” law. The law aims to protect public employees who report employment-related wrongdoing, usually by management. Wilson and the network filed cross-appeals with the state appeals court.