Courting Trouble

Article excerpt

The legal system is no place to sort out editorial disputes.

Investigative journalism often depends on whistleblowers--insiders who provide information to reporters about the wrong-doing of government or the corporate world. The value of whistleblowers in keeping society informed and officials honest is so obvious that many states, as well as the federal government, have statutes on the books prohibiting retaliation against employees who bring illegal activity to light.

But in a novel case, two plaintiffs--Steve Wilson and Jane Akre--aren't ordinary whistle-blowers. They are award-winning journalists, a husband-and-wife team, who claim that Tampa's WTVT-TV told them to alter a news story they were preparing about the use of BGH, a synthetic hormone injected into cows to increase milk production, after the station received a letter questioning the story's accuracy from a lawyer representing Monsanto, a manufacturer of the hormone.

The reporters allege that WTVT fired them after they refused to make those changes and threatened to report the incident to the Federal Communications Commission. Their firing, they argued, violated the Florida Whistleblower statute, which allows employees to sue if their employer retaliates against them for disclosing to the government conduct that violates laws, rules or regulations.

WTVT contends, among other things, that the changes it asked the reporters to make fell within the editorial discretion and judgment of station management, and that it was justified in terminating the employees for insubordination.

In August, a Florida jury awarded Akre $425,000 in damages, though it ruled against Wilson. The Fox-owned TV station promptly filed a motion to vacate the jury verdict.

The charges and countercharges in this case are recounted in hundreds of pages of legal pleadings. Exactly who did what to whom, and why, remains the subject of intense disagreement between the parties. This much, however, is clear: The heart of the whistleblowers' case turns on whether the station's actions, as alleged by the two reporters, violate the law.

In support of their lawsuit, Akre and Wilson rely on the FCC's prohibition against deliberate distortion of the news. Complaints that a broadcast licensee has slanted news coverage may--although rarely do--serve as grounds for the commission to deny the renewal of a license. The journalists claim that this FCC policy is a law, rule or regulation, and that therefore, their firing is covered by the Florida Whistleblower law. …