ARTIFICIAL HORMONE LINKED TO
CANCER; REPORTERS SAY THEY WERE
ORDERED TO LIE ABOUT IT ON FOX-TV
TAMPA—Two award-winning investigative reporters at the Fox-owned television station in Tampa are blowing the whistle on a story they say WTVT (Ch 13) and its corporate bosses preferred to coverup rather than broadcast honestly and accurately.
The story, documented in a lawsuit the reporters filed Thursday, reveals the widespread use of a controversial bovine growth hormone Florida dairymen have been secretly injecting into their cows.
The suit and information about use of the hormone in dairy cattle are presented in full detail at a special Internet web site. The site can be viewed at http://www.foxBGHsuit.com
Though legal since approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1993, the artificial hormone commonly known as BGH has been linked to cancer and is banned throughout Europe and unapproved in several other countries because of human health concerns.
The never-broadcast report also reveals how Florida supermarkets quietly reneged on promises not to sell milk from treated cows until the hormone gained widespread acceptance by consumers. All major supermarkets now admit BGH has found its way into virtually all the state’s milk supply.
The husband-and-wife investigative team joined with Florida’s top consumer groups—the Florida Public Interest Research Group and the Consumer Action Network—to reveal the BGH story at news conferences Thursday in Tallahassee and Tampa.
The reporters also provided details of their suit which charges Fox television, strongly pressured by BGH-maker Monsanto, with violating the state’s whistleblower act by firing the journalists for refusing to broadcast false reports and threatening to report the station’s conduct to the FCC. Their complaint also claims the station violated the reporters’ contracts in dismissing them for those reasons and it seeks a ruling from the court to determine to what extent the reporters’ contractual obligations limit their ability to speak freely about the rBGH issue.
The journalists filed the suit after struggling with Fox executives most of last year to get the story on the air. According to court papers, they were ultimately dismissed December 2, 1997.
"Every editor has the right to kill a story and any honest reporter will tell you that happens from time to time when a news organization’s self interest wins out over the public interest," said Steve Wilson, the station’s former senior investigative reporter who helped Akre produce the story and is now one of the plaintiffs.
"But when media managers who are not journalists have so little regard for the public trust that they actually order reporters to broadcast false information and slant the truth to curry the favor or avoid the wrath of special interests as happened here, that is the day any responsible reporter has to stand up and say, ‘No way!’ That is what Jane and I are saying with this lawsuit," Wilson said.
"We are parents ourselves," Akre said. "It is not right for the station to withhold this important health information and solely as a matter of conscience we will not aid and abet their effort to cover this up any longer," she said. "Every parent and every consumer have the right to know what they’re pouring on their children’s morning cereal."
"We set out to tell Florida consumers the truth a giant chemical company and a powerful dairy lobby clearly doesn’t want them to know," Wilson said. "That used to be something investigative reporters won awards for. As we’ve learned the hard way, it’s something you can be fired for these days whenever a news organization places more value on its bottom line than on delivering the news to its viewers honestly.
"We filed this lawsuit because it’s wrong to lose your job as a journalist for standing up for the truth," Akre added. "We have every confidence that a jury will agree. And when it does, after we’re reimbursed for our lost salaries and legal fees and other costs, every nickel over and above that will be donated to a journalism organization that can support the next journalist who has to choose between his job and telling the truth."
According to the suit, WTVT originally reviewed the investigative reports and scheduled them to air in four parts beginning February 24, 1997 and had even launched an extensive radio ad campaign to draw attention to the series. But virtually on the eve of the broadcast, the station pulled the reports after Monsanto hired a renowned New York attorney to complain to a top official of Channel 13’s parent company, Fox television. The attorney’s letter was filed with the complaint which is now posted at the web site.
Local station management again carefully reviewed the investigative reports, found no errors in any of the reporting, re-scheduled them to air a week later, and even offered Monsanto the opportunity to be interviewed a second time, the suit says. Instead, the chemical maker responded with another threatening letter to the President of Fox’s network news division and the WTVT reports were postponed again.
