By: David Noack
Sentencings may bring Enquirer saga to a close
The saga of a former reporter for The Cincinnati Enquirer who illegally accessed voice-mail messages of the world’s largest banana company and sparked a journalistic firestorm over ethics by naming confidential sources may finally be coming to a close.
The July 16 sentencing date of Michael Gallagher could be the last chapter in a case that started in May 1998 when the Enquirer published an 18-page special section detailing alleged wrongdoing by Chiquita Brands International Inc.
Gallagher pleaded guilty in September 1998 to two felony charges of illegally gaining access to Chiquita’s voice-mail system. He could be put on probation or get a prison term of up to 21/2 years
The beginning of the end comes as George G. Ventura, 38, an ex-lawyer for Chiquita, also accused of stealing voice-mail messages from the company, pleaded no contest June 30 to reduced charges and was found guilty on four misdemeanor counts and received two years probation and 40 hours of community service.
Gallagher, in a previous court appearance, named Ventura as his confidential source for the May 1998 coverage.
In a prepared statement, Ventura says he was promised anonymity as a source for the Enquirer, but was betrayed when his identity was revealed. He blames the Enquirer and its parent, Gannett Co. Inc., for that betrayal, says his lawyer, Marc Mezibov.
“Neither The Cincinnati Enquirer nor Gannett [has] revealed any confidential sources,” asserts Harry Whipple, the Enquirer’s president and publisher.
Daniel Breyer, the special prosecutor handling the case, told The Associated Press it’s unlikely there will be any more prosecutions.
Breyer, who took over the case from former special prosecutor Perry Ancona, says he will abide by Ancona’s decision that charges will not be brought against anyone other than Ventura and Gallagher.
The Enquirer paid more than $10 million to Chiquita to avoid a lawsuit and ran a front-page apology for three consecutive days. The newspaper also fired Gallagher last year for his role in stealing the voice-mail messages of Chiquita officials.
Paul Husselbee, an assistant professor of journalism at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas, says Gallagher’s actions helped set back efforts to improve the credibility of reporters with readers.
“I think journalists have made significant progress in learning principles of ethics and applying them to news-gathering and reporting. However, when a journalist decides to take shortcuts, as Michael Gallagher did, the negative publicity undoes a lot of the good that has been done,” says Husslebee.
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