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American Journalism Review
Resigning in Protest  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  The Beat
From AJR,   April/May 2004

Resigning in Protest   

Two editors quit their Florida newspaper after it makes an election policy exception for one candidate.

By Jill Rosen
Jill Rosen is AJR's assistant managing editor     

In a hard-news world, most news organizations insist on firm policies for election coverage to ensure that candidates are treated equally and that the newsroom is spared bias charges. So when their bosses insisted in March that they bend the rules for a candidate, two appalled editors at a Florida community paper resigned.

But, says the editor of that paper, the community-news world is not the place to play hardball--there it's sometimes OK to bend the rules to make readers happy.

Jupiter Courier Editorial Page Editor Randall Murray and Managing Editor Sy O'Neill say they quit after bosses at Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers, a division of E.W. Scripps, asked them to bypass the paper's deadline for election-related material to run a letter to the editor supporting a mayoral candidate, Babs Henderson. The managing editor had just been spanked for not running a photo of this same candidate holding a certificate of appreciation from a community group--the paper's election policy also rules out running gratuitous shots of people running for office.

After hearing that the Courier, circulation 8,000, wouldn't run the photo or more campaign letters, the candidate's supporters complained to Scripps corporate in Cincinnati and prompted a local Florida radio station, WJTW, to scold the paper for being unfair.

Meanwhile, at about the same time that O'Neill, Murray and their boss, Scripps Treasure Coast Newspaper Editor Mark Tomasik, were squaring off about running the late letter to the editor, Tomasik, on behalf of Scripps corporate, insisted that O'Neill write a column for the Courier's front page under her name, explaining how welcoming the paper is to reader input and, in fact, how it's going to devote more space to local photos. O'Neill told Tomasik that she wouldn't do it because it would be "total capitulation" to the candidate whose photo was refused. Tomasik, she says, told her she could skip the policy change part. So O'Neill wrote the column, but quickly found out that it had been edited to include it plus passages about how the paper is also rescinding its election letter policy.

"I feel raped," O'Neill, 53, says. "This is wrong. Newspapers don't give in to political pressure."

Tomasik says that after Scripps corporate was "bombarded" with calls from readers dismayed about not being able to get photos and letters into the Courier, the paper wanted to make it clear that it doesn't turn away reader submissions, rather it wants to be the community's outlet. He adds that while the paper's election policies made sense in theory, they didn't work for an institution as community-oriented as the Courier. "A smart newspaper, especially a community newspaper, should be and must be flexible enough to respond to concerns from any segment of the community," he says. "Most of our [policies] serve us pretty darn well, but there are times for the good of the newspaper...we're going to make some exceptions."

Murray, 59, says that by making allowances for this candidate, who is also a town council member, the paper appears to be playing favorites, not only in a particularly vicious mayoral race, but also in a hotly contested development project that the candidate favors--the building of a mall on the outskirts of town.

Alan Horton, Scripps' senior vice president of newspapers, says the company's papers would never bow to special interests but, at the same time, should never be "such a slave to rules that common sense doesn't have a place." Community papers are "a different animal" than metros, he says, adding, community papers "have an opportunity to say yes more often than most newspapers."

Murray says that as the March 9 election neared, he announced in the Wednesday, March 3 paper (the Courier only publishes on Wednesdays and Sundays) that the paper wouldn't run any additional election-related letters. That move, he said, required him to reject letters "from all factions," not just those supporting the one candidate. "I wasn't going to allow the letters page to become a place where grenades could be thrown over the wall at the last minute," he says of why he adopted the policy.

Despite Murray's protests, four letters, two of which criticized the paper's coverage of the one candidate, ran the Sunday before the election.

"We really didn't have any choice but to leave," Murray says. "What happens the next time someone unhappy with a policy gets on the phone? They set an example here--corporate caved in."

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