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Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Did Media Fear Legal Actions For Reporting Problems With Sweetener?

WTVT anchor, producers subpoenaed

By ERIC DEGGANS

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 11, 1998

TVT-Ch. 13 anchor Kathy Fountain and two producers at the Tampa station were subpoenaed Thursday by former investigative reporters Jane Akre and Steve Wilson, who allege the station canceled an interview scheduled for Fountain's weekday Your Turn talk segment this week over concerns that it might anger chemical manufacturing giant Monsanto.

Fountain and producer Angela Schultz received subpoenas at the station Thursday, for a deposition Sept. 21 as part of an ongoing lawsuit filed by Akre and Wilson against the station in April. Your Turn producer Cynthia Simmons was also subpoenaed. The couple, who are married, say WTVT fired them in December when they wouldn't support attempts to soften a four-part investigative report on concerns about another Monsanto product, the synthetic bovine growth hormone Posilac.

Wilson says WTVT's decision Tuesday to cancel an interview with Mary Nash Stoddard -- a critic of artificial sweeteners that contain the chemical aspartame, including the Monsanto-made NutraSweet -- shows the station's continuing fear of litigation from the company.

"This shows a clear pattern of special treatment," said Wilson, a former reporter for Inside Edition before joining WTVT in November 1996. "If you want to say something construed as negative to Monsanto, you can't get on."

Officials at WTVT denied Wilson's contentions,saying the segment was canceled when producers couldn't find someone to balance Stoddard's position that the use of products containing aspartame can be dangerous.

"We weren't aware of the Monsanto connection (to NutraSweet) until after we decided to cancel the segment," Fountain said. "(Wilson's) account is completely erroneous. We had always told (Stoddard) we weren't comfortable doing it if it wasn't balanced."

Instead, viewers of Your Turn on Tuesday saw Fountain's husband, WTVT anchor Frank Robertson, and Baseball Hall of Famer Al Lopez discuss Mark McGwire's attempt to break Roger Maris' home run record -- which he did. "He (Wilson) is just trying to disrupt the news organization at WTVT," said attorney Pat Anderson, who is representing the station in the lawsuit. Anderson, whose firm also represents the Times on First Amendment issues, says she plans to depose Wilson and Akre for two to three weeks beginning Monday.

"This has happened before to me," said Stoddard, who maintains Schultz told her the segment was canceled after a meeting with the station's attorneys -- a statement Fountain and other executives at WTVT also deny. "We get excuses and run into brick walls because people are afraid."

But Simmons denies all of Wilson and Stoddard's assertions. "We did not have a meeting with any attorneys. I just didn't think it was the right thing to do (put on Stoddard) ... because I didn't have the other side."