by John Fox
Cincinnati Enquirer had hoped to make journalism history with its
year-long investigation of Chiquita Brands International. It now looks like
What began as an unprecedented allocation of resources and space -- with the paper's top two investigative reporters traveling to Central America and Europe to produce an 18-page special section that had "Pulitzer Prize nominee" written all over it -- has turned into an unprecedented capitulation to Chiquita that's thrown the entire media world upside-down.
The Enquirer's "abject surrender," as The New York Times calls it, is staggering. Based on assertions from Chiquita that reporter Mike Gallagher had illegally obtained internal Chiquita voice mails, the paper has renounced the entire series. It published front-page, above-the-fold apologies to Chiquita June 28, June 30 and July 1. It fired Gallagher and placed the complete blame for the fiasco on him. And it agreed to pay Chiquita in excess of $10 million to settle potential legal claims against the paper and its parent company, Gannett Co.
as staggering are the crucial unanswered questions. How can The
Enquirer renounce the entire series of articles, many of which were based on
first-hand reporting at Costa Rican and Honduran banana plantations and had
nothing to do with the stolen voice mails? Are those stories not true
anymore? What does the $10 million figure represent? Are there other
components to the settlement such as Gannett stock and the transfer of
Gannett's part ownership in the Cincinnati Reds to Chiquita Chief Executive
Officer Carl Lindner? And how can Gallagher's superiors, including Editor
Larry Beaupre and Publisher Harry Whipple, escape responsibility for the
actions of an employee who was doing his job?
All parties directly effected by the settlement -- Enquirer and Gannett officials, Chiquita officials, Lindner, Gallagher and Enquirer staffers involved in the series -- are refusing to discuss the above questions. But many of those indirectly effected, especially Enquirer reporters and editors who must live with the shame of their paper's botched investigation and subsequent public apology, are wondering aloud about what's not being said.
"I think people (in the Enquirer newsroom) are wondering when the editor and the publisher are going to be fired as well," said an Enquirer employee whom Cincinnati CityBeat agreed not to identify.
A bunker mentality
has taken over at the paper, staffers report, reinforced
by a lack of communication from the top. Whipple issued a memo to employees
on June 28 that basically was a rewrite of that day's front-page story about
the settlement and included a one-page Q&A on the subject. On the memo's
cover note, he wrote, "As you read and hear about this story in the days
ahead, you will see that we are taking a very public and straight-forward
approach to this issue."
At a staff meeting on June 29, employees peppered management with questions, only to be told to read the published apology for answers.
"I think the staff wants to know what's going on," the Enquirer employee told CityBeat. "When we ask for answers, we're told to shut up."
Likewise, Enquirer officials are tight-lipped with outside inquiries. Although Beaupre stopped short of issuing a gag order inside the paper, he sent out two pleas via employee computers on June 29 for employees not to talk about the incident with outside media. According to the unnamed Enquirer employee, the tone of the messages was, "Please, please do not speak with them. It could hurt us."
Reached by CityBeat, Beaupre declined to answer questions and referred all inquiries to Whipple. Whipple declined to answer CityBeat's questions, saying, "The apology and the accompanying story we ran on Sunday and the apology we ran on Tuesday and Wednesday comprise my statement."
On June 30, Gannett issued a statement that said, in part, "It now appears that the experienced and trusted lead reporter on the (Chiquita) stories obtained voice mail messages of company officials in an unethical and unlawful manner. Before publication, he had told his editors that the voice mail messages used in the stories had been provided by a high-ranking source in the company with authority over the voice mail system. The Enquirer now believes those representations are untrue. Gannett does not support such reporting techniques, and we agree with The Enquirer's decision to dismiss the reporter."
Mimi Feller, Gannett's senior vice president of public affairs, declined to answer follow-up questions. Chiquita President Steven Warshaw, Patrick Hanley (Gallagher's attorney) and Perry Ancona (appointed as special prosecutor to pursue possible criminal charges in the voice mail theft) did not return calls from CityBeat for comment.
In other words, no one who knows anything is talking. All that's left is to consider the volume of unanswered questions and to speculate on what looks to be a cover-up of what really happened during The Enquirer's year-long, globe-trotting investigation.
A few things, however, are certain. One experienced reporter, Mike Gallagher, is possibly facing criminal charges, a trial and prison time. Another experienced reporter, Cameron McWhirter -- Gallagher's partner who has not been implicated in the voice mail theft -- has had a year's worth of hard work wiped away and his reputation tarnished.
