News: When a Non-Story Becomes the Story

In the newspaper business, some stories take a while to see the light of day. Take The Cincinnati Enquirer's 1998 series on Chiquita Brands International, which saw two reporters work full-time for

Jan 20, 2000 at 2:06 pm

In the newspaper business, some stories take a while to see the light of day. Take The Cincinnati Enquirer's 1998 series on Chiquita Brands International, which saw two reporters work full-time for a year to produce what ultimately became an 18-page special section.

Other stories never get published, for a variety of reasons. They're too long, too short, not very well researched or written. The story might have already appeared in the competing paper or on the TV news. It might be held to be reworked into a bigger, better package.

Then there are stories that never get published, and there's no apparent reason. Of course, there's always a reason — just not a readily apparent one.

Into this final category falls a Cincinnati Post story about George Ventura, Brill's Content and The Enquirer discussed in Press Clips last week.

The story, by Post reporter Kimball Perry, has yet to run almost two weeks after being submitted.

Its absence raises questions about several important issues, including the very role of The Post in Cincinnati's media landscape.

It all started with Ventura's first-person article in the February issue of Brill's, a national media issues magazine. Ventura, the ex-Chiquita lawyer arrested and sentenced for his role as an anonymous source for The Enquirer's Chiquita series, wrote of his experiences dealing with the media and of their harmful effect on his career, his family and his life.

Both The Enquirer and The Post published stories about the article. On Jan. 5, Enquirer reporter Dan Horn called Brill's Executive Editor Elizabeth Lesly Stevens to acquire an advance copy of the Ventura piece. During the conversation, Stevens says she told Horn about an incident that happened while the magazine was preparing the article.

In an effort to fact-check and to get feedback, Stevens says Brill's sent synopses of various portions of Ventura's article to four people directly or indirectly discussed in it: Enquirer Publisher Harry Whipple, former Editor Lawrence Beaupre and former reporters Michael Gallagher and Cameron McWhirter. That was in late November, and, other than Ventura and his lawyer, Marc Mezibov, no one else outside of the magazine knew about the synopses.

Within hours, no later than the next morning, a legal representative of Chiquita called Mezibov to say the company was upset with Ventura's plans to author the Brill's article. (A synopsis also was being prepared for Chiquita officials at the time but wasn't ready yet.)

Stevens says she raised questions to Horn about how Chiquita found out about the article so quickly after the synopses were sent to the four current or former Enquirer/ Gannett employees and wondered if the episode was newsworthy. She says he excused himself to talk to his editor about whether he should get further information on the subject and called back for more details.

Horn's story ran in The Enquirer on Jan. 6 but did not mention the synopses being sent, Chiquita's call to Mezibov or anything directly attributed to Stevens.

Perry wrote a piece about the Ventura article the same day in The Post but had not interviewed Stevens. On Jan. 7, she called Perry to fill him in on the synopses and The Enquirer's lack of coverage of them, and she says he told her he was going to write a follow-up story on the subject.

That story was filed but has yet to run.

As reported in last week's Press Clips, Post Editor Paul Knue said Perry's story was not published because it "needed more facts" and would run at some point "depending on if he gets some answers."

By all indications, Perry is not working on gathering additional facts or answers. He told CityBeat last week that his synopses story "was complete, fair and accurate" before referring all other questions to Knue — which suggests he thinks he turned in finished copy.

Contacted this week, Perry would not comment about the story's status. Sources in the Post newsroom, however, say he has done no further work on the story. So what's the holdup?

Maybe, as Knue told CityBeat last week, Brill's Content simply is looking for publicity by dropping the synopses story into The Post's lap and expecting the paper to dig up details, and he doesn't want to play their game. Hey, a good story is a good story, no matter where it comes from.

Maybe Perry got a bunch of "no comment" responses from Whipple, Beaupre, McWhirter and Gallagher when he tried to investigate the supposed "leak" to Chiquita, and Knue wants "answers" that explain whether the leak really happened or not. Well, "no comment" seems like an answer, though maybe not the answer everyone wants.

Maybe Knue thinks the synopses story is too "inside baseball" about the media — an investigation of details that no one outside of the business knows or cares about. I've read plenty of stories in The Post, however, about allegations of wrongdoing at some local business or government agency that had no direct bearing on my life. Come to think of it, some even featured people answering reporters with "no comment."

Maybe Knue doesn't think The Post should investigate its crosstown rival for fear of it looking like the afternoon paper is gloating over The Enquirer's ongoing Chiquita debacle. But The Post can, and has, covered its daily competition fairly — its huge behind-the-scenes story on The Enquirer's settlement with and apology to Chiquita still is one of the best articles written anywhere on the subject. (Post wags note that Knue was on vacation when that story ran.)

Whatever the reason, the bottom line is that The Post's existence hangs by a single thread: It must provide competitive, independent editorial coverage of events and issues of the day. All of the paper's business functions — printing, advertising sales, marketing, promotion, subscription sales — are performed by The Enquirer as per their joint operating agreement. The newsroom is all The Post has left to itself.

The Post still can and does make a difference in Cincinnati by reporting information The Enquirer can't or won't or by presenting it in a different light. If it doesn't fill that role, for whatever reason, the paper should just cease publishing.

Did Enquirer/Gannett personnel tip off Chiquita about Ventura's article? It's a question we don't know if The Enquirer ever asked.

The Post has asked the question, but its editor isn't happy with the answers. If the answers aren't being published, the very point of the afternoon daily seems in doubt.

PRESS CLIPS welcomes contributions, comments and, of course, press clippings. If you have a gripe with the media, see a goof or otherwise catch 'em with their pants down, write CityBeat at 23 E. Seventh St., Suite 617, Cincinnati, Ohio 45202. Or e-mail us at [email protected]