The Strange Case of Steve Wilson
How a fraudulent crusader snookered the left-and is threatening the First Amendment
It was not Steve Wilson's finest moment. On May 16, 2004, the super-sized television reporter, who achieved some national fame that year for his role in the anti-business documentary The Corporation, broadcast some stunning allegations on Detroit's WXYZ/Channel 7: One hundred sixty-seven local officials and businessmen who call themselves the "Michigan Boys" took a fishing jaunt to a seaside resort in Costa Rica, where, Wilson breathlessly reported, "dozens of prostitutes were waiting to party."
Wilson's steamy reports for the Scripps Howard©–owned station depended heavily on anonymous sources. The reporter said a madam (unnamed) told him she had brought 70 hookers to meet the Michigan Boys. A hotel worker (likewise unnamed) recounted that "the men and women are up to 5 a.m. partying. The girls go from guy to guy."
Three days after the initial segment, Wilson was still going strong. "Many of the women told us that their business was brisk," he intoned, again failing to name sources. "Indeed, we saw them leading Michigan men to their rooms in the dark."
Did Wilson really see such assignations? His very recognizable bulk, the size of two typical TV anchors, and blow-dried helmet of hair would have been hard to conceal in a hotel hallway at an isolated resort. His frowning visage was already well-known to Detroit viewers, likely including many of the alleged Michigan Boys gone wild. And for a guy who is never far from a camera, including those hidden from his targets, it was odd that he had no incriminating video.
Wilson has refused to answer specific questions about his reporting and financial affairs in interviews and written exchanges stretching back six years. His most common response is vitriolic obfuscation, and he declined to comment on the topic for this article. He did try to paper over the problems with the Michigan Boys story with the on-air disclaimer, "All of the public officials identified by 7 Action News insist they never hired any hookers…and admittedly we have no proof to the contrary."
Let's repeat that: "We have no proof." That's not the stuff of airtight investigative reporting, even for a guy best known as a veteran of the national tabloid program Inside Edition. It's even less impressive coming from a guy who has been hailed by lefty media commentators and organizations as a noble journalistic David bravely fighting the trashy tyranny of the corporate Goliaths Monsanto and Rupert Murdoch.
Wilson's nine-year battle with the Murdoch-owned WTVT/Channel 13 in Tampa, Florida, made him a cause célèbre in media activist circles. It is now awaiting a final decision by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). If he gets his way, WTVT will lose its license because of decisions it made about content, an outcome with dire implications for freedom of the press.
Wilson's beatification as an icon of the left received a big boost with the release of The Corporation two years ago. The film aspires to psychoanalyze companies, concluding that they are sociopaths whose inhuman quest for money and power has huge costs for individuals and communities. Wilson is depicted as a martyr in his crusade against Fox and Monsanto. It's a newfound role for the TV scribe. Although a number of his earlier, sometimes award-winning investigations were consumer-oriented—exposing defects in automobiles, for example—his reports displayed no ideological position. His embrace of the "progressive" press was calculated, and he achieved remarkable success with the hate-Fox, hate-Monsanto strategy.
Leftist outlets adopted Wilson's spin as truth, peaking with the completely credulous treatment given him in The Corporation. Meanwhile, journalists on the left have never taken note of Wilson's own questionable reporting on the Michigan Boys, or the fact that the story led to a second license challenge at the FCC, this time aimed at him and his employer.
So one very loud local TV reporter stands on both sides of an issue that could decide how much the federal government will butt into broadcast news. But because his better-known targets are two of the institutions most reviled on the left, few people even care to know whether their man on the front lines is a crusader or a fraud. Nor do they appear to recognize the implications of making the FCC the arbiter of whether a news outlet is shading the truth.
Fighting Murdoch and Monsanto
Wilson started his career in—well, it's not clear when. He has refused to give résumés to me or to other reporters. But he first surfaced peddling freelance investigative pieces to TV stations in the 1980s. He worked for investigative teams on the CBS station in New York and the ABC station in San Francisco and eventually gained prominence during more than five years as an investigator based in Miami for the syndicated tabloid show Inside Edition. Many of his reports have won awards—at least four Emmys—for consumer investigations, such as revealing lethal defects in Chrysler minivans and Ford ignition switches.
Wilson married another reporter, Jane Akre, who worked for local stations in Albuquerque, Tucson, St. Louis, and Miami and for CNN in Atlanta before coming to Tampa. She had been fired from another Tampa station prior to joining WTVT; she subsequently sued, and the settlement agreement prohibits comments.
The two won't answer questions about their personal lives, including whether they are still married, a matter of some speculation among their former colleagues at Fox's WTVT in Tampa. What's clear is that while both were in Miami in the 1990s, they teamed up, first in marriage and later, in Tampa, as news partners.