In supporting papers filed with the court, the journalists say WTVT General Manager David Boylan refused to kill the story for fear the viewing public would learn the station yielded to pressure from special interests. Instead, Wilson and Akre allege, Boylan ordered the reporters to broadcast a version which contained demonstrably false information and he threatened to fire them both within 48 hours if they refused.
Instead of being fired, the complaint continues, Boylan offered to release both reporters from further obligations and pay them full salary for the balance of their contracts if they would only agree never to discuss the BGH story or how it was handled by the station. The reporters declined the offer.
What followed was nearly nine months of writing and re-writing the scripts more than 70 times, none of which suited Fox management according to the complaint which says Boylan then suspended both reporters but ordered them to write two final versions while suspended.
The journalists say despite being locked out of their offices and the station computer system which held some of their research material, they produced both versions. One is the version written by the reporters, the other a version they say station management demanded they produce. Both scripts are attached to the suit with the so-called "mandated version" highlighted to include the reporters’ detailed objections.
"Nowhere in any of the dozens and dozens of versions we’ve written did any Fox manager or lawyer ever point to even one error of fact," says reporter Steve Wilson. "Also, there was never any credible claim that either of us or anyone else who worked on the story ever conducted ourselves with anything but the highest journalistic ethics in researching and reporting the story."
The original BGH investigation was sanctioned by WTVT shortly after it hired the two reporters in December 1996. Akre says she visited seven Florida dairy farms at random early last year where she confirmed use of the hormone at each and every one. A photographer videotaped the mass injections of hundreds of cows on two of the farms. The hormone is injected every two weeks to stimulate milk production and boost dairy profits.
Many scientists have expressed strong concerns about a possible link between cancer and the consumption of milk from cows injected with the synthetic hormone. Those and other human health concerns have blocked its approval in many other countries including Canada, New Zealand and every member nation of the Europe Union.
Nonetheless, Monsanto which developed and sells the product has always insisted use of the hormone poses no human health risk of any kind. The FDA, whose veterinary medicine branch approved the animal drug in 1993, agrees.
Scientists who oppose the use of BGH argue that while the drug is said to shorten the life of the cow by speeding up its metabolism and causing certain infections, it also leads to changes in the cows’ milk. Dr. Samuel Epstein at the University of Illinois says, "There are highly suggestive if not persuasive lines of evidence showing that human consumption of milk from treated cows poses unnecessary risks of breast and colon cancer."
Epstein, an acknowledged expert on the environmental causes of cancer, has three medical degrees, is the author of nine books, and is frequently called to testify as an expert before Congress. Other respected experts share his position. Some like Dr. William von Meyer have stated further concerns about whether BGH milk may cause other long-term health problems in humans. All the critics and even some BGH supporters agree the possibility has never been thoroughly investigated.
Consumers have also expressed concern about how use of the drug can lead to high levels of antibiotic drugs in milk. Many farmers are forced to inject their animals with powerful drugs to fight infections and other side effects experienced by cows injected with the BGH.
No labeling law in Florida requires milk producers to tell consumers when their milk or other dairy products come from cows treated with the controversial hormone. In fact, Monsanto has fought efforts by dairies that do not use the product from saying so on their labels. Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, which buys only from farmers who do not inject
their cows with BGH, just won a legal victory in Illinois to allow them to label their products artificial-BGH-free.
In Wisconsin, Vermont, and elsewhere, consumers have demanded grocers stop carrying BGH milk or at least give shoppers a choice at the dairy case.
"This is precisely what this is all about," said reporter Akre. "Yes, I’m an investigative reporter but I’m also a mother. I and every other mother and consumer deserve to hear all that is known about what I pour on my daughter’s cereal every morning. Only then can any of us decide for ourselves if there is any risk and whether it rises to a level we are willing to take."
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