Terror threats bared

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By: Mark Fitzgerald

Tampa Tribune cries ‘Foul’ over St. Pete Times story
Beginning three years ago and continuing for months, executives at the Tampa (Fla.) Tribune were menaced by someone who left postcards on desks, in hallways, and in inter-office mail threatening to kill them and dozens of employees, the rival St. Petersburg Times has revealed.
In an article that ran this month on Friday the 13th, the Times extensively quotes former Tribune publisher Jack Butcher on a reign of terror that prompted his newspaper to spend upwards of $3 million on security.
Just last month, the article says, a similarly threatening postcard apparently in the same handwriting was sent to an anchor for Tampa’s WFLA-TV ? which is owned, like the Tribune, by Media General Inc.
Tribune executives refuse to discuss the threats ? but they don’t hesitate to criticize the Times for publishing the story.
“That story goes against the prevailing views in journalism on how we write about death threats, bomb threats, and the like,” says Tribune executive editor and vice president Gil Thelen.
“Gil and I discussed this, and, no, we think we would not have run the story,” adds Tribune publisher Reid Ashe.
Thelen says, based on newsroom conversations he has had, the story unsettled the Tribune’s employees. “Clearly, the company has attempted to ease employees about their security, fueled by this article,” he says.
“From what I’ve heard,” counters the Times’ managing editor for Tampa, Neville Green, “employees over there are upset that this is the first they’ve heard there was someone running around threatening mass murder.”
Green says the Times had heard rumors of the terror threats about two years ago but was never able to verify the story. It learned of the recent WFLA incident and attempted to report on what the Hillsborough County sheriff’s office had spent investigating the string of threats, he says.
“Thanks to the openness of Jack Butcher, the former publisher, we were able to see that this was a fairly massive effort, considering that the Tribune alone spent $3 million on it. With the comments from [news director] Dan Bradley and [threatened anchor] Irene Maher, we thought we had a verified, accurate story.”
The article, by Amy Herdy, describes a long and ongoing criminal investigation into the threats made by someone with an unnerving ability to penetrate the security of not only the Tribune but law enforcement as well. Former publisher Butcher is quoted as saying the letter writer interrupted one high-level security meeting inside the newspaper by calling an FBI agent present on the agent’s cell phone.
“We think we know who it is, but can’t prove it,” Butcher is quoted as saying. “The Tribune spent close to $3 million dealing with that. ? Those were direct costs. God only knows how much we spent [in indirect costs].”
Reached at his Tampa home, an apologetic Butcher declines to comment and says he regrets his remarks.
“When I gave that interview, I was not aware that there was an ongoing investigation,” he tells E&P. “I’ve been asked not to say anything more about it. I’m terribly sorry.”
The Tribune’s Ashe says police have told him the Times story had hindered their investigation.
Tampa police spokesman Steve Cole says the department wishes the story had not been published, but he is not overly critical of the newspaper. While some cases are helped by public disclosure, he adds, “This is not one of those crimes. This is also one of those things where you are concerned about copycats.” Nevertheless, Cole says, “We are not standing here on our desks with our hair on fire, if you know what I mean. We can carry on, and we can march on, and we are still going to investigate.”
(Editor & Publisher WebSite:http:www.mediainfo.com) [Caption]
(copyright: Editor & Publisher August 21, 1999) [Caption and Photo]

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