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.”