Fox TV to Stand Trial

Television investigative journalists Jane Akre and Steve Wilson scored a major court victory in April when Florida Circuit Court Judge Robert Bonanno ruled "genuine issues of material fact remain on all the grounds raised by Defendant in their Motion. As such, this Court is prohibited from entered a summary judgment."

His ruling thus rejected the argument of Akre's and Wilson's former employers, Fox Television and Tampa, Florida, Channel 13 that the whistleblower claim filed by the two journalists should be thrown out because it did not meet certain standards set by Florida law. Fox attorney Patricia Anderson had sought dismissal because of alleged technical deficiencies in the suit and because she claimed there were no real issues of fact for a jury to decide.

The judge's ruling also ended predictions of Fox Television and its lawyers that the whistleblower case of two former WTVT reporters would never make it to trial. The suit, filed on April 2, 1998, by Akre and Wilson, alleges they were fired for refusing orders from WTVT news managers and Fox lawyers who directed them to lie and distort the facts about their discovery that the bovine growth hormone (rBGH) manufactured by the Monsanto Corp. was in Florida's milk supply.

In the year since the case was filed, Wilson personally has taken the depositions of several WTVT and Fox employees. Fox and its lawyers have bitterly argued that his efforts were motivated by a desire to intimidate the witnesses and disrupt the station's operations. Judge Bonanno and a special legal master assigned to hear pretrial discovery, however, disputed Fox's attorneys stating they found that Wilson had never acted inappropriately in deposing top company officials including Fox News chief Roger Ailes and a host of others.

"So far, we've heard sworn testimony that our editors and Fox lawyers never found a single misreported fact in any of the 83 scripts we proposed to broadcast," Wilson said.

"The news director who hired us has testified once Fox took over, there was little support for the kind of aggressive reporting that sometimes steps on toes of big, powerful corporations like Monsanto," he continued. The news director, Daniel Webster, was subsequently himself fired by Fox. He is now a news director for CBS in charge of their San Francisco station's (KPIX) news department.

"And after launching a personal smear campaign and telling reporters we walked away from the story because we couldn't get our way, WTVT's news v-p Phil Metlin has admitted under oath we provided final scripts in accordance with his direction but he never even looked at them!" Wilson added.

Meanwhile, Fox and the station have taken only a handful of depositions and never followed through on its stated intention to depose more than 20 individuals outside Florida. With the trial set to start on May 10, they have deposed only the plaintiffs, a postal worker, and three Florida dairymen.

Wilson and Akre were hired to produce investigative reports, a mandate which changed once Fox formally closed on its purchase of the station in January 1998. Their first report, detailing how Florida supermarkets quietly reneged on promises not to sell milk from treated cows until rBGH had gained widespread acceptance by consumers, was set to be aired February 24, 1997, but was yanked after Monsanto hired an influential New York lawyer to pressure Fox.

Akre and Wilson have pointed out that they were ultimately fired for refusing to report information they knew to be false and misleading and to slant the story in Monsanto's favor to avoid potential litigation and the loss of advertising revenue Fox and its associated companies receive.

When the Society of Professional Journalists recognized the reporters with an Award for Ethics, Fox responded by demanding that the award be rescinded on the grounds there was no basis for their claims. SPJ declined to do so, despite a letter-writing campaign which involved at least two WTVT employees and its vice president of News.

Akre and Wilson's story has received virtually no coverage from the U.S. media.

Tribal Sovereignty and Corporate Hogs

Circumventing a recent South Dakota law approved by the state's voters last year that prohibits corporate farming and despite strong opposition by the federal government, environmentalists, animal rights activists and a coalition of tribal members and other local residents, work has resumed on a $105 million hog facility, which is designed to house 859,000 hogs near the Rosebud Sioux Reservation 150 miles southeast of Rapid City.

In what is slated to become the third-largest hog farm in the world, Sun Prairie, a Nebraska-based pork company, and its parent company, Bell Farms of Wahpeton, North Dakota, are constructing the facility on tribal trust land near a remote Indian reservation in South Dakota. The first phase of the new corporate hog factory is designed to consist of three finishing sites used to fatten pigs for market. Each site will have 24 buildings housing 48,000 pigs. There will be 13 sites in all, including facilities where sows will be bred and give birth.

Environmentalists and other tribe members contend that the 1,200-acre hog farm will produce as much ordure as a city of three million people, resulting in not only the possible contamination of underground aquifers but serious air pollution from ammonia and methane gas rising from the evaporation ponds into which pig excrement is pumped.

Critics of the facility also point out that the effects on wildlife in the area, including the largest concentration of prairie dogs in the U.S., have not been adequately studied. Some tribal members contend that a historic Indian trail, ancient Sioux grave sites and other cultural artifacts would be disturbed by the hog operation.

"Our land will be destroyed. Our air will be polluted. Our way of life will be ruined," Oleata Mednansky, a member of the Rosebud Sioux tribe and co-chairman of the opposition group, Concerned Rosebud Area Citizens, told the Washington Post's William Claiborne. "Economic development is something we need, but not the kind that will destroy our land, air, water, wildlife and historical artifacts."

