A year after The Cincinnati Enquirer's 18-page investigative series on Chiquita Brands International and the subsequent front-page apologies, the question lingers in the air like a rotten banana: Are the stories true?
One of the reporters who wrote them says he stands behind his work. The other isn't talking, although he might be forced to.
An ex-Chiquita lawyer who allegedly provided the reporters access to company voice mails says they're true. Chiquita officials repeatedly have said they're not.
And the newspaper that printed the stories has renounced them, whatever that means.
Is it too much to ask — considering the complicated legal maneuvering between and among the country's largest newspaper chain, Gannett Co.; one of the world's major multinational corporations, Chiquita; the city's most powerful businessman, Chiquita CEO Carl Lindner; and the Hamilton County Prosecutor's office — for a simple yes/no answer concerning the stories' accuracy? Apparently, it is.
A Norwood attorney, Richard Magnus — who's not involved in any of the lawsuits or criminal cases surrounding the Enquirer/Chiquita mess but who simply calls himself an Enquirer reader — wants to know if the original Chiquita stories were true. He wrote a letter on April 26 to Common Pleas Judge Richard Niehaus, who will sentence former Enquirer reporter Michael Gallagher for the felony charges he pleaded to, asking Niehaus to require Gallagher to attest to the truth or falsehood in the Chiquita articles.
Magnus' letter offers a novel approach to getting at the central mystery of this year-long journalism fiasco: Did Gannett and The Enquirer settle with Chiquita because the paper discovered that its stories were untrue?
And if the stories were, in fact, true, why didn't the paper stand behind them — especially since only about half of the original series (and few of the follow-up articles) had anything to do with Gallagher's pilfered voice mails?
The confusion began, you'll recall, with The Enquirer's shocking front-page apologies to Chiquita on June 28, June 30 and July 1, 1998 — just six weeks after publishing the 18-page series. Much of the series was based, the apologies said, on information obtained from internal Chiquita company voice mails, but the paper "has now become convinced that the above representations, accusations and conclusions are untrue and created a false and misleading impression of Chiquita's business practices."
In the story that accompanied the first apology, The Enquirer detailed its remedies: Gallagher was fired; the paper paid Chiquita "in excess of" $10 million; the 18-page series and all follow-up stories were eliminated from the paper's Web site archives; and Publisher Harry Whipple and Editor Lawrence Beaupre "renounce the series of articles." All copies of the original series were pulled from the paper's internal library.
Publicly, Chiquita officials reacted to the apologies with a sense of vindication. Company President Steven Warshaw told The New York Times on June 30 that Chiquita's tarnished reputation had been restored and that the company "operated off a high moral and ethical plane."
In the only substantive interview Whipple gave after the first apology, he told The New York Times that "We are not aware of anything to suggest this is an instance of a reporter fabricating something." In other words, the voice mails were real — and their damning contents real — even if they'd been stolen.
Well, Whipple gave no more interviews after that. "No comment" became the official words from him, Beaupre and Gannett spokespeople. In internal Enquirer staff meetings after the Chiquita settlement, employees who raised questions about the deal's inconsistencies were told, "Read the apology."
It's clear that Chiquita demanded and got some sort of lawyered statement from The Enquirer that inexplicably and against all logic wiped out the entire Chiquita series. That included all the stories with no connection to the voice mails: the firsthand reporting from banana plantations in Honduras, Costa Rica and Panama (including photographs of a 15-year-old who had allegedly been shot by Chiquita security forces); the well-documented history of United Fruit Co., the company that founded "banana republics" and eventually became Chiquita; and the article about Chiquita's struggle with European banana quotas.
The Enquirer also agreed to obliterate the follow-up stories it ran for two weeks after the 18-page section — including interviews with a Catholic bishop from Detroit who said the paper's Chiquita series showed that the banana company made "blood money earned off the backs of the poor peasants of Central America" and articles about official efforts in Colombia and Europe to investigate Chiquita dealings there.
To many, the paper's heavy-handed elimination of those stories from its Web site and internal archives smacked of George Orwell's 1984, in which history constantly was rewritten to remove those out of favor with Big Brother. Or of Communist Chinese dissenters who'd have their faces erased from historic photos.
After the apologies, tales abounded from Enquirer staffers about certain editors speaking in the newsroom about how the paper did not, in fact, "retract" the Chiquita series but only "renounced" it — as if that small nuance left The Enquirer with some dignity.
"Retract," in the dictionary, means "to withdraw or disavow." "Renounce" means "to refuse to recognize any further." The difference being that the paper, by renouncing the series, just pretended it wasn't there anymore but — wink, wink — we all know what it said.
Sure, we know what it said. We just want to know what it means.
