A special message to readers

January 01, 2000|By Michael E. Waller | Michael E. Waller,SUN PUBLISHER

The beginning of a new century seems to be a proper time to start a new tradition: an accounting to our readers of The Sun's performance over the past year.

Publishing a newspaper is a public trust, one that we've taken seriously since our founding on May 17, 1837. Our mission is to cover the news without fear or favor and our duty is to do it by seeking the truth with honesty, accuracy, fairness and courage.

We're proud of our journalism and believe fanatically in our obligation to protect all ideas -- especially unpopular ones -- and to keep you informed so that you can participate wisely in the civic life of your communities.

That's what democracy is all about, and one of our fundamental duties is to be a beacon for democracy. Thomas Jefferson, our third president, expressed it this way back in January 1787. In writing a letter to a friend, he said that if he had to decide "whether we should have government without newspapers, or newspapers without government--," he would choose newspapers.

Stories prod action

While we are proud of our accomplishments, we must acknowledge some failings, which we are hard at work to correct.

Some of our best stories have prodded public officials to take action. Here are a few examples:

* "Charlie Squad," a four-part series reported by Todd Richissin and photographed by Andre Chung, described a state-run boot camp in Western Maryland for juvenile offenders, where guards constantly beat the young inmates, making it perhaps the most violent camp in the country. Reaction to the series was swift. Top state officials were fired, camps were closed, and various government agencies began investigations.

* Reporter Jim Haner's exposs described how drug dealers have become slum landlords to launder their illicit money and how they have harmed the health of hundreds of people, especially children, in Baltimore's neighborhoods. State legislators and new city administration leaders acted swiftly to start addressing these abuses.

* Reporter John O'Donnell's stories about "flipping" uncovered a real-estate fraud in which unscrupulous property owners and appraisers bilk unsophisticated buyers by inflating the value of ramshackle homes. One result of the stories is that the city lowered property taxes totaling nearly $1 million for these over-valued properties.

* Reporters Dan Fesperman's and Kate Shatzkin's series detailed the plight of American chicken farmers, who are being squeezed so hard by some giant processing companies that they are in danger of becoming 21st century serfs. Congress opened hearings on the matter.

* Reporters Caitlin Francke's and Scott Higham's stories showed the slow, inefficient and contorted justice being dispensed in the overworked Baltimore City criminal justice system. Officials responded with various reforms.

* Reporter Greg Schneider's detailed examination of the development of the F-22 Raptor demonstrated that the Pentagon and the Air Force deliberately understated by millions of dollars the costs of the plane so they could secure approval of it. In House hearings, the series was widely quoted.

* Editorial writer Antero Pietila's bold, incisive two-page editorial, "Getting away with murder," dissected the reasons for Baltimore's intractable murder rate, which remains stubbornly high at a time when other large cities have reduced violent crime dramatically. Gov. Parris Glendening subsequently pledged $3 million to help solve backlogs in the courts and to implement changes.

In short, it's been a terrific year for The Sun, capped off by the Columbia Journalism Review naming the newspaper one of the top ten in America. Earlier this year, the National Press Foundation named The Sun's editor, John Carroll, Editor of the Year for 1998. The Society for News Design named only The Sun and one other American newspaper, the New York Times, as among the World's 17 Best Designed Newspapers. And KAL, editorial cartoonist Kevin Kallaugher, was the recipient of the Overseas Press Club's Thomas Nast Award for best cartoons on foreign affairs.

It's also been a year in which our industry, including our sister paper the Los Angeles Times, has come under criticism for a lack of commitment to journalistic integrity. As a former editor and a newspaper man for 39 years, let me assure you that The Sun's newsroom and editorial departments operate independently from any internal or external forces. No one, including The Sun's business departments, advertisers or our owner, Times Mirror, influences our news coverage or editorial opinions. Newsroom decisions are based solely on what the editors believe is important and interesting to you -- the readers. Nothing is more important to us than journalistic integrity and independence. If the newseditorial mission and commercial interest collide, editorial integrity will always come first.

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