Investigative journalism is a dying art. For media companies, serious reporting is costly, time-consuming, difficult and oftentimes intimidating. The benefits may be negligible; audiences have been significantly dumbed-down by entertainment-style journalism – they often don’t know the difference between a soft “consumer” piece and a hard-line investigative report. In the face of these overwhelming market pressures, mainstream media seems to have every incentive in the world not to pursue investigative stories. Yet, Americans have grown up believing Thomas Jefferson’s words, that “the only security is a free press.” When societal injustices are headlined on the front page of the New York Times or broadcast on Primetime, we somehow believe that our democracy has managed to equilibrate itself. We cherish our constitutionally protected free press, our fierce watchdog of the public interest. But what happens when no one is watching the watchdog?
“Everything is consolidating – your dry cleaners is consolidating; movie rental houses are consolidating. That is the wave of the future. But it is particularly troublesome in the news business, where we are supposed to have a variety of voices as part of a strong basis for our democracy.”
– Jane Akre, former Fox-13 journalist.
Milk – a product so heavily relied upon in western society it must meet two requirements: it must be safe, and it must be plentiful. While this need may be common to many countries, the United States stands apart from other dairy-producing nations in its approval of a highly controversial animal pharmaceutical – recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH) – injected into cows to increase their milk yield by up to 30 percent. Consumer concern in Florida led to an investigation into the widespread use of this drug, which left two reporters jobless and many critics wondering whether the U.S. has chosen to favor the quantity of milk over its quality.
Shortly after its approval of rBGH, the Food and Drug Administration assured the public that milk from rBGH-treated cows posed no human safety concerns. However, consumers were not convinced, and milk sales plummeted. In 1997, Akre and Steve Wilson were working as journalists for the local Tampa Bay, Florida news station Fox-13 and decided to investigate the safety of the state’s milk supply.
The husband-and-wife team randomly visited seven dairy farms in Florida and found all seven were using rBGH, despite assurances from both dairies and supermarket chains that milk from cows injected with rBGH would be kept off the shelves until there was widespread consumer acceptance of the drug. Akre and Wilson discovered Florida’s milk supply was being mixed — milk from dairies not using the synthetic hormone was commingled with milk from dairies openly treating their cows with rBGH. Consumers could not be confident the milk they were drinking came from untreated cows.
Akre and Wilson prepared a four-part investigative series revealing the betrayal of large supermarket chains and explaining the reason rBGH, despite FDA approval in 1993, remains so controversial. Its use is banned in 18 countries because of concern for increased risk of cancer in humans and increased incidence of udder infections and lameness in cattle – requiring more treatments with antibiotics, traces of which can remain in milk.
Irrespective of the true safety of rBGH, the Akre/Wilson investigation caught many of Florida’s largest supermarket chains telling blatant untruths to their customers. There seemed to be little argument from either Fox or the reporters that this was a story that needed to be told. The debate was how to tell it.
Akre claims the report was only days away from airing when John Walsh, an attorney retained by Monsanto Company — a behemoth agrochemical company and manufacturer of rBGH — contacted the CEO of Fox News, Roger Ailes. Monsanto was “alarmed and deeply concerned” about the “assault” on the company’s reputation in Fox’s impending broadcast. In a subsequent letter, Walsh warned if the report was aired unedited, it “could lead to … dire consequences for Fox News.”
Due to these threats, the station decided to delay the airing, and what ensued was a nine-month revision process, involving an army of news editors, station executives and lawyers. This process allegedly involved 83 edits of the original tape.
Akre and Wilson were convinced Fox was caving in under corporate pressure, and as journalists, they were being forced to compromise their integrity to include misleading and false claims about the safety of rBGH. Fox sees the situation differently, and describes Wilson as an aggressive and confrontational character who was unwilling to produce a balanced news story.
The two reporters were eventually dismissed from Fox – before their report was aired – amid a cloud of claims, counterclaims and lawsuits. Wilson and Akre filed a suit against Fox under Florida’s “whistleblower” legislation, which protects employees fired for threatening to report their employers’ legal violations. Akre claims she was fired after telling Fox she would report them to the Federal Communications Commission for slanting a news story against public interest.
In August 2000, Akre was the first journalist in Florida to win a whistleblower lawsuit against an employer. However, it was only a partial victory for the journalists – jury members did not find sufficient evidence Fox had slanted the news. Akre was awarded $425,000 in damages, agreeing with the plaintiff’s claim she was fired for threatening to take Fox to the FCC.
Fox has filed an appeal; Akre and Wilson have yet to see a dime of their money. Neither of them has been offered a career job in mainstream media since their dismissal from Fox four years ago, and both have become highly skeptical of the news business.
“Steve has been told he will never work in the mainstream media again,” Akre said. “I occasionally fill in at a Time-Warner cable station as an anchor, but I’ve talked to them about expanding this role and I have got no positive feedback. Maybe it is just not the right place for me.”