Should we run Chiquita out of town for the unethical and illegal business practices portrayed in the series? Should we vilify Lindner as a man who acts like a moral, philanthropic civic benefactor when, as The Enquirer said, he heads a multinational corporation that sprays toxic chemicals on men, women and children working on its Central American banana plantations? Should we just skip down Fifth Street singing the Chiquita banana theme song?
When asked on the PBS show Media Matters why The Enquirer and Gannett approved the settlement with Chiquita, First Amendment attorney Bruce Sanford said the company faced possible criminal investigations of its news executives. (See Press Clips, issue of May 27.)
"(Gannett) made a business judgment," said Sanford, legal counsel for the Society of Professional Journalists, "that the best way out of this was not to fight it for 5 or 6 or 7 years but to just take their lumps and get it over with. I think what was lost was the truth."
A few stand-up guys
In his letter to Judge Niehaus, Magnus acknowledged that the charges to which Gallagher pleaded guilty carry a presumption against prison time and that Gallagher likely will receive "community control sanctions." As part of those sanctions, Magnus proposed that Gallagher be required to answer the question on everyone's lips: Are the Chiquita stories true?
Specifically, the letter said Gallagher should file with the Clerk of Courts a statement addressing every fact presented in the original 18-page series and whether it is "a) Verifiably true based on legal sources; b) Believed to be true based on illegally obtained information, the accuracy of which Mr. Gallagher has no reason to doubt; c) Unverifiable, and unknown to Mr. Gallagher whether it is true; or d) Known to Mr. Gallagher to be false."
Magnus claimed in the letter that he had bought the May 3, 1998 Enquirer containing the original series and put "time and money into obtaining and reading those articles" — which was, in effect, stolen later by the apologies and settlement.
His status as "victim" of the paper's renouncing the stories, due to Gallagher's illegal voice mail activities, means he can file a letter with the court to claim damages against the defendant. Niehaus will sentence Gallagher after the ex-reporter has testified in the county's criminal case against George Ventura, which is set to get underway in early July.
After receiving the letter, Niehaus asked for opinions from Gallagher's lawyer and from the county's special prosecutor on the Ventura case. The judge tells CityBeat that neither side considers Magnus a victim in the Enquirer/Chiquita case.
"(Magnus) would have the right to come forward and petition the court to prove that he's a victim," Niehaus says, "and then we'd hold a hearing on the subject."
Magnus would have to prove monetary damage as a direct result of Gallagher's actions, the judge says, although there's no minimum dollar amount required — so he could claim he lost the price of the Sunday paper ($1.50).
The truth or falsehood of the Enquirer stories, Niehaus said, has no direct bearing on his task at hand — sentencing Gallagher for two felonies to which he pleaded guilty.
Likewise, questions about the stories' truth probably will not be allowed to be introduced into the trial of Ventura, the ex-Chiquita lawyer charged with providing the company's internal voice mail access codes to Gallagher. His pre-trial motions regarding selective prosecution have been turned down, so it looks like Ventura will testify only about what he did with the voice mails — not why.
The "why" is important to Ventura. In a recent interview with The American Lawyer magazine, he described himself as "a person who tried to bring to light behavior that shocks the conscience. ... I wish someone would go back and go through all the (Enquirer) stories, because recall that no one has appeared ever to disprove the truth of those stories."
Someone who has gone back through the stories and stands behind his work on them is Cameron McWhirter, Gallagher's partner on the series' year-long reporting process. Every article in the 18-page package was co-bylined by the two, and when The Enquirer renounced the series, McWhirter's work went down the drain.
"I know what I did on the stories, and I stand behind my work," McWhirter tells CityBeat. "Then Gallagher took it away from me."
When told about Magnus' letter asking Gallagher to explain if the stories were true, McWhirter — who now works for The Detroit News — says he, too, would like to hear what Gallagher would say.
But McWhirter's not being sentenced — Gallagher is. And the sentencing judge sounds like he needs some powerful persuading before he starts forcing Gallagher to say what's true and what's not.
Meanwhile, Ventura probably won't be able to address the stories' allegations on the record in his trial — unless he's convicted and uses Chiquita's alleged company abuses as mitigating factors to ask for sentencing leniency. By then, no one will care.
As if anyone cares now.
But one can dream. And I dream about a reporter who, as part of a plea bargain in which he commits journalism's gravest sin by giving up his anonymous source, is forced to at least go on the record about the stories' truthfulness. Then the newspaper that sells out its integrity for a $10 million settlement has to print an article by its courts reporter that says its Chiquita series is, in fact, true. And the multinational corporation that has the paper over the barrel hires an army of lawyers to fix another legal loophole.
At least we'll know if the stories were true. And we'll decide where to go from there.