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 FL ORIDA APPEALS COURT ORDERS
AKRE-WILSON MUST PAY TRIAL
COSTS FOR $24.3 BILLION FOX TELEVISION;
COUPLE WARNS JOURNALISTS OF DANGER TO FREE SPEECH, WHISTLE BLOWER PROTECTION

THE
AGRIBUSINESS
EXAMINER

March 7, 2003, Issue #227
Monitoring Corporate Agribusiness
From a Public Interest Perspective

EDITOR\PUBLISHER; A.V. Krebs
E-MAIL: avkrebs@earthlink.net
WEB SITE: http://www.ea1.com/CARP/
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CONTRIBUTION$ WELCOME!!!

Jane Akre and Steve Wilson, the two former FOX Television (WTVT-13) journalists have filed appeals of a ruling that they must pay the legal costs and fees the broadcaster incurred defending itself in a landmark whistleblower case the reporters filed in 1998. The journalists estimate FOX spent than a million dollars on its defense.

The ruling assessing the fees came on the heels of a ruling overturned a August 2000 jury verdict and $425,000 award to FOX investigative reporter Jane Akre. Although jurors concluded she was pressured by FOX lawyers and managers to broadcast what the jury agreed was "a false, distorted or slanted story" and was fired for threatening to blow the whistle, the jury decision was reversed on a legal technicality when a higher court agreed with FOX that it is technically not against any law, rule or regulation

In setting the jury verdict aside, the appeals court ruled that in order to be protected by Florida’s Whistleblower Act, the alleged misconduct must violate a written law. The court said the FCC’s prohibition against news distortion is merely a policy.

Fox lawyers had made the same argument on at least six occasions when it was rejected each time by three different judges in the trial court proceedings.

"First, the jury’s decision is overturned on a technicality and a very narrow reading of the Whistleblower protection law, then the court sets the stage for FOX to destroy us financially," Wilson said. "This is cannot be consistent with the intent of state lawmakers who wrote a Whistleblower law to encourage and protect people who have the courage against all odds to stand up and call attention to wrongdoing."

"Nothing in the decision that reversed the verdict at trial absolved FOX of what the jury found to be misconduct in pressuring a reporter to go on the air with a false story just to protect it’s advertisers," said Akre. "They may call it vindication but overturning  a jury’s decision on a technicality that it’s not illegal to lie on the public airwaves is not vindication in the mind of any honest and ethical  journalist.

"The truth is Rupert Murdoch and the big-money Washington law firm [Williams & Connelly] that represented FOX here have forced us to make another difficult decision about appealing these decision that set a dangerous precedent in two important areas," Akre continued.

"Our lawyers have told us there are ample grounds to appeal the decision that overturned the jury verdict. Left to stand, no other journalist can ever prevail even when, as in this case, he or she is pressured to deliberately lie on the air," said Akre. "What will that mean for honesty in future broadcasts when unethical station owners and managers put their own interests ahead of honest reporting?

"But also of vital importance," Wilson continued, "is the state’s ruling that sets the stage for future, well-intentioned whistleblowers who do not ultimately prevail in court to be saddled with the employer’s legal fees and court costs. This is a precedent that will hush-up ever Florida whistleblower not only in journalism, but in medicine and finance and every other walk that can victimize residents of our state.

"Given the tens of thousands of dollars it costs to appeal to Florida’s Supreme Court, we are forced to choose one appeal or the other," Wilson said. "We have chosen to seek reconsideration of the ruling we see as the most dangerous of the two --- the one that could discourage all future whistleblowers."

The appeal on the issue of legal fees was filed on behalf of the journalists Friday, February 28.  The motion asks for reconsideration of the issue by the same judges, by all of the appeals judges in the Second District, or for a writ to take the issue to the Florida Supreme Court.

"If we had Rupert Murdoch’s money [$5.5 Billion], we could continue the fight on both fronts," Akre said. "We are just one family trying our best to stand up for what we believe is right. And we will not drop the issue that allows broadcasters the right to pressure reporters to lie distort the news.

"We are continuing to prepare a complaint to the Federal Communications Commission where we shall also challenge FOX’s license renewal in wake of their misconduct here," she said.

"At the very least, if there is no law, rule or regulation against using the public airwaves to knowingly present news that is false and distorted, it’s time the FCC or the Congress write one," Wilson added. "Clearly, our case shows you cannot count on all broadcasters to act  ethically and honestly in reporting the news and putting the public interest ahead of their own."
 

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