Akre believes she and Wilson have been “blackballed from the club,” although she admits to not aggressively pursuing reporting jobs.
“I’m just flat out terrified that this might happen again. The alternative is to self-censor and say, ‘Well I won’t go after tough stories,’ but that’s bogus – you can’t do that, you can’t operate that way,” she said.
In her eyes, the entire media industry has become soft. Broadcasters are more desperate for dollars, which has cheapened the product. In the last five or six years, the media has reduced ownership of broadcasting stations to a handful of companies. Akre has experienced how the newsroom has become a business operation, where the dollar is always the bottom line.
“You are down to a dozen owners, who are basically churning out the same sort of news product based on what they see on the wire service or what the local public relations professional churns out for them to turn into a daily story. It is a really frightening time for the free flow of information,” she said. “It is a very good time for white-collar crime because nobody is watching.”
Akre also perceives another emerging threat to the accuracy of news coverage: industry-funded pundits, masked as objective critics. Oftentimes these mouthpieces for business are connected to an institute, such as the American Counsel on Science and Health or the Hudson Institute, which receives funding from chemical giants, including DuPont, Monsanto and Dow.
“[These people] write editorial pieces which are totally pro-industry. It is no coincidence that every single one they write is pro-genetic-engineering or pro-going-into-the-arctic. They are industry pieces masked as news – God, that is frightening,” Akre said. “I think the PR industry is now more closely aligned with industry than ever before and can make their point of view look like news. They are getting very good at it; there are more PR people than there are journalists.”
Monsanto is getting so good at spinning the news, it has bragged about it in its own internal documents. Akre obtained memos from the Dairy Coalition, which she claims is an industry front-group for distributing information on rBGH.
“They were bragging [in these documents] how they had kept milk out of a discussion on CNN and how they had got the reporter to change her report, and they thought this was a good thing,” Akre said. “You are manipulating people’s right to information, and you think that it’s a good thing. I mean, there is just a component of evil there.”
Akre sees the future of investigative journalism existing outside U.S. mainstream media. She believes the media is a lot healthier in other countries and in non-traditional publications.
“It is funny – I think some of the better investigative work is going to come out of the Playboys and Penthouses, which already made a bucket-load of money and already have the best lawyers in the world up to speed,” she said. “Bob Guccioni can afford to say, ‘Bite me,’ which is probably exactly what he would say if Monsanto came after him.”
The Facts Behind Recombinant Bovine Somatotropin (rBST)
- Recombinant Bovine Somatotropin (rBST), or more commonly, recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH), is a genetically-engineered replica of a cow’s natural growth hormone. It is a product-enhancing protein; when injected, it speeds up a cow’s metabolism and increases milk-yield by up to 30 percent.
- In 1993, the FDA approved the use of rBGH in dairy cattle and assured consumers that milk from treated cows posed no human-safety concerns.
- During journalist Jane Akre’s investigation, Dr. William Von Meyer, a strong rBGH opponent, told Akre he believes the FDA did not do a thorough review of rBGH. Instead of testing the hormone as a human drug, the FDA approved it through its veterinary division, which requires significantly less testing. “A human drug requires two years of carcinogenicity testing and extensive birth-defect testing. [r]BGH was tested for 90 days on 30 rats at any dose before it was approved,” Von Meyer said.
- In 1993, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services claimed that “[rBGH] has been one of the most extensively studied animal-drug products to be reviewed by the agency … [M]ilk and meat from rBGH-treated cows is safe to consume.”
- The FDA has been charged by its critics as having a “revolving door” policy with industry. Several prominent FDA employees appear to have conflicts of interest due to their ties with chemical companies. Michael Taylor played a prominent role in the FDA’s decision regarding rBGH. Yet, he was formally employed as an attorney for Monsanto Company, manufacturer of rBGH (under the registered trademark POSILAC). As an attorney for Monsanto, Taylor was involved in representing rBGH when it came before the FDA, and has since returned to work for Monsanto.
- A review performed by the Government Accounting Office reported that Taylor had no financial conflict of interest.
- When injected, rBGH stimulates production of an insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1). Increased levels of IGF-1 have been linked to higher incidences of breast, colon and prostate cancer. Currently, there is no consensus as to whether milk from rBGH-treated cows contains higher levels of IGF-1, or whether IGF-1, when orally ingested, acts systemically on the body.
- Monsanto Company continues to maintain that milk from treated cows is identical to milk from untreated cows.
- The use of rBGH is associated with an increased incidence of lameness and udder infections, which require treatment with antibiotics. Critics are concerned trace amounts of antibiotics can remain in the milk, which, as a consequence, would diminish their effectiveness in combating diseases in people.
- In 1998, the World Health Organization concluded there is no food-safety or health concerns related to rBGH residues in products, such as milk and meat, from treated animals.
- Eighteen countries – including the European Union, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – continue to ban rBGH, citing concerns about human and animal safety.