Smart Piece Stirs Firewall Debate

By: Dave Astor

Columnist Kathleen Parker received 2,000 e-mails — 95% of them positive — after criticizing the father of Utah kidnap victim Elizabeth Smart.

But Parker also angered some Salt Lake Tribune staffers. Eight of them signed a letter asking the paper’s editorial page editor not to publish the column, setting up a situation where the wall between a newsroom and the opinion section came under debate.

Parker, of The Orlando (Fla.) Sentinel and Tribune Media Services, said in her column that Ed Smart had every right to appear before the media while his daughter was missing. But after Elizabeth was found, continued Parker, he should have moved out of the spotlight.

“This guy couldn’t stay away from the cameras,” Parker wrote. “I kept thinking, what’s he auditioning for? Phil Donahue’s empty chair? A second career as a talking head supporting the Amber Alert? Next time a child is abducted, look for Ed Smart to be warming the seat opposite Larry King.

“Smart may be a perfectly lovely guy under normal circumstances, but when he’s in front of a camera, he becomes abnormal. Unlovely. An imitative man performing as he imagines a man should act under such circumstances. How else to explain his tearless whimpering impression of a man grateful for a miracle?”

Salt Lake Tribune reporter Linda Fantin saw a faxed version of the column and was angered by what she considered an “attack on a man who had suffered enough.” She composed a short letter to Tribune Editorial Page Editor Vern Anderson, and got seven fellow staffers to sign it (several others declined). Fantin wrote in the letter that the column was “completely inappropriate for publication” in the Smarts’ hometown newspaper, and added: “After what the Smart family has gone through, they — and the community that rallied around them — should not be subjected to the ‘unlovely’ comments of a half-cocked columnist.”

Anderson said he had already decided not to run the column — which he described as “mean-spirited and in poor taste” — a day before receiving Fantin’s letter.

E&P Online asked Anderson, Parker, and others involved in the situation whether or not the letter — mostly signed by reporters, plus an executive news editor — was an overstepping of bounds.

Anderson said the eight signers were “free to do what they wanted to do” (indeed, Fantin told E&P Online she wasn’t reprimanded). He did add: “I think the letter was somewhat ill-advised. But, from my perspective, it was no different than readers calling in to say, ‘Don’t run the column.'” It was, said Anderson, eight other people offering their opinion.

Fantin said she can understand the reasons (including the perception Salt Lake Tribune reporters were trying to protect a source) why some people felt her letter wasn’t a good idea. But Fantin doesn’t regret her effort. She noted that if an editorial writer tried to advise her what to do as a reporter, “I wouldn’t be offended, but wouldn’t let it influence me.”

Peg McEntee, the executive news editor who signed the letter, said: “I was in complete agreement with Linda. I thought the column was a personal attack on Ed Smart.” She did add: “I had second thoughts about signing my name, but didn’t want to take it back. Under normal circumstances there should be a wall [between the newsroom and editorial page], but this was so egregious.”

Parker said: “Am I surprised that reporters took it upon themselves to protect a legitimate news subject? Do I think that some may have become emotionally involved with the story? Do I think that our new culture of sensitivity is manifest? I think these questions answer themselves.”

She emphasized that the Salt Lake Tribune had every right not to run her column, but defended the piece. “Everywhere I went, people were talking about Smart’s odd behavior. I merely cast a light on that phenomenon,” said Parker, noting that many of the e-mails she received contained comments such as: “Thank you so much for saying what I was thinking. I was afraid I was the only one.”

Did Parker ever receive 2,000 responses to a column before? “I think that’s the most positive e-mail I’ve ever received,” she replied. “Most people don’t take time to write in agreement.” Among the e-mailers, said Parker, were journalists writing to “express disappointment in what some are viewing as censorship.”

Nearly 300 papers run Parker, and the Salt Lake Tribune will remain one of them despite the Smart column. “She has a lot of fans in our readership,” said Anderson.

Parker did the Smart piece just before the start of the Iraq war. “I would not have written it after the fighting began,” she said. “It would have seemed frivolous and inappropriate.”

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