If You Upset Me, I'll Pull My Ads
Miami's mayor is hardly the first official unhappy with coverage to make such a threat.
By Jane Kirtley
Jane Kirtley (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Silha Professor of Media Ethics and Law at the University of Minnesota's School of Journalism and Mass Communications.
Xavier Suarez, the mayor of Miami, was furious. The Miami Herald had once again published an embarrassing story, accusing him of improper vote-gathering tactics – and in the Sunday paper, no less.
So what's a beleaguered official whose city is teetering on the edge of bankruptcy to do? For Suarez, it was obvious: Threaten the newspaper.
As the Herald and numerous other news outlets subsequently reported, Suarez left a voice mail message for Joe Natoli, the newspaper's president. He warned Natoli and Publisher David Lawrence to "be a lot nicer to me, my people, my citizens and my city because otherwise we're going to figure out every possible way of advertising in any possible newspaper except yours."
The Herald's response was swift and certain. "The news columns of this newspaper are not for sale, and they never will be," Lawrence was quoted as saying in a story that contained the full text of the mayor's message. Suarez's next move was equally speedy and predictable: The Herald had breached a confidence, he claimed, by making public what was "clearly meant as a privileged business communication."
It's tempting to dismiss the contretemps as just the latest episode in the Herald's rocky relationship with the mayor, whose erratic behavior has already prompted the state's attorney to threaten prosecution if he continues to overstep his authority. Suarez has no control over where the city places its advertising – that power rests with the city manager and commission – so any threat to pull ads is an idle one. And even if it were genuine, losing the $200,000 that the Herald earns each year from publishing the city's legal notices would hardly make a significant dent in the paper's financial posture.
But the Suarez incident highlights a phenomenon that is more common than many journalists realize.
Under the law, governments have no obligation to advertise in any particular media outlet. But the First Amendment prohibits them from withdrawing ads in response to critical coverage.
After the North Mississippi Times filed a suit claiming that the DeSoto County Board of Supervisors had shifted ads to another weekly in the wake of critical Times coverage, a federal appeals court ruled the government cannot withdraw a monetary benefit based on the recipient's exercise of its constitutional rights.
In early December, El Nuevo Dia sued the governor of Puerto Rico in federal court, claiming that he had retaliated for its aggressive coverage of his administration by canceling government advertising amounting to $500,000 a month.
The difficulty lies in proving that a cancellation was triggered by negative reporting rather than a legitimate concern. That was the challenge facing the Forney Messenger in Texas, which contended in federal court that the city council had withdrawn advertising after the newspaper ran a series of editorials alleging that an investigation of the police force had been mishandled.
The city countered that it decided to pull the ads because another newspaper, the Terrell Tribune, published more frequently and had offered lower ad rates. In November, a jury ruled in the city's favor; the newspaper is seeking a new trial.
Michigan's Brighton Argus sued the Hamburg Township Board of Trustees after it voted to shift advertising to the Livingston Chronicle. A federal judge found that although the Argus' reporting might have been a factor, the board was entitled to demonstrate that it had switched for legitimate reasons. In that case, however, the court predicted that the Argus was likely to prevail in its argument that because the Chronicle had failed to publish several issues, it wasn't eligible for the contract in the first place. Under Michigan law, legal notices must be placed in newspapers that publish "without interruption."
Of course, most skirmishes between government and the media don't end up in court. Elected officials are usually savvy enough to know that a news organization will publicize attempts to coerce favorable coverage, which can only make the government look ridiculous.
Mayor Suarez hadn't reckoned on that when he made his nasty phone call to the Miami Herald. He'll learn, if he hasn't already, that tactics like this work only if the government controls the content, revenue and distribution network of news organizations, and sometimes not even then.
The World Press Freedom Committee, an international consortium of media organizations, encourages emerging democracies to adhere to its "Charter for a Free Press." One of its principles states that "Censorship, direct or indirect, is unacceptable" and "government authorities, national or local, must not interfere with the content of print or broadcast news."
Maybe they should send a copy to Mayor Suarez. l###