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Press Clips: The Year of Living Disingenuously

A year after the 'Enquirer'/Chiquita fiasco, the national media remains fascinated with the ongoing secrecy, the human toll and a turncoat reporter

By John Fox · May 27th, 1999 · Press Clips
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  A sampling of recent national media coverage: American Journalism Review (top) and The Freedom Forum's lessons for journalists (featuring Michael Gallagher, far left).
A sampling of recent national media coverage: American Journalism Review (top) and The Freedom Forum's lessons for journalists (featuring Michael Gallagher, far left).



Hard to believe it's been a year since The Cincinnati Enquirer published its 18-page investigation of Chiquita Brands International. It's even harder to believe that, a year later, the story behind the paper's subsequent apology to and settlement with Chiquita still is so puzzling.A secret agreement between Chiquita and The Enquirer's owner, Gannett Co., combined with the criminal cases against former reporter Michael Gallagher and former Chiquita legal counsel George Ventura have bottled up official comment by those involved. Instead, media pundits (including this column) have been left to speculate on what happened, why it happened and what it all means.

Well, a new round of national coverage of the Chiquita/Enquirer debacle is upon us in the wake of recent motions filed by Ventura's lawyer, Cincinnatian Marc Mezibov. Some of the coverage is from general interest media (The New York Times, National Public Radio, The Village Voice), while several major stories appeared in specialty publications in journalism (American Journalism Review, Editor & Publisher, PBS' Media Matters) and law (The American Lawyer).

Regarding the recent coverage, three themes emerge: The story of Gallagher, Ventura, The Enquirer, Chiquita, et al. is much bigger on the national level than it is in Cincinnati, for some reason; everyone involved in these sordid events comes across as losing, with the possible exception of Chiquita and its CEO, Carl Lindner; and Gallagher's naming Ventura as his alleged source for the internal Chiquita voice mails that started this whole mess has destroyed any sympathy fellow journalists might have had for Gallagher after he was fired and hung out to dry by The Enquirer.

Here's a roundup of the national media's current talking points:

Gallagher is a bad man. For journalists, there's no getting around Gallagher's one-two punch of breaking the law to obtain the Chiquita voice mails and ratting on a source to whom he promised anonymity.

As part of the plea bargain he signed last fall with Hamilton County's special prosecutor, Gallagher agreed to provide details on all sources -- including anonymous ones -- he used in the Chiquita investigation. In return, Gallagher was allowed to plead guilty to two wiretapping felonies.

(His sentencing on the felonies has been put off yet again, coinciding with the delay to July of Ventura's trial. Gallagher, obviously, will not be sentenced until prosecutors are happy with his testimony against Ventura.)

Appearing in court last month in relation to one of Mezibov's motions, Gallagher was asked under oath if Ventura was the source that provided the passwords to Chiquita's voice mail system. Gallagher said he was.

Journalism advocates were up in arms.

"Protecting a confidential source is one of journalism's sacred duties," wrote Rem Rieder, American Journalism Review (AJR) editor, in the magazine's May issue. "In the pantheon of journalism sins, burning a source ranks near the top. It cuts to the very essence of what reporters do. Because in the final analysis, their word is all they have."

The New York Times, in an April 7 editorial titled "Banana Journalism," said Gallagher's attempt to save himself from serious prison time had betrayed one of journalism's "sacred bonds." "Mr. Gallagher certainly has every right to mount a vigorous defense, but his decision to disclose sources betrays the most basic code of what is undoubtedly now his former profession," the editorial said. "The contract between a source and a journalist is one of the sacred bonds, and many a reporter has promised to go to jail to protect such an agreement."

Gallagher set journalism back for the rest of us. AJR's Rieder cut to the chase on the long-term effect of Gallagher's outing Ventura -- journalists will find it more difficult to be trusted by potential sources.

"It makes it just that much harder to get someone to blow the whistle on wrongdoing," Rieder wrote in the May issue. "And it reinforces the all-too-common view these days that journalists are simply out for themselves, that it's about career advancement, not public service."

The Freedom Forum saw the danger in letting this attitude fester in the public and has tried to right the ship. It recently published a 24-page booklet, Media Mistakes of '98, to teach editors lessons from four media embarrassments last year -- CNN's stories about the U.S. military using nerve gas in the Vietnam War (later retracted); Stephen Glass' fabricated stories in The New Republic (he was fired); Boston Globe columnists Patricia Smith and Mike Barnicle, who admitted to fabricating people and situations (both were fired); and The Enquirer's Chiquita fiasco.

A non-profit foundation dedicated to media issues -- and established, ironically, by former Gannett CEO Al Neuharth as successor to the Gannett Foundation -- The Freedom Forum offered a list of recommendations for writers and editors to follow to avoid repeating the mistakes of 1998. Several could have described internal scenarios that led to The Enquirer's botched Chiquita series: editors and reporters must trust each other; reporters must confirm for editors that their sources can "speak with authority" on the story's topic; reporters' tendency to "fall in love" with a story means editors must be objective and skeptical; the pressure to compete and build audiences should not encourage editors to "take risks and lower standards;" and news organizations must commit to "full disclosure and candid acknowledgment of the problem" when major mistakes become a public issue.