Wilson's specialty is the ambush interview—or, as he calls it, the "unscheduled accountability session." He loves to set up physical confrontations on camera with public officials or corporate executives, using his massive girth to create a situation where his quarry can't escape. Wilson himself has described his reporting as "sleazy" and "tabloid."
But by the late 1990s, both he and Akre were out of television and making a living selling phone cards, according to court records. WTVT, one of Florida's most respected news stations, offered Wilson a return to broadcast news in 1996, and he and his wife joined the station as a team. Akre earned $70,000 a year for reporting and some anchoring; Wilson received $45,000 for part-time work as an investigator.
In 1997 Wilson and Akre began preparing a piece on a controversial Monsanto milk additive called recombinant bovine growth hormone, or rBGH, which had been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1993. The hormone has been blamed over the years for a variety of real or imagined offenses, from early puberty in girls to prostate cancer. Probably the fairest assessment about the product is that there is mixed scientific opinion, pitting activists against researchers whose funding often comes directly or indirectly from agribusiness companies and their trade associations. The FDA's scientists judged that the additive posed no health threat.
On balance, the weight of evidence appears to back Monsanto. In October 2003, after more than a decade of intense public debate, The Washington Post summed up the issue this way: "Could hormones meant to make cows give more milk lead to early puberty, as some parents fear? On its face, it sounds plausible enough. But government and pediatric health experts say there are no scientific data to back up such an association.…There is also no evidence that milk from hormone-treated cows contains harmful amounts of antibiotic residue or promotes cancer."
Wilson and Akre contended that their investigation uncovered the dark secrets of rBGH—notwithstanding that by the time the reporters turned their attention to the issue, more than 2,000 articles had been written on the subject. Their reporting did not contribute to the scientific debate, but it did disclose some moderately interesting Florida angles, such as grocery stores' refusal to disclose to consumers the use of the chemical.
Prior to broadcast, Monsanto wrote to Fox's cable news boss, Roger Ailes, arguing that the reporting was palpably biased against the company and warning about the "enormous damage that can be done." The letter stated that the reporters "have prejudged the safety of" rBGH, and it insisted that Ailes personally ensure the duo "get the facts straight."
The planned four-part piece, which Fox argued in court was not breakthrough journalism, never aired. Wilson and Akre claimed Monsanto's rant caused the station to pressure them to broadcast lies—which were basically Monsanto's defense of its product. WTVT executives countered that they were merely demanding fairness. Wilson and Akre stalled for nine months, producing no other significant work. They constantly rewrote the rBGH script and then, according to the litigation, torpedoed the series every time it neared completion. The reporters claimed they rewrote the script 83 times. They had to bend ordinary mathematics and the English language to get that total: If they added a few words to each part of the series, they called that four rewrites of the project.
By late 1997 the station was fed up and decided not to renew the reporters' contract. Wilson and Akre filed suit in May 1998.
The left-wing press bit hard. Norman Solomon, one of the left's most prolific media critics and a founder of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), said in a 1999 interview in The Humanist, "Monsanto went ballistic and the Fox hierarchy pulled the plug on those reporters."
Actually, in 1998 WTVT went ahead and aired a report on rBGH, sans Wilson and Akre. A new investigator, Nathan Lang, recounted the same story that Wilson and Akre had pursued but included Monsanto's arguments. Lawrence Grossman, a former president of NBC News, described the segment in the Columbia Journalism Review as "a strong and effective three-part investigative series on the subject," one that was "hardly any different in substance from the versions that Akre and Wilson and the station had been battling over." In a distinct break with professional courtesy, Wilson tried to prevent the show from airing by threatening Lang, who testified that Wilson came to his home and "indicated that I had the option to either agree with [Wilson] or [Wilson] would characterize my stories as lies."
Wilson's and Akre's lawsuit claimed they were canned for threatening to spill the beans to the FCC about the station's "news distortion," a violation of a Florida "whistleblower" law that protects people who report civil or criminal violations by companies. At a trial in the summer of 2000 the couple called such notables as Ralph Nader and Walter Cronkite, who didn't seem to know much about the specifics of the dispute but served as effective flypaper in attracting the nation's left-wing, anti-corporate activists and media outlets.
A jury dismissed all claims by Wilson in August 2000 but gave a limited verdict to Akre, ordering Fox to pay her $425,000. In a complicated decision, the jury sided with Akre by agreeing that she was a whistleblower because she had threatened to go to the FCC over portions of the series she believed to be a violation of the 1934 federal Communications Act. Wilson and Akre had argued successfully in their trial that they shouldn't have to prove news "distortion," but only that they believed distortion occurred. Jury instructions made six references to that "belief standard." (Wilson and Akre would neglect to include the believed in most of their subsequent descriptions of the verdict.) How the jury managed to decide for Akre but reject Wilson's claims was never explained. Wilson, who had represented himself, claimed his aggressiveness repulsed the jury. The Fox lawyers say Akre made a sympathetic plaintiff when she discussed her daughter and described how Fox had ruined her career.
