It's a tough year for journalism Reporting: In Cincinnati, a stunning apology by the morning newspaper added to news media woes. The competition across town didn't want to gloat.

Sun Journal

August 05, 1998|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

CINCINNATI -- The apology caught everyone by surprise.

Two months earlier the Cincinnati Enquirers 18-page & 2/3 investigation of Chiquita Brands International Inc. seemed destined for Pulitzer Prize consideration. Now, there was a carefully worded apology and an accompanying article without a byline on the newspaper's Sunday, June 28 front page.

The city's major daily was renouncing its own series, saying it was "convinced that the above representations, accusations and conclusions are untrue and created a false and misleading impression of Chiquita's business practices."

There was more. The Enquirer had pulled the article from its Web site, fired the lead reporter and agreed to pay Chiquita more than $10 million.

"My jaw dropped," recalls Mike Philipps, city editor at the Cincinnati Post, the city's afternoon daily. "When was the last time you saw a newspaper kick in $10 million without a fight?"

For Philipps, the dilemma lay in covering the story. If this were Chicago, or New York, maybe Boston, cities with contentious newspapers contemptuous of each other, he could come out swinging. The Post could run advertisements calling itself "a newspaper to believe in," "a paper you can trust," perhaps print a full-page ad with a bold headline, "WE MAKE NO APOLOGIES."

"That's not the way we practice journalism in Cincinnati," says Philipps, 52. "We're very aggressive in terms of reporting, but we try not to let it degenerate into cross-town name-calling. The industry has enough problems. . . . That is not to say that I'm not out to take the food off their table, just like they're trying to take the food off my table."

This has been a tough year for journalism. High-profile staffers at the New Republic and the Boston Globe have been fired for making up quotes and stories. CNN and Time magazine backed off their well-publicized report on the use of nerve gas against American soldiers during the Vietnam War. The lapses, though few, were spectacular.

In its statement, the Enquirer said its problems "have hurt the integrity of the newspaper and the trust of our readers."

"We were just amazed," says Philipps.

The Enquirer had taken on a leading local business and, by extension, Carl Lindner, chairman of Chiquita and a highly regarded philanthropist. This was new for Cincinnati. The series, printed the first Sunday in May, arrived as a separate section. Eighteen pages. No ads. There were days of follow-up stories. Then silence.

"I remember talking to people at the end of May and early June and saying, 'Hey, whatever happened to that Enquirer story? Are they going to do anything else with it?' " says John Fox, editor of City Beat, one of Cincinnati's alternative newspapers.

As it turns out, the Enquirer had been negotiating with Chiquita almost since the stories ran. There were allegations that voice-mail messages had been stolen. Chiquita called the articles "sensational and highly inaccurate." On June 28, all of Cincinnati learned what had happened.

"It was the talk of the town for a couple of days, no question about it," says Philipps.

Cincinnati is a polite city, deferential, perhaps to a fault, some say. It's a conservative town, a rather quiet, slow, livable city on the Ohio River. German immigrants played a major role in Cincinnati. You can still see advertisements in German on the old brick buildings in the city's Over-the-Rhine neighborhood. People here don't like to trouble the waters.

Cincinnati is a very loyal city, a very careful city, its residents say. Folks are slow to criticize someone in public.

So in the Post newsroom, there was hesitancy about how to proceed. No one wanted to be seen as gloating. After all, they had friends in the newsroom across town, where a cartoon depicting a post-apocalyptic site and the words: "Welcome to the Enquirer had appeared on bulletin boards. Yet, there were a few smiles about the arrogant Enquirer getting taken down a peg or two.

Still, Philipps had to decide whether to nickel-and-dime the story with small daily reports, or go for an in-depth look at what happened. He knew his resources were limited.

Cincinnati's two major papers have been in a joint operating agreement (JOA) since 1979, with the afternoon Post -- owned by Scripps Howard Inc. -- being the weaker of the two. The agreement, which grew out of the Newspaper Preservation Act, attempts to preserve competition and competing newspaper voices. The idea is that by merging business operations, the weaker paper survives.

In Cincinnati, the Enquirer, owned by Gannett Co., is the acknowledged heavyweight. It handles the advertising, circulation, production and press runs for both papers. It has three to four times the staff of the Post. It publishes every day, including 350,000 copies on Sundays. The Post publishes Monday through Saturday. The Enquirers daily circulation of 205,000 dwarfs the Post's 85,000, though the Post has another 47,000 readers through its Kentucky Post edition.

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