Gallagher wanted to right a wrong but perhaps went too far. Two national stories spent time dealing with the human toll of the paper's failed investigative work -- including the human side of Gallagher.

Alicia C. Shepard, who last fall wrote a cover story on the Enquirer/Chiquita situation for American Journalism Review, wrote an update for the May AJR in which she recounted some of the letters sent to the court to appeal for leniency in Gallagher's sentencing. Several of Gallagher's sisters and his mother wrote that he had always been a defender of the rights of "others less fortunate than himself."

"When he saw firsthand (during reporting trips to Central America) the suffering of the people he perceived to be victims of Chiquita," the article quotes one of the family's letters, "he became emotionally involved, incensed and believed that he needed to do what he could to right what he saw as a grievous wrong."

Two of Gallagher's former colleagues at The Enquirer, interviewed on the PBS series Media Matters on May 4, described the reporter as a brilliant investigative mind who brought a lot of energy to the paper with the Chiquita story and other work. When Leah Beth Ward and Mark Braykovich talked about the buzz around the newsroom about the Chiquita investigation, you could see in their eyes the pride that comes from working for a kick-ass journalism organization.

And their sadness regarding Gallagher's law-breaking actions was real and touching.

"(Gallagher) reminds me of a tough Irish cop," said Ward, who now works at The Charlotte Observer. "He was a man of very few words. But you sensed the zeal, because he was coiled."

Braykovich, who now works at the Akron Beacon-Journal, remembered that, even as the world was falling in around Gallagher after Chiquita confronted The Enquirer over the voice mail break-in, Gallagher thought the end, the story, had justified the means. "He essentially realized he had broken the law," Braykovich said, "but he felt like he could explain it."

But, in the end, said Ward, Gallagher couldn't explain it. "He compromised just about everything you can compromise in this business."

Ventura wanted to right a wrong but perhaps went too far. "Gallagher and Ventura had never seen each other before they arrived in a Cincinnati courtroom on April 5," wrote Susan Orenstein in The American Lawyer's May cover story, "Bitter Harvest." But it seemed the two -- the only people indicted in Hamilton County's $500,000-plus criminal investigation of the voice mail break-in -- had a lot in common.

Orenstein's long interview with Ventura made it clear that he, like Gallagher, believed Chiquita's business practices deserved to be brought to the public's attention. Like Gallagher, he allegedly went to extreme measures to get proof of wrongdoing. And, like Gallagher, he perhaps stepped over the boundary between whistleblowing and lawbreaking.

"He never wanted anyone to know his name," the article said of Ventura, who broke into tears several times during the interview. "He was, in journalistic parlance, a confidential source. But things went wrong. Terribly wrong."

The American Lawyer piece went into detail about Ventura's years working for Chiquita in Ecuador and Honduras and why he quit the company in 1996. It brought up the dispute Ventura had with Chiquita over certain contractual items, which led to Ventura and the company settling out of court after he'd threatened to sue them for $1.5 million. And it explained the additional problems facing Ventura, who, even if he beats the county charges against him, faces scrutiny by a state bar panel for breaking lawyer-client confidentiality by blowing the whistle on his ex-employer.

"I'm living someone else's life ...," Ventura said in the article when asked what it's like for the lawyer to now be a defendant. "At some point, I will wake up from this bad dream."

Gallagher's superiors at The Enquirer should have taken more responsibility for the voice mail mess. PBS' Media Matters explored the tricky issue of why Gallagher was the only Enquirer or Gannett person indicted or even fired as a result of the Chiquita fiasco. It's clear that, like Enquirer staffers themselves (see Press Clips, issue of July 2, 1998), some national media experts wonder why Gallagher's superiors ultimately weren't held responsible for the reporter's actions.

Brant Houston, executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors, said he was shocked to learn that then-Editor Lawrence Beaupre knew Gallagher had broken into Chiquita's voice mail system six months before the series ran but allowed the investigation to continue. "It wouldn't be, 'Don't do that again,' most of the editors I've known and worked with," Houston said. "It would be, 'This project may be dead. At a minimum, you're off (the project).' ... I grew up in a society where the buck stopped higher, and it was usually that guy who took part of the hit for the people under him."

But Braykovich, who worked with both Gallagher and Beaupre -- who, after all, had had a long working relationship themselves -- told Media Matters the editor was not to blame in this case.

"What was (Beaupre) supposed to do? ...," he said. "Aren't you supposed to ultimately have trust in the people you hire, especially investigative reporters?"

True, The Freedom Forum's Media Mistakes booklet advised, but a newspaper's top management has a more important responsibility to its staff and to its readership.

