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From AJR,   September 1999  issue

Too Much Cheerleading on the Editorial Page?   

An editorial page editor's efforts to bring a retired aircraft carrier to Tampa have prompted questions about a newspaper's proper role.


By Tricia Eller
Tricia Eller is a former AJR editorial assistant.     


I T'S EASY ENOUGH in many cases to discern where the line-that-shouldn't-be-crossed lies to maintain a reporter's credibility. Don't take expensive gifts, don't push a pet project, try to drop your bias--do the right thing. For an editorial writer, the lines are less clear. After all, the editorial page is all about opinion and analysis. Where are the boundaries, and how do you tell if they've been crossed?
Some at the St. Petersburg Times say Edwin A. Roberts Jr., editorial page editor at the rival Tampa Tribune, has gone a step too far.
Roberts wants to see the USS Forrestal, a retired naval aircraft carrier, brought to Tampa and turned into a floating museum. To help make it happen, he's written columns and editorials pitching the plan in his pages since June 1998, assembled the core of what became the nonprofit group bent on bringing the ship to town and hosted a meeting on the subject with the mayor. Roberts also sits on the project's board of advisers. In addition, the paper's publisher, Reid Ashe, has donated, in the name of the Tribune, $1,000 cash to the group and $15,000 in advertising space.
(The Navy will consider the proposal to bring the ship to Tampa after November 26.)
In an article published May 9, Steve Huettel, a metro reporter at the Times, labeled Roberts' role something "many journalists would avoid like the plague."
For Huettel, who spent 15 years at the Tribune before joining the Times' staff in November, the ethical dilemma began with the way Roberts got involved in the project. Nils Olsson, at the time an out-of-work civil engineer, knew the Forrestal was available and decided to try to bring the Navy's first super-carrier to Tampa. He sought out Roberts in the hope that his support would spur the same from the mayor. According to Huettel's article, Rick Smith, one of the mayor's lieutenants, recalled telling Olsson "the mayor thinks a lot of the [Tribune's] editorial board and its opinion."
Roberts says he doesn't feel manipulated, that he "thought it just sounded like something fun to do." After he talked to Olsson, he "made a few calls," and the project's support group was born.
The Tribune's news coverage hasn't been so glowing: Hard-hitting investigative work by reporter Michael Fechter told of the poor financial history--including bank loan defaults, IRS tax liens and probation and restitution ordered in a grand theft case--of the project's former director (who resigned after Fechter interviewed him) and a recent fundraising raffle that violated Florida's gambling laws.
Fechter, nevertheless, says Roberts is within his rights: "Advocating a civic endeavor's merits and even cheerleading for it are a newspaper editorial writer's prerogative."
But Mary Jo Melone, a Times columnist who criticized Roberts' involvement, disagrees. Roberts' support represents "the kind of civic cheerleading by newspaper editors that can drive me nuts," she says. "Neither Tampa nor St. Pete is all that big--the newspapers really do dominate the power structure and need to be damn careful about how they play their civic part."
And it is a large civic hand played. Each of the papers donates money or ad space to causes deemed worthy throughout the year. "We give away a million dollars," says Times Editor Andy Barnes. "But we try to make sure that we don't give away money in ways that are going to be newsworthy."
For Barnes, the USS Forrestal episode became "newsworthy" when Roberts did more than just cheerlead. In his eyes, the editorial page editor organized the pep squad. Roberts, however, minimizes his role, saying he does nothing more at the advisers' meetings than "sit in the chair and say nothingÉ. I just give them my name to use on their stationery."
Roberts admits he was "a little reluctant to join the board," which he did in October 1998, though he doesn't think he did anything unethical and "certainlyÉnothing secretive." He says he felt it was his duty to join because it would be good for the city and he could help. But the Tribune didn't reveal Roberts' involvement in the board until late March.
Tribune Publisher Ashe says there's nothing out of the ordinary happening here: "I think our editorial page is doing just what an editorial page should, and I find it remarkable that anyone would find that surprising."
After Huettel's story ran in the Times, Ashe circulated a memo supporting Roberts. In it, he said that the editorial page staff, because of its independence from the newsroom, is free "to pursue a separate mission, which includesÉthe active promotion of causes for the benefit of the community." Ashe says the Forrestal project falls within those limits and says Tribune policy will, "where appropriate," back up editorial efforts with donations and "volunteer effort of members of [its] staff."
The tricky area for those at the Tribune came when Roberts organized a meeting between two Port Authority Board members, including the mayor, which may have violated the state's open meetings laws. The Florida statute makes it illegal for two or more members of the same board to meet and discuss business that could come before their board at a later date without first announcing the meeting and making it open to the public, as well as taking minutes of the interaction. Roberts says he was just trying to pull together a lunch and didn't think about the connection at the time between Mayor Dick Greco and now-retired Port Authority Commissioner Joseph Garcia.
Ashe expressed regret over this in his memo, calling the law "an important protection against governmental misconduct" and something the Tribune supports fully. Roberts admits mistakes were made, though he adds the blame should be assigned not to him, but to the officials to whom the law applies. He also told Huettel during an interview that "the Sunshine Law is overdrawn," a statement that made many at the Tribune uneasy, including Ray Locker, senior editor for news.
"We wished that hadn't happened," Locker says, adding that some in the newsroom found it embarrassing.
Jay Black, a professor of media ethics at the University of South Florida and chairman of the Florida chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists' ethics committee, views the paper's crusade as an ethical breach. SPJ's conflict-of-interest guidelines don't differ much when applied to the editorial page, says Black: "One should be advocating on the basis of solid, substantial data, presented objectively." Editors "should still be reporters," he adds, but they're "allowed to take the next step," which is to draw conclusions.
Roberts has strayed from this preferred path, Black says. His was a "crusade based on agenda, and not just limited to the editorial page." He adds that newspapers should be "the monitor, not the cheerleader."
Deni Elliott, director of the Practical Ethics Center at the University of Montana, uses the term "undue influence" to refer to instances when a journalist's involvement in a cause goes beyond what appears in publication. "Any time a decision-maker for the news media is involved in a public issue, there isÉa subtle threat attached," Elliott says. Even if that journalist would never abuse his or her role, she adds, "everyone else associated with the cause perceives a threat and/or a promise, depending on what side of the issue you're on."
Roberts, a Pulitzer Prize winner, says he didn't feel he "needed a lecture in journalistic hygiene" after 42 years of writing opinions. "I just don't see an ethical problem if I tell everyone what I'm doing."
"Holy crow," he says. "I was just trying to bring an aircraft carrier to Tampa."