And the most powerful businessman in Cincinnati, Carl Lindner -- who once owned The Enquirer -- has tightened his grip on power by bringing the city's newspaper of record to its knees in humiliating fashion.
The first questions on Whipple's June 28 Q&A memo to Enquirer employees were the first questions on everyone's lips: "Where were the editors? How could this happen?"
"We took normal and even extraordinary measures to scrutinize these stories," Whipple wrote under the heading "Answer." "Plain and simple, the reporter lied to us. He lied to us repeatedly over a period of nearly a year. His deception was massive."
Another question the memo posed was, "Why did you trust Gallagher?"
"He had a record of investigative reporting," Whipple wrote. "His facts had always withstood scrutiny. He was trusted. He completely betrayed that trust. There is little one can do in the face of someone who is determined to deceive you, except to take the appropriate actions when that deception is uncovered."
Taken together with the official apology, which states that "the facts now indicate that an Enquirer employee was involved in the theft of this (voice mail) information in violation of the law," it's clear that Whipple is placing sole blame for the paper's apology and retraction of the series on Gallagher. No other Enquirer reporter or editor has been disciplined or fired, although Whipple writes that "an investigation is continuing."
mind-boggling to believe that no one who worked with or oversaw
Gallagher's stories over the course of a year -- local news editor David
Wells, who directs the paper's investigative team; McWhirter; Beaupre; the
paper's slew of copy editors; and The Enquirer's lawyers, who surely
reviewed the series before publication -- thought to confirm the anonymous
Chiquita source who reportedly provided Gallagher with 2,000 internal
company voice mails. As a matter of fact, it's supposed to be Enquirer
policy that editors must approve any use of anonymous sources by reporters.
In a draft document called Cincinnati Enquirer Professional Standards, which Beaupre prepared in 1994 for use at the paper, two points address the issue of anonymous sources: "Unless logistics make it impractical, reporters should not promise anonymity without first consulting with their editors;" and "Stories containing unnamed sources may not be published without the approval of the editor or a managing editor."
Given that Beaupre and Gallagher go way back -- they worked together at Gannett Suburban Newspapers in Westchester, N.Y., and Beaupre brought in Gallagher to be The Enquirer's star investigative reporter -- it's not difficult to believe that the editor gave the reporter a wide berth to gather confidential Chiquita information.
At some point in the process, however, someone in Enquirer management had to have confirmed the identity of Gallagher's Chiquita mole, on whose anonymous shoulders rode the fate of an 18-page investigation of a company owned by Cincinnati's most powerful businessman -- Washington Post Editor Ben Bradlee supposedly knew the identity of Woodward and Bernstein's "Deep Throat." Bob Steele, director of the ethics program at The Poynter Institute, a Florida-based journalism study organization, told the Associated Press he wonders how The Enquirer's editors could have allowed the problems to occur.
"My question is, where were the editors back in April and early May, in the weeks and days before this story was published?" Steele said in an AP story filed from Cincinnati. "Good editors will ask hard questions about reporting techniques."
So which is it: Does The Enquirer have bad editors who don't confirm anonymous sources, or has Enquirer management made Gallagher the scapegoat for a newsroom-wide breakdown in journalistic ethics and policies?
Other questions remain as well. Did the settlement among The Enquirer, Gannett and Chiquita contain a provision that Whipple, Beaupre and other Enquirer management get to keep their jobs? Why is Gallagher staying silent when his name has been dragged through the mud in front-page apologies? When he does talk -- possibly before a Hamilton County grand jury -- will he implicate his editors and others in the alleged theft of Chiquita voice mails?
More than the official apology and monetary settlement, it seems that the central component of Chiquita's agreement with The Enquirer was that the paper had to repudiate the entire series. Every word. Everywhere.
And the paper has.
"The Enquirer has now become convinced that the (series') representations, accusations and conclusions are untrue and created a false and misleading impression of Chiquita's business practices," the official apology said. "We have withdrawn the articles from continued display on the Enquirer's Internet web site and renounce the series of articles."
In other words, never mind. Never mind a year's worth of reporting about Chiquita's allegedly unsavory business practices in Central America. Never mind about allegedly unsafe working conditions on Chiquita banana plantations. Never mind that the Colombian government has launched an investigation into Chiquita employees' alleged bribes of customs agents in that country. And never mind that Catholic Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, who visited Chiquita farms in Honduras, called the company "an evil institution for exploiting the poor."