"The top editor needs to be responsible for every single piece of copy that goes into this paper," said Ken Bunting, managing editor of The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, in an interview with The Freedom Forum. "When we screw up, I'm not going to send a sacrificial lamb (alone). ... The contract we have with our readers is for the (newspaper) as an institution, and if any of us lets them down or lies to them, we all have the responsibility to fix it so that never happens again."

Conrad Fink, professor of journalism at the University of Georgia, put it more bluntly in Media Mistakes: "Anybody who ducks responsibility in any of these incidents is just shirking responsibility."

Others involved in the stories have suffered, too. It's clear from the American Journalism Review article, however, that Beaupre felt he had done everything he could have to assure the credibility of Gallagher's work. In his first extended interview on the subject of Chiquita since he left The Enquirer for a corporate job at Gannett's headquarters, Beaupre was alternately bitter and reflective about his downfall here.

"Haven't I paid a price?," Beaupre asked in the interview. "There were two names on that apology for three days (Beaupre and Publisher Harry Whipple). ... I'd like to know what editor has had a greater humiliation than I have. I don't think anybody is more depressed about the outcome of Chiquita than I. But I also believe I shouldered my responsibility. I don't know how anybody could say Larry Beaupre got off scot-free. I think I've paid a huge price."

Cameron McWhirter, Gallagher's partner on the series who spent a year traveling to Central America, Europe and elsewhere to investigate Chiquita's operations, told AJR that he, too, paid a price for Gallagher's misdeeds.

"I have never been more careful or thorough on a project in my whole life, and I was very proud of it," said McWhirter, who left The Enquirer in January to work for Gannett's Detroit News. "Mike Gallagher robbed me of that. ... The guy sold us all out."

Gannett made a business deal to renounce the stories. A year after The Enquirer announced its settlement with Chiquita -- the front-page apologies, the $10 million-plus payment, removal of the series from the paper's Web site -- we still don't know what went through the minds of Gannett executives when they signed off on the deal. Did Chiquita have such evidence of wrongdoing that the entire company was at risk? Was it worth renouncing the series -- much of which had nothing to do with the stolen voice mails -- to avoid losing hundreds of millions of dollars in a libel suit?

A lawyer experienced in First Amendment cases shed some light in PBS' Media Matters about what could have been going on at Gannett's Arlington, Va., headquarters.

"They were looking at possible criminal investigations, not just of their reporter but perhaps of other executives as well," said Bruce Sanford, legal counsel for the Society of Professional Journalists. "And that's a scary thought, having to do a perp walk into the Grand Jury in front of television cameras. ... (Gannett) made a business judgment that the best way out of this was not to fight it for 5 or 6 or 7 years but to just take their lumps and get it over with. I think what was lost was the truth."

Perhaps another thing lost was the appearance that Gannett is in the newspaper business for any reason other than the bottom line.

Shepard's American Journalism Review story, "The Chiquita Aftermath," opens and closes with a profile of new Enquirer Editor Ward Bushee and his attempts to "repair the damage" at the paper. Bushee, who had been editor at Gannett's Reno (Nev.) Gazette-Journal, called his move to Cincinnati " an opportunity (I never thought) would come up for me."

In announcing his appointment at The Enquirer, Gannett officials and Bushee's former publisher pointed to Bushee's exception community work in Reno as an example of what Gannett editors should do (see Press Clips, issue of Jan. 28). But what are we to believe -- that Gannett simply wants to be a good corporate citizen in each of its markets, or that the company wants to suck as much profit as possible out of those markets? That Gannett employees "are giving their lives to the newspaper and to the community," as Bushee described his Enquirer staffers in AJR, or that the company will sell out a year-long investigative project to cut its corporate losses?

Chiquita got off easy. The Village Voice, in its May issue, mused about how Chiquita is faring in light of the Gallagher plea bargain and the Ventura indictment. "The bananamen must be delighted," media critic Cynthia Cotts concluded.

By pitting Gallagher and Ventura against each other "scorpion-style," the Voice columnist said, prosecutors have distracted the media from The Enquirer's original series and its charges against Chiquita.

"In early April, when Gallagher named Ventura in open court," Cotts wrote, "it was virtually guaranteed that the source would begin painting the reporter as the bad guy. ... (But) while Chiquita has always been the creator of banana republics, Mike Gallagher was not always a rat."

Cotts called Thomas Yannucci, who works for the Washington, D.C. law firm that brokered Chiquita's deal with The Enquirer, "the luckiest guy in this drama" for "using his success at silencing The Cincinnati Enquirer to drum up speaking engagements."

Meanwhile, another lawyer, George Ventura, faces jail time and, at the least, disbarment. In his interview in The American Lawyer, he wondered if his effort to expose Chiquita's alleged wrongdoing was worth it.

"Assuming what they say is true," Ventura said, "how bad a person am I? I would be a person who tried to bring to light behavior that shocks the conscience. ... (R)ecall that no one has appeared ever to disprove the truth of those stories."

Next Week: Hey, what about the truth?

 
 
 
 

 

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