E-mail Undoing  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   September 2002

E-mail Undoing   

Should a Florida editor have lost her job after sending a reader a policially-charged note?

By Paul Duke
Duke moderated PBS’ “Washington Week in Review”      


When Rosemary Armao, a managing editor as outspoken as she was beloved, abruptly left her post at the Sarasota Herald-Tribune in June, her disciples and others in the journalism community promptly joined together in a chorus of questions. Why did Armao send a reader an opinion-laced e-mail? And if an editor is so publicly opinionated, is that reason enough to let her go?

Armao's departure was the climactic act in a newsroom drama that unfolded after the paper ran a two-and-a-half page profile of Katherine Harris, Florida's former secretary of state, famously embattled since the 2000 presidential balloting debacle. Harris, now a Republican candidate for Congress in the conservative-leaning 13th District that includes Sarasota, is considered a shoo-in for election.

After the profile ran, Armao sent a candid e-mail response to a Democratic reader's complaint that the Harris story was a "one-sided puff piece." Armao not only dismissed the protest as unwarranted but went on to express her personal views about the contest and the candidates. "Katherine Harris is an international figure, like her or not," she declared. "She's going to be the next congresswoman from this area, like it or not.... I do not intend to vote for Harris.... I blame the Democrats for not finding a better candidate...and I blame our culture for craving as its public figures, women like Katherine who are very pretty, hard-working and without original ideas."

The e-mail became public and Executive Editor Janet Weaver called Armao on the carpet. Weaver argued that the response was not only inappropriate but damaging to the Herald-Tribune's reputation for impartiality. Armao acknowledged that she had gone overboard in her remarks but insisted that she had done nothing wrong--that all journalists have opinions and that it was important for editors to be straightforward and frank with their readers. The important thing, she argued, was that the Harris story was balanced and fair.

The result was a philosophical impasse that ended with Armao submitting her resignation. Essentially the episode exposed what might best be described as an ethical divide between the strict purists and the flexible moderates of modern day journalism--between those who believe reporters and editors should not reveal their personal views on controversial topics and those who regard this as an unrealistically high-minded standard.

Despite their differences, both editors insist it was an amicable parting. "I couldn't compromise what I believed and she couldn't compromise what she believed," Weaver says. Armao agrees, observing that the two enjoyed "a great relationship" before the breakup and "I couldn't bad-mouth Janet in any way."

In fact, it was Weaver who brought Armao aboard in 1999 to join Publisher Diane McFarlin in rounding out the newspaper's pioneering trio of women managers (see "Where Women Rule," January/February 2001), facetiously referred to as the "Amazonian empire." Ironically, Weaver and Armao had vied fiercely several years before for the deputy managing editorship of Norfolk's Virginian-Pilot. Weaver won but emerged from the fray an admirer of Armao's feisty style and passionate devotion to the craft. So, when Weaver moved on to become the Herald-Tribune's executive editor, she recruited her old rival to be her top deputy.

"We had a terrific three years," Weaver says. "We disagreed often but I felt that was a healthy thing. The two people who have been most pained by the outcome were Rosemary and me."

Indeed, several Herald-Tribune staffers share that assessment. "They made a helluva good team," says one. "There was a certain chemistry that worked well for our coverage." Almost everyone agrees that the popular Armao's unexpected exit cast a pall over the newsroom because her blunt and brash brand of leadership had created a demanding atmosphere of go-getting energy. "She was an incredibly dedicated person who really stood by her reporters," says a staffer who describes Armao as "the life of the newsroom." He and others predict that several disillusioned reporters will now leave Sarasota for work elsewhere.

Even more striking are the accolades from what might be called the Armao alumni society, journalists who encountered her in earlier phases of her newspaper career and during a teaching stint at the University of Missouri. To them she had become a kind of inspirational journalism folk heroine--a throwback to an earlier sassy and irreverent type of newspapering right out of "His Girl Friday" (an era during which, it was said, getting the story "justified anything short of murder.") A former colleague in Norfolk sent Armao a check for $5,000 to help tide her over while she pursued other jobs. "Because she helped so many people I felt someone should help her," veteran columnist Guy Friddell says.

"As a reporter who worked with Rosemary in Sarasota, I can say she's the best thing to have happened to that paper in a long, long time," says Brett Barrouquere, now a writer with Louisiana's Baton Rouge Advocate. Jennifer Merritt, who has moved on to be a management education editor at BusinessWeek, echoes this opinion. "She was someone you liked even when she yelled at you because you knew her heart and soul were in quality journalism," Merritt says.

Given these sentiments, it is hardly surprising that Armao's army of supporters believes the paper fumbled badly in handling the dispute. But this is also the view of other Florida professionals who suggest a reprimand would have been a more fitting punishment. "She went too far but it didn't justify dismissal," says Philip Gailey, editorial page editor of the St. Petersburg Times. Pierre Tristam, an editorial writer at the Daytona Beach News-Journal, ridicules the notion that journalists speak for the entire newspaper when they comment on issues, claiming it "belittles the intelligence of readers and projects an image of editors as numbskulls and drones."

Weaver remains unpersuaded. "I've always taken a hard line that we must maintain the highest standards to assure that the public trust is not undermined," she explains. "I worried my way through this because it was not an easy decision." Publisher McFarlin, also president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, stands solidly behind Weaver. "It's tragic that we lost such a talented editor, but credibility is our most important asset," she says, adding that she was "deeply concerned about an erosion of ethical values among younger journalists."

As Jan Schaffer, who runs Washington's Pew Center for Civic Journalism, puts it: "We must be particularly careful in covering politics which candidates we validate and which we dismiss. It's fine to be up front with the readers, but in this case the editor was speaking in her capacity as an editor and thus had to be held accountable."

Kelly McBride, a member of the Poynter Institute's ethics faculty, takes a broader view of the conflict. "There is no bad guy in all this," she concludes. "You have two well-respected journalists who disagreed over the handling of a mistake. Rosemary's refusal to admit to any wrongdoing complicated matters because it compromised the paper's appearance of objectivity."

Despite the unhappy ending in Sarasota, the 51-year-old Armao quickly landed another position, moving across state to become a projects editor at South Florida's Sun-Sentinel.

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