Monsanto, Fox TV and censorship

April 5, 2000


Monsanto, Fox TV and censorship

Two US former investigative journalists toured Australia in March to raise awareness of a lawsuit they have filed against Rupert Murdoch's Fox television network. Jane Akre and Steve Wilson allege they were unfairly dismissed from their reporting positions at a Florida based, Fox-owned station after they refused to broadcast falsified reports regarding Monsanto's controversial bovine growth hormone (BGH).

The hormone, which is injected into dairy cows fortnightly to increase milk production and, therefore, farmers' profits, was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (USFDA) in 1993, but is banned by all members of the European Union and remains unapproved in Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

At a media conference in Melbourne on March 10, Wilson warned that Monsanto is pressing to have the hormone approved in NZ. "Once it's in New Zealand, thanks to the International Trade Agreement, it will be here in Australia, and people need to be aware", he said. The duo explained that the genetically engineered hormone is widely used throughout dairy farms in Florida despite many respected scientists' fears that there may be a link between milk from cows treated with the hormone and human cancers of the breast, prostate and colon.

Akre and Wilson expected that the drug had been appropriately tested by the USFDA before it was approved. However, they discovered that the only testing done for human toxicity was a 90-day experiment with 30 rats. As Akre pointed out, "That is not the kind of protocol one would need to do human toxicity/cancer testing, which would take two years or longer". Akre alleges that the drug was approved with the help of Monsanto employees who were hired by the USFDA during testing of the hormone, before returning to their positions at Monsanto.

The never-broadcast report by Akre and Wilson also reveals that, despite Florida supermarkets' promises not to sell milk from treated cows until use of the hormone had gained widespread acceptance, the hormone has found its way into virtually all of the state's milk supply. This has occurred without labelling due to pressure from Monsanto, including legal threats against small-scale producers of dairy products free from the hormone who had planned to label their products "BGH-free".

The two journalists completed their report on BGH soon after they were employed by the Fox-owned station in December 1996. They say that their report had been reviewed for accuracy and had been scheduled to air.

However, two months into their employment, a letter from Monsanto arrived at Fox headquarters and the airing of the BGH report was cancelled. The reports were re-reviewed and, since no factual errors were found, they were scheduled to air a week later. During this time, Monsanto was offered extra interviews, but it responded with another threatening letter.

Eventually, Fox management asked Akre and Wilson if they would object to the story being cancelled. The reporters responded that Fox had the right to decide what to broadcast. The pair were then asked if they would tell anybody about the story, to which Wilson says he replied. "Only if they ask".

To avoid any bad publicity which might result from inquiries to the journalists about why their story had disappeared, the station management initiated a process of redrafting. During the following eight months, Wilson and Akre composed 83 redrafts, none of which were satisfactory to Fox. The journalists continuously offered management documentation to support the claims in their story but were told to let Monsanto express its views.

"Essentially, they slanted the story to a point that was unacceptable to us", said Akre, who also alleges that she and Wilson were twice offered US$200,000 to walk away from their jobs and the story, and to remain silent about Monsanto's actions, Fox's response and their discoveries about the hormone. "We decided to decline their offer", she said.

Akre and Wilson were eventually sacked from Fox and, with no way of exposing their story through the mainstream media, launched the lawsuit. Their case goes to trial on June 12.

Unlike Australia's judicial system, which silences public discussion about any matter pending before court, the content of US lawsuits is publicly disclosed. "The only way we could ever reveal what we knew about what was in the milk was to file a lawsuit", explained Wilson.

The journalists remain adamant that their story presented issues regarding the hormone in an unbiased way, offering viewers information with which they could form their own opinions. "This is not about us trying to convince our viewers bovine growth hormone is a terrible thing, or even that genetically engineered products are a terrible thing. That's a decision people need to make on their own.

"[But] as with all other things, you can't make an informed decision unless you have the facts. One of the hallmarks of the entire situation with bovine growth hormone, as with all genetically engineered crops, has been to keep people from knowing the truth", said Wilson. "We provided that to consumers to let them decide. We believe that's what journalists are supposed to be doing."

The case highlights not only issues surrounding gene technology, but also the increasing media self-censorship as news companies become consolidated corporations. In the US, the three leading television stations are owned by large corporations: ABC is owned by Disney, NBC by General Electric and CBS by Westinghouse.

Akre believes that extensive self-censorship occurs at these corporations because journalists refrain from writing negative stories about companies linked to their management. "These are corporations that make other products, they've just gotten into the media business because it's so profitable. The self-censorship that goes on has always been there, but has gotten worse. Lawyers run corporate news rooms these days and make decisions based not on news, but on what's good for the corporation."

Although pessimistic about the future of mainstream media, Akre does see hope in the currently unregulated internet: "That and alternative media seems to be where the truth filters out". The internet has been vital to the pair, who publish developments in their lawsuit on the web at <>.

The two will argue their case against top-ranking US lawyers representing Fox from the Washington-based law firm, Williams and Connolly, notorious for representing President Bill Clinton.

June 12 will be the fourth date on which the BGH lawsuit has appeared before court. Fox gained a continuance on the first two occasions, arguing on one occasion that the plaintiffs were wasting the court's time with an unconvincing case. When this failed, Fox's lawyers attempted to stop the journalists from using expert witnesses to give evidence about BGH.

Wilson believes the jury needs to know about the hormone to understand the case. The pair won the right to call on expert witnesses and now have the task of proving their allegation that Fox knowingly sought to broadcast false information.

"We've prevailed", says Wilson, "against all odds. People said we would never be able to last and never be able to get this case to a jury, but it's clear now that this case is going to go to trial."


You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.