Sun Prairie, and Rosebud tribal council members claim that the facility will create 200 jobs for the reservation, which has an 85% unemployment rate and is one of the poorest in the nation.

Work was recently resume on the first phase of the hog operation after a federal judge accused the federal government's top Indian official of abusing his discretionary powers and acting in an "arbitrary and capricious" manner when he ordered work stopped on environmental grounds.

Kevin Gover, assistant interior secretary for Indian affairs, may have engaged in "affirmative misconduct" when he unilaterally voided a lease between Rosebud tribal leaders and Sun Prairie, said U.S. District Judge Charles Kornmann of Pierre, S.D. By situating the farm on tribal land beyond state jurisdiction, Sun Prairie and Bell Farms was able to circumvent South Dakota's newly passed anti-corporate farming law.

In its opinion, the court said that if the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) was allowed to unilaterally block such business arrangements, lenders would be loath to invest in economic development projects in Indian country because of a lack of certainty in the deals. As a result, tribes would suffer, he said.

"What the BIA is attempting to do here causes the court to recall promises [of tribal sovereignty] made years ago by the same federal agency to Native Americans," Kornmann said.

On March 2, the judge granted a preliminary injunction barring the Interior Department and other hog farm opponents from interfering with the project while attacking Gover's decision. Judge Kornmann said the BIA head's motivations for canceling the lease "remain uncertain at this time."

Opponents of the hog factory are appealing Judge Kornmann's decision although the structural work on the feeding barns is proceeding at a rapid pace and Sun Prairie has announced that it hopes to soon begin trucking in hogs.

Mednansky told the Post that the hog factory is being built on an ancient Sioux trail on which Chief Sitting Bull is said to have regularly traveled. "My grandmother was born on that trail, and we have always considered it to be sacred," she said. "This project was approved so hurriedly that our people never got a chance to express their views."

Farm Bureau Calls for Investigation of Itself!

Apparently the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) has been caught with its proverbial pants down (a seeming occupational hazard these days of the nation's corporate elite) in the "Show Me" state.

The Ozark Chapter of the Sierra Club reports that the Southern Farm Bureau Annuity Insurance Company, an affiliate of the AFBF, purchased over 18,700 shares of Premium Standard Farms stock in May, 1998, after Continental Grain had purchased a majority ownership of the Missouri and Texas hog operation. And, that news came just the day after the Missouri Farm Bureau called for state and federal investigations into "the growth of corporate agriculture and the consolidation of agriculture and their impact upon family-sized farming operations."

"It appears that the Farm Bureau has just demanded an investigation of itself," remarked Ken Midkiff, Ozark's Program Director. "It seems particularly inappropriate for the Farm Bureau, the self-appointed spokesperson for agriculture, to invest in a company that fouls the air and water and that drives family farmers off the land."

The Missouri Farm Bureau, in noting that in the last five years "the number of full-time farms in Missouri decreased by nine percent," also has called for "a federal disaster package for pork producers that includes direct economic assistance payments and USDA guaranteed and emergency loan programs."

"I doubt the sincereity of AFBF's call for an investigation of consolidation," Midkiff adds.

Currently, Premium Standard owns 105,000 breeding sows in Texas and Missouri, where it also operates a meatpacking plant with a capacity to kill 7,000 hogs a day. Those operations will be combined into a new company that will make Continental Grain, long rumored to be interested in getting into the nation's hog producing and processing market, one of the five biggest U.S. hog producers.

Already the nation's single top cattle feeder, Continental, the nation's fifth largest private corporation, currently owns and operates six large feedlots-- three in Texas and one each in Colorado, Kansas and Oklahoma with a maximum total feeding capacity of 405,000 head and annual marketings to cattle packing plants totaling about 1.1 million head.

At the present time Continental also processes and trades crops, raises chickens and is engaged in consumer lending. It has been building a swine-production business for five years in Missouri, where it owns 20,000 sows. After fattening the offspring it delivers the mature swine to meatpackers such as IBP.

"The American Farm Bureau Federation's ownership of PSF stock is no surprise to family farmers," notes Bill Christison, President of the National Family Farm Coalition. "AFBF has always represented corporate agriculture and vertical integrators, and supported agriculture policies which have done great damage to the family farmers of this nation."

Premium Standard, based in Kansas City, Missouri, has been the object of many protests in Missouri as it has sought to establish corporate hog factories in the rural counties of that state, usually adjacent to the plentiful corn producing areas of neighboring Iowa. In Missouri and elsewhere such protests have been centered around the issue of protecting family farmers from corporate competition.

Currently heavily leveraged, Premium Standard was hit two years ago by a sudden drop in hog prices, which cut its cash flow, coupled with a big jump in grain prices swelling its costs of fattening its pigs. Consequently its major financial backers, Morgan Stanley Group Inc. and its merchant-banking fund partners saw Premium Standard seeking protection under Chapter 11 of the federal Bankruptcy Code in July 1996. Three months later, however, Premium Standard paid its creditors in full and emerged from bankruptcy protection, a spokesman said.

A.V. Krebs is director of the Corporate Agribusiness Research Project, Everett, Washington, ( email

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