When Mercedes-Benz announced last year that it would build a plant in the United States, it set off a fierce competition among states eager to be selected for the site.
In September, the German automaker chose Alabama. The state managed the coup, officials say, not only by offering tax incentives, a manicured site and other enticements, but by including the university system, other industries and the press in an all-out recruitment effort. Development officials said they considered newspapers an especially important "part of the team."
How the state's newspapers could help was outlined in an August memo to publishers from Billy Joe Camp, director of the Alabama Development Office. The press has a right to report the news, Camp argued, "but there is also the right of a company such as this one [to have] total discretion" and secrecy during negotiations for various reasons "including those that we might consider to be very insignificant."
Camp added, "I am pleading with you to ask your reporters to refrain from even asking questions as to this project for the next 10 days to two weeks." His request wasn't political, he said, but "purely economic" and in the best interest of the state. "The person heading this project has requested total confidentiality," Camp explained. "He has said that if a community generates publicity, then that community will perhaps just go away."
That threat was apparently taken seriously in Tuscaloosa, the urban area nearest the proposed plant site. The city had already purchased land for the plant and agreed to build power and sewer hookups.
Anthony Topazi, chairman of the Tuscaloosa County Industrial Development Authority, says Charles Land, the publisher of the New York Times Co.-owned Tusca-loosa News, was kept abreast of the secret negotiations but agreed not to print any details. Land would only say that he "got updated from time to time" and that "at times our stories may have seemed to be more reactive than proactive. You walk a little slower when you're closer to the fire."
The paper's editor, Donald Brown, admits he held several stories involving Mercedes' interest because he felt "some obligation to the local effort" and didn't want to upset edgy Mercedes officials.
"I decided the greater good for the community might outweigh the timeliness," says Brown, who wouldn't discuss the contents of the articles. Brown says that in retrospect, he doesn't believe the stories would have hurt the negotiations, but that he "didn't want to take that chance."
Other publishers and editors around the state, whose communities had less of an economic stake in the decision, say they ignored Camp's memo. Patrick McCauley, editor of the Hunts-ville Times, says his paper used Associated Press coverage because Tuscaloosa is outside its circulation area. Jim Tharpe, managing editor of the Montgomery Advertiser, says he never saw the memo and that it "would have been laughed at here. We have an extremely adversarial relationship with Camp."
James Denley, editor and president of the Birmingham Post-Herald, sent the memo around his newsroom but says it did not affect coverage. Denley says Camp was "overly naive" in assuming newspapers would heed his plea. Denley notes that the legislature had gone into special session about eight days after Camp sent the memo to consider incentives for Mercedes and "it would have been difficult for all the newspapers in the state to ignore that."
Stan Tiner, editor of the Mobile Press Register, says he never received the memo and can't find anyone at the paper who did. Not that it mattered. "We would not have followed that rule," he says. "Our paper prints the news when we hear about it."
Tiner recalled how as editor of the now-defunct Shreveport Journal, he'd been told in 1979 that General Motors wouldn't build a plant near the city if he printed stories about the negotiations. He printed them, and GM still moved in. "I couldn't imagine a billion dollar company making decisions on the basis of a newspaper printing a story," he says.
Despite the denials by editors, much of the most aggressive print coverage, such as reports that Mercedes was buying up land in the town of Vance, came more than six weeks after Camp asked for the two-week grace period.
Did the plea have an effect?
"We requested confidentiality," replies Robert Sutton of the development office, "and we got it."