Florida's Second District Court of Appeal ruled the case had "no merit from its inception" and reversed Akre's win. Last year, in the final chapter of the legal case, Wilson was ordered to pay WTVT $156,000 in legal bills.
Hook, Line, Sinker
The court's repudiation of the couple did nothing to slow their momentum in becoming media martyrs. Dozens of left-leaning commentators described the gist of the ruling as "the media can legally lie." The Web site Biotalk, a promotional vehicle for the film The Corporation, proclaimed: "Appeal court judges ruled that falsifying news isn't actually against the law. So they denied Jane her whistleblower status."
In fact, the court ruled the couple's case didn't fall under the state's definition of whistleblower, which involves threatening to expose a violation of a law, rule, or regulation. The court was never asked to rule on whether the media can lie; nor would that have been in any way appropriate in what was merely an employment dispute.
Facts were incidental to the froth and fury the case generated in the left wing of the media, beginning with the role of the hated Fox media juggernaut: When the reporters' vitriolic attack on station management began, Fox didn't even own WTVT. Murdoch's conglomerate merely inherited the altercation when it assumed control of the station.
The verdict itself was misrepresented so often by the couple, and by credulous news organizations who took their word for it, that outlets ranging from the Associated Press to the St. Petersburg Times had to run corrections for misreporting that the ruling found the station's coverage to be "distorted" by pressure from Monsanto. Lefty media outlets showed much less concern about correcting the record, so by the time The Corporation was filmed Wilson had no compunction about looking into the camera and declaring, "The jury determined that the story they pressured us to broadcast, the story we resisted telling, was in fact false, distorted, or slanted." The jury, of course, did no such thing.
In 2002 broadcast reporter Kristina Borjesson included Akre's self-serving account of the WTVT battle in her compilation Into the Buzzsaw, a collection of essays by journalists claiming they'd been screwed by Big Media. In an e-mail exchange with Borjesson, I inquired if she had vetted the claims of her contributors. She expressed angry surprise at the question, but confirmed that, no, there wasn't any fact checking.
Project Censored, based at Sonoma State University, listed the Wilson/Akre campaign against Fox and Monsanto as No. 11 on its 2003 list of "most censored stories." The list repeated in its headline the absurd mendacity that a "Court Ruled That the Media Can Legally Lie." When I queried the project's director, sociology professor Peter Phillips, about his failure to describe WTVT's position, he responded by e-mail, "Knowing Steve and Jane personally for the past 8 years, I find your remarks about them 'setting up' the whole issue to become media martyrs offensive and outright stupid."
And in an August 2004 Salon article, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. hyperbolically declared that the Florida appellate court decision wasn't an "ending that is happy for Akre and Wilson, or for American democracy." Kennedy also adopted the argument that the decision gave the media carte blanche to lie. And he included this incredible quote he attributed to Wilson: "What reporter is going to challenge a network…if the station can retaliate by suing the reporter to oblivion the way the courts are letting them do to us?" Actually, you'll recall, it was the reporters who sued the station. (In an e-mail exchange for this story, Akre denied that Wilson ever spoke with Kennedy.)
Making Do With a $1.4 Million Florida House
Wilson isn't just getting sympathetic press treatment. He's spinning his story into ill-gotten gold.
He holds himself up as the model of investigative reporting. In Detroit, for example, he exposed education officials lavishly furnishing their own offices while letting schools go underfunded. But when the tables are turned—as in my reporting on his case for the Weekly Planet, an alternative paper in Tampa—Wilson resorts to just the sort of behavior he decries in his targets: obfuscation, evasion, derision, and outright lies.
Wilson's speeches and Web site (foxbghsuit.com), and reports by sympathetic journalists, frequently suggest that his legal fight with Fox put him and Akre into financial distress. Akre, for example, wrote in In These Times in 2001 that "somehow we will have to find a way to house and feed ourselves and our daughter, while simultaneously continuing to wage a full-time battle against a media giant." Speaking to a University of Oregon audience, Wilson alluded to the statement that the "truth will set you free," adding: "It set us free of our home and most of our life savings. It set us free, all right."
To solve their purported financial troubles, the couple began aggressive fund raising a few months after filing their lawsuit for their "Citizens' Fund for the Right to Know." They have doggedly refused to give a public accounting of the funds collected. Yet I discovered during an investigation in 2003 that, according to public real estate records, the couple had quietly invested $1 million cash in September 2002 toward a $1.4 million home in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, near Jacksonville. Most people with a million bucks lying around aren't struggling to find "a way to house and feed ourselves."
In response to my inquiries, Wilson emailed: "Neither Jane nor I now own—NOR HAVE WE ever [sic] OWNED—a $1.4 million beach townhouse in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida." The bellicose reporter hinted at litigation if my newspaper group printed an inaccurate report.
"Townhouse," no, but "single-family house," yes; at least according to the St. Johns County computer database, from which the information was obtained. For weeks, Wilson used the categorical house/townhouse discrepancy, an error made by database coding, to delay admitting his ownership and to avoid the real question—whether he used a fraudulent sob story to lure people into contributing money to his cause.
Despite Wilson's public claims that all the money he raised was used for legal expenses, I managed to conduct an "unscheduled accountability session" with the reporter in 2003. After repeated questioning, he finally admitted that every dime contributed to his legal defense fund was one less dime Wilson and Akre had to take out of their own pockets. In other words, contributors subsidized the couple's luxury lifestyle. But Wilson and Akre never made their wealth public.
Nor have they ever publicly disclosed the disposition of contributors' money. In one of his few known revelations about the disbursement, Wilson admitted in a deposition, in response to questions about his finances, to spending some of the cash on manicuring his lawn. He claimed he replaced the money but refused to provide proof to reporters.
When Detroit citizens, in an online bulletin board, questioned Wilson's ethics in hiding contributors' money in a mattress to keep it from the Internal Revenue Service, Wilson sneered: "The money was facetiously said to be UNDER a mattress, not IN a mattress…but more importantly, THAT $5,000 was never alleged to be money collected for legal expenses—in fact it was long before such money was ever even accepted for that purpose. Ooops. Those damned FACTS are getting in the way again?"
It was Wilson's bombastic protest that deserved the oops. His sworn deposition in the Tampa case belied the spin:
"Q—And the $5,000 that has been temporarily withdrawn from the Citizens' Fund for the Right to Know, what was the purpose of temporarily withdrawing it?
"A—I determined I didn't want the cash in that account.
"Q—Where did you put the cash?
"A—I think I put it under the mattress."
Enter the FCC
That hardly exhausts the list of controversies surrounding Wilson and his work. He has been described by Miami-Dade County as using a "set up" to obtain a tape from a lawyer of a public official having sex with a prostitute. He drew an injunction from a federal judge in Florida for stalking people who preferred not to talk to him, including a pregnant young woman. (The injunction was later overturned.) His Web site claims he was a "founding member" of Investigative Reporters and Editors, even though a check with IRE shows he wasn't.
Wilson also doesn't hesitate to use "news" for his own personal benefit, a practice explicitly forbidden by most news organizations. In 1998, for example, he proposed an "investigative" article to the Tampa paper I edited, the Weekly Planet, in which he was to uncover what he claimed were abuses by telecommunications companies. But Wilson didn't disclose to our paper that he owned a phone card business that competed with the telecom firms.
The controversy that has gotten him in the most trouble recently is his report on the Michigan Boys. Several of the local officials and businessmen came from Warren, a suburb of Detroit. Both the chief of police and former deputy mayor, Mike Greiner, hotly dispute the charges of rampant prostitution. Greiner filed a petition asking the FCC to deny WXYZ a renewal of its license, claiming, "Wilson had flown down to Costa Rica before the vacationers were scheduled to arrive to 'line up' prostitutes to make a story out of the trip." Greiner's allegation was based in part on an article in A.M. Costa Rica, an online news outlet, which had reported, "Wilson went to the beach at Flamingo more than a week ago trying to line up underage prostitutes."
The FCC has had Greiner's challenge to WXYZ's license on its desk since August. Wilson and Akre's attempt to revoke WTVT's license has been there since January 2005. Both complaints allege news "distortion," which would be a violation of the 72-year-old Communications Act's prohibition against sending a "false signal." Both are likely doomed because the FCC has—correctly—ruled many times that it shouldn't be involved in second-guessing news judgments.
To adopt Wilson's position would mean that a station could lose its license based solely on a subjective assessment that a news source's statement was false. In almost every dispute—financial, corporate, political—at least one side is being untruthful. By Wilson's logic, broadcasters' licenses would be vulnerable unless they determined who was telling the fibs and banned the miscreants from on-air reports.
Greiner's complaint at least makes the claim that a TV station's reporter—Wilson—concocted a false story with the intent to deceive viewers. Even so, the aggrieved parties have other recourses, such as defamation litigation. To have the FCC rule on the station's news gathering would open the door to politicizing all broadcast journalism. The agency's politically appointed commissioners would become the super-editors of the nation's news programs. Stations around the country would have to satisfy federal regulators about the soundness of their news gathering.
And the soundness of Wilson's news gathering? The questions continue to pile up. The "progressive" press, alas, isn't asking them.