By: David Noack
Tampa/St. Pete papers fight over USS Forrestal
Editor faces rough ethical seas over ship project
For the past year, the Tampa (Fla.) Tribune has been promoting, on its editorial pages and in columns, an effort to bring the USS Forrestal to Tampa and turn it into a floating museum that would help spur downtown tourism activity.
The argument goes that while tourists fly into Tampa, they scurry east to the central-Florida attractions of Disney World or Universal Studios or saunter west to the beaches of the Gulf Coast, so if Tampa were to have the Forrestal, maybe tourists would linger a little longer in town. The aircraft carrier, which held its commission for 38 years, was officially retired by the U.S. Navy in 1993. Recently, the ship was towed from Philadelphia to Newport, R.I.
But the Tribune’s support since June 1998 has raised ethical questions about the role of Edwin Roberts Jr., its editorial page editor, who also is a member of an advisory group seeking to lure the Forrestal to Tampa. Roberts, a Pulitzer Prize winner, doesn’t deny that he backs the project. There have been 17 editorials or columns promoting the project since last summer.
Since the idea was first floated in a Roberts column, the newspaper has contributed $15,000 in advertising space and written a $1,000 check to a citizens group trying to lure the Forrestal.
Roberts denies crossing any ethical line.
“Someone came into my office and mentioned the ship was available. I wrote a column last June, and the headline was, ‘Floating a Big Idea Just for the Fun of It.’ I said that maybe we can use an aircraft carrier here if it was turned into a high-quality naval museum,” says Roberts, who sits on an advisory board of the group seeking to bring the Forrestal to Tampa.
Two media-ethics observers say that the difference between promoting the project in the paper and helping to organize the effort raises questions of independence and that the paper needs to disclose its role in keeping the project afloat.
On May 9, the St. Petersburg Times ran a lengthy story about Roberts’ role in the Forrestal effort. The story noted a July 1998 meeting attended by Roberts, Dick Greco, mayor of Tampa, and Joseph Garcia, chairman of the Tampa Port Authority. among others. Greco, as mayor, is an ex-officio member of the port authority’s governing body. The meeting may have broken the state’s stringent open-government laws.
Roberts says he did not mean to skirt the state’s open-government law.
“I didn’t think of that. I was thinking of the mayor as the mayor. We have a strict ‘Sunshine Law’ in Florida, and that was a violation, an unwitting violation,” admits Roberts. Florida’s law holds that two members of the same government body can’t get together and discuss public business.
The Times’ stories prompted Tribune publisher Reid Ashe to pen a one-page memo to the paper’s staff defending Roberts.
“I think Ed Roberts is a great editorial page editor, and this is one of his favorite projects, and I think it’s entirely appropriate for him to promote it editorially. ? I’m proud to have an editorial page editor who is positive and an activist,” says Ashe, who adds that the editorial support has not influenced news coverage and defends the in-kind advertising and monetary contributions to the project.
Steve Geimann, who chairs the ethics committee of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), says a journalist, whether a reporter or editor, can jeopardize his or her independence by joining an advisory group.
“The minute you compromise your independence by becoming a member of an advisory group or sitting on a board, this is the whole issue that gets involved with civic journalism. Where do you draw the line between legitimate participation as a citizen and your role as a working journalist? And it appears to me that the issue of independence, of not being influenced by other entities, was at play here,” says Geimann.
Bill Babcock, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Minnesota, says he has no problem with the Tribune backing the project, as long as readers know about the paper’s involvement.
“Boosterism, I don’t have a problem with. The key is that it’s done aboveboard: that there is no question what you are promoting, what you are encouraging, who indeed is backing it, whether it’s the paper or the editorial page editor, whether it’s a columnist, you have to be very clear,” says Babcock.
This isn’t the first time a newspaper has gone to bat and opened its wallet for a civic project.
Last October, for example, the Tech Museum of Innovation opened in downtown San Jose, Calif. For this project, Knight Ridder’s San Jose Mercury News contributed a little more than $1 million; the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which is separate from the newspaper and operates independently of the company, donated $1 million; and P. Anthony Ridder, chief executive officer of Knight Ridder, personally gave $148,773. Mercury News publisher Jay T. Harris is also a member of the museum’s board of directors.
Jim Finefrock, editorial page editor of the San Francisco Examiner, said: “We did not do an editorial on the Merc News’ support of the Tech Museum. I’m not much of a fan of civic journalism. I think newspaper editorial pages ought to be nonpartisan observers of the passing scene and, usually, at least, not players.”
Examiner managing editor Sharon Rosenhause says trying to gauge a newspaper’s support for a civic project is a moving target.
“I’m not sure you can quantify how much support for a civic project is too much. It depends what the editorials say. It depends how much money is given in relation to the total. But you always know when it’s too much or when a line has been crossed,” says Rosenhause.
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?(copyright: Editor & Publisher June 19, 1999) [Caption]