By: Joe Strupp
The perils of friendship
Gore-y details of early career end up in campaign video
Nashville Tennessean editor Frank Sutherland’s decision to appear in an Al Gore campaign video on the vice president’s career drew criticism from a number of journalism veterans, prompting Sutherland to offer an apologetic column on the subject.
“It seems like the facts are harmless, but the perception is the issue,” says George Harmon, a professor at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. “The difficulty is that his image is there in the video.”
Wendy Myers, president of the Society of Professional Journalists, agrees. “I’m sure his intentions were good,” she says. “But there is a difference between talking to someone for a news article and campaign propaganda, [and] this crosses that line.”
In an Aug. 5 column printed on The Tennessean’s editorial pages, Sutherland ? a longtime Gore friend ? attempted to explain what happened, admitting that he used poor judgment but defending his journalistic integrity.
“Clearly, giving an interview to the Gore campaign was a mistake,” Sutherland writes in the column. “I should have asked more questions about its use, and, in retrospect, I should not have given the interview.”
Tennessean publisher Craig Moon, who has been at the newspaper since 1991, did not return calls seeking comment. The 200,000-daily-circulation paper is owned by Gannett Co. Inc.
Philip R. Currie, senior vice president of news for Gannett’s newspaper division, says Sutherland’s ability as an editor has never been in doubt, but this action should be questioned.
“I think it is an honest mistake that, if he had to do again, he shouldn’t, and he has said that,” Currie says.
The 10-minute video, shot last spring, is part of a campaign information package sent to supporters and fund-raisers but has not been included in any TV ads, according to campaign officials. Sutherland, who was not paid for his participation, says he asked the Gore campaign to stop distributing the video, but campaign officials have refused.
“We didn’t ask anyone to do anything they didn’t want to do,” says campaign spokesman Roger Salazar.. He says more than 15,000 copies of the video have been distributed to campaign supporters and fund-raisers.
Sutherