Enquirer Still Owes Us

EDITOR'S NOTE: The editorial to the right is reprinted with permission from the March issue of Editor & Publisher, the respected newspaper industry magazine. The unsigned column, titled "Cincy's Ir

Apr 20, 2005 at 2:06 pm

EDITOR'S NOTE: The editorial to the right is reprinted with permission from the March issue of Editor & Publisher, the respected newspaper industry magazine. The unsigned column, titled "Cincy's Ironic Shield," is the latest in a series of unusually strong opinions the magazine has published over the years about the despicable behavior of Enquirer and Gannett officials trying to distance themselves from the paper's infamous 1998 investigative series on Chiquita Brands International.

This editorial references the court ruling in late January against George Ventura — the former Chiquita employee who secretly provided an Enquirer reporter with access to Chiquita's internal voice mail system — that settles the final legal challenge resulting from the series. E&P uses the lawsuit result as an opportunity to remind us all that The Enquirer has never explained either the original stories or its actions since Chiquita sought criminal charges against the reporter for tapping into its voice mail.

As for Ventura's fate, Cincinnati attorney Marc Mezibov agrees that their legal options likely are exhausted save for an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, which Mezibov says is "probably not" going to happen.

But he doesn't agree with E&P's characterization of Ventura's legal arguments as "simply incoherent," saying the recent appeals court decision ignored the factual basis of their case.

"It was a very disappointing decision," he says, "that simply dismissed what we thought was strong evidence that The Enquirer had revealed George's identity as an anonymous source for that story."

CityBeat has covered this saga since The Enquirer ran three front-page apologies for the Chiquita series in late June and early July 1998. A good overview can be found at citybeat.com/2003-07-02/news2.shtml, published on the apologies' five-year anniversary.

With yet another anniversary approaching (the original series ran on May 3, 1998) and with the Society of Professional Journalists celebrating next week as Ethics in Journalism Week (see spj.org/ethicsweek.asp), it's a good time to consider the national criticism that continues to hound Cincinnati's dominant media organization.

It's always good news when a federal court protects the confidentiality of news sources by upholding a state shield law. Still, we wish we could feel happier about a recent ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit: Ohio's shield law prevents a news source burned by a fired Cincinnati Enquirer reporter from claiming legal damages against the newspaper and its parent, Gannett Co.

If our joy is tempered, it's because this decision gives The Enquirer yet another excuse to stay silent about its botched 1998 investigation into Chiquita Brands International Inc. — and about the secret settlement after it came out that the source for some of its allegations of corrupt business activities by the big hometown banana company were voice mail messages illegally accessed by one of its reporters.

This likely was the last courtroom act for a reporting project that has been overly full of lawyers, and that's all to the good. But going on seven years later, The Enquirer still has an unpaid debt to its readers, and to Chiquita, to say what it believes is true or false in its reporting. That 18-page special report lodged sensational and serious allegations against Chiquita, including knowingly spraying banana workers with dangerous pesticides and turning a blind eye to drug smuggling on its ships. But after Chiquita revealed the voice mail tampering, The Enquirer "renounced" the series in an opaque apology that ran on the front page for three consecutive days and paid Chiquita, then owned by tycoon Carl Lindner, $14 million in a secret settlement disclosed in 2001 by E&P's Washington editor, Todd Shields.

The Enquirer even secretly agreed to "destroy" on June 29, 2003 all the reporters notes and documents compiled during the investigation. Did it? The newspaper hasn't said.

The Enquirer should also at long last tell Cincinnati readers how, if at all, that settlement with Lindner affected its reporting on his many other business interests. Gannett vetted the Chiquita stories at top corporate levels before publication, and after the fiasco adopted a high-sounding "Principles of Ethical Conduct For Newsrooms." But in the ensuing years it has only abetted The Enquirer's silence.

Let's be clear: The unanimous three-judge appellate court panel ruled exactly right on the law.

Disgruntled former Chiquita senior legal counsel George Ventura may not have deserved his fate of being ratted out in open court by fired star investigative reporter Michael Gallagher as the guy who showed him how to break into the voice mail system. But Ventura's legal arguments against The Enquirer and Gannett were simply incoherent, as the Sixth Circuit decision makes plain.

Thanks to the judges, the Chiquita case is no longer about legalities. Now it's up to The Enquirer and Gannett to turn it into an example of being honest with readers.

Contact Editor & PUblisher: www.editorandpublisher.com