Last week, when I blasted Rupert Murdoch for the conservative bias of Fox News channel, lots of people wrote asking why I didn’t mention the liberal bias of other networks. Let’s get this straight. My problem isn’t that Fox newscasters are biased (so are most journalists) or that they’re conservative (so are some of the smartest people I know).
My point was that Murdoch’s a hypocrite for claiming that his network is neutral. The best journalists don’t tell the objective truth. Like lawyers, they are advocates who get people to agree with them by making a compelling case and buttressing it with the best arguments and evidence available. Most news is subjective, including Murdoch’s, and he should admit it.
But subjective news isn’t always very good. As I pointed out last week, there’s a reason Murdoch wears the veil of neutrality: The Federal Communications Commission has traditionally required that broadcasters be fair and balanced. In fact, FCC policy specifically prohibits “slanting” the news, a practice that the agency has called “a most heinous act against the public interest.”
And just what is slanting the news? One of the most notorious cases involved the “Hunger in America” series broadcast by CBS in 1968. In it, Charles Kuralt was shown holding a baby who was said to have died of starvation—when in fact, the cause of death was premature birth. The resulting FCC ruling declared, “As a public trustee, the broadcaster may not engage in intentional and deliberate falsification (distorting, slanting, rigging, staging) of the news.”
More recently, reporters have accused two Fox TV stations of slanting the news when Murdoch’s minions gave too much credence to chemical manufacturers. The first case involves bovine growth hormone, a/k/a BGH or Posilac, which is made by Monsanto and injected in an estimated 30 percent of U.S. dairy cows to boost milk production. The BGH critics are award-winning investigative reporters Steve Wilson and Jane Akre, who were hired by Fox TV affiliate WTVT in Tampa in 1996. In February 1997, the husband-and-wife team submitted an outline for a series that was scheduled to air later that month. The premise: BGH has dangerous side effects that have been either overlooked or suppressed.
On February 21 of that year, a lawyer hired by Monsanto wrote to Fox News CEO Roger Ailes, complaining that Akre and Wilson had made “reckless” accusations about BGH and questioning their objectivity. The letter stressed that the FDA had approved BGH and that “it is inconceivable that treatment of this important subject, which is not a breaking news story, be rushed to fill some pre-designated news programming slot.” The letter urged Fox to consider the “enormous damage that can be done” by airing the accusations.
The letter was rerouted to Mitchell Stern, president of Los Angeles-based Fox Television Stations, which is also owned by Murdoch. Soon thereafter, according to Fox lawyer Theodore Russell, Stern told Fox lawyers he saw no reason “to take any big risks in rushing a story” onto the air during sweeps, particularly when the story challenged an FDA-approved product and didn’t break any news. Russell claims that Fox was already “extremely concerned” about the tone of the BGH story before receiving the Monsanto letter, and that Stern’s comments “made no difference” to the review process.
Be that as it may, Fox management postponed the BGH series and commenced a rigorous review. Akre and Wilson say they provided copious documentation, but in April 1997, when then general manager David Boylan allegedly told them to include information they believed to be false, they threatened to report Fox to the FCC for news distortion. In July, management convened a “summit meeting” to discuss a new version of the BGH script. Fox says they reached a consensus, but after that something fell apart. Events in August and September are hotly disputed. Two things that are clear: By fall 1997, no show had run, and Fox had cancelled the reporters’ contracts.
In 1998, Akre and Wilson sued the owners of WTVT under the Florida Private Whistleblower Act, which says that a company cannot fire an employee who threatens to report unlawful behavior. Ultimately, most of Akre and Wilson’s claims were thrown out. But this past August, a Florida jury awarded Akre $425,000 in damages, finding that she had reason to believe she was fired because she threatened to report news distortion. The reporters say the verdict proves that Fox deliberately slanted the news.
Fox hotly denies the allegation. In August, Fox reps called the verdict a “vindication” and said it proved the company did not try to slant the news. In court, Fox painted the reporters as resistant to revision, dogged in their (allegedly) unfounded belief that BGH is carcinogenic, and unable to document their claims adequately.
According to Fox lawyer Theodore Russell, Akre and Wilson (1) cannot and did not prove that Fox management intentionally tried to falsify the news, and (2) never threatened to go to the FCC until after their contracts were terminated. The two have never filed an FCC complaint, he says, and furthermore, Florida courts cannot enforce FCC policy. For all these reasons, Russell is confident the Florida Court of Appeals will overturn the $425,000 jury award.
One of Akre and Wilson’s witnesses was Brian Karem, a reporter who joined Fox TV affiliate WDAF in 1997. At the time, WDAF praised Karem, saying that his “experience and drive will bring investigative reporting to a new level in Kansas City.” But the next year, when Karem completed a report on the potential dangers of the pesticide Dursban, he met with resistance. Karem says, “I was told, ‘You don’t want to do this type of story. It’s too difficult to do. Don’t you want to be a team player?’ ”
When Dow Chemical Company, which makes Dursban, turned down Karem’s requests for an interview, WDAF sent a copy of Karem’s tape to Dow, inviting the company to produce a rebuttal. When WDAF received the Dow tape, they cut out a personal attack on Karem and added the rebuttal at the end of Karem’s Dursban report, which ran in February 1998. Karem calls this tantamount to suppressing the truth.
After that, Karem says, “I was told to do more fast-breaking stuff, like whether people are getting enough cheese on their pizza.” He knew that other networks were cutting back on investigative reporting. But he was so traumatized by the experience that he asked Fox to buy out his contract, and he left WDAF in late 1998.
Today, Akre and Wilson are unemployed, working on their appeal and preparing a complaint for the FCC. Karem is a contributor to People and Playboy, and author of the recent book Spin Control. David Boylan runs KTTV in Los Angeles, Fox TV’s second-largest station. In 1999, Europe and Canada banned BGH. In 2000, the FDA banned Dursban. People who get their news from Fox TV probably still think these products are perfectly safe.