All of the above allegations were contained in The Enquirer's May 3 special section or additional stories published over the following two weeks. None, except for the long stories on Chiquita's overall business practices, relied on internal voice mails for their facts. Yet all have been renounced by Enquirer management.
"Workers sprayed in the fields," a May 3 story with a dateline of Cocobola Farm, northeastern Costa Rica, contained this passage: "As two Enquirer reporters witnessed, on recently sprayed farms the air is heavy with a stifling chemical stench. Breathing is difficult and the pesticide residue covers everything." Are we now to believe this scene never happened and that Chiquita doesn't spray pesticides on its farm workers?
Another May 3 story, "Villagers fear brutal guards," carrying a dateline of San Alejo Plantation, Honduras, featured an interview with a young man who'd been shot by plantation security guards working for a Chiquita subsidiary company: "Lisandro Juarez, 15, showed the Enquirer the huge scars where the bullet entered and exited his back, passing just an inch from his spine."
How can this exchange be renounced by Enquirer management? Should we tell Juarez that his scar doesn't really exist now?
Besides removing the series from the paper's Web site, The Enquirer has also removed any trace of it from its Web archives. A casual look through various search engines such as Yahoo! and Excite turned up numerous references to the paper's Web version of the Chiquita series, but every time a link to the series' individual articles was clicked on, only The Enquirer's official apology appeared.
About the only place you can still find the original version of the May 3 special section is on Lexus/Nexus (for a fee) and at the public library (on microfilm). And The Enquirer might have the ability to remove the series from those locations, too.
Chiquita officials couldn't be more pleased.
"You can imagine first and foremost for us is that a recognized publication has stated categorically that the result of the reporting was inaccurate and untrue," company president Warshaw told The New York Times. "That is the most important thing for us."
The front-page story accompanying The Enquirer's June 28 apology spelled out the terms of the capitulation to Chiquita, including "a payment in excess of $10 million in exchange for settlement of claims against it by Chiquita."
Legal and journalism experts reacted with amazement that a newspaper would pay a settlement before the injured party even filed a lawsuit. But with Food Lion's jury trial win over ABC/Capital Cities under a similar scenario -- the issue wasn't whether the stories were true but whether the reporters used illegal means to get the stories -- perhaps Enquirer and Gannett officials had good reason to cut a deal.
No details have been released concerning Gallagher's alleged theft of internal Chiquita voice mails. An anonymous high-ranking Chiquita official told The New York Times that the company's voice mail system records the keystrokes of anyone using a voice mailbox and had recorded "an intruder going from one executive's voice mailbox to another."
The "smoking gun" that identified Gallagher as that intruder, sources say, might have been telephone records showing calls to Chiquita from a number that incriminated Gallagher. Whatever the evidence, it must have been irrefutable or The Enquirer would never have agreed to Chiquita's severe terms. Rumors abound about the cash payment, with some sources claiming that the actual settlement is in the neighborhood of $40 million to $50 million. The additional value, they say, could be in the form of Gannett stock.
If true, it would be an ironic return to Gannett for Lindner, who was Gannett's second largest shareholder 20 years ago, when he supposedly had visions of taking over the company.
Lindner owned The Enquirer from 1971 to 1975, when he sold majority ownership of it to Combined Communications, which merged with Gannett in 1979. After the merger, Lindner controlled 4 percent of Gannett's outstanding public shares, making him the company's second largest shareholder.
Al Neuharth, one-time Gannett CEO and founder of USA Today, recalled in his autobiography Confessions of an S.O.B. that Lindner tried to take over Gannett because he'd always wanted to give one of his sons a media company to run. After the takeover bid failed, Lindner sold his shares in Gannett.
Could Lindner be interested in reacquiring a stake in Gannett? It's not out of the question.
Nor is it out of the question that Lindner would be interested in acquiring Gannett's limited partnership in the Reds. By adding Gannett's 1 share to his own 1 1/2 shares, Lindner would own the second largest block of shares next to Marge Schott -- which gives him more leverage if he's interested in pursuing control over the franchise when the current partnership agreement ends in a few years.
Reached by CityBeat for comment, two of the Reds' limited partners said they had no knowledge of a possible deal between Gannett and Lindner for Gannett's ownership share.
When all is said and done, the settlement among The Enquirer, Gannett and Chiquita looks like nothing more than a complex business deal. Lost in the official mumbo-jumbo about unethical reporting, violations of company standards and possible criminal charges is a simple journalistic concept -- the truth. Who really is at fault? Are the articles true? Did Chiquita do anything wrong?
Albion Monitor July 20, 1998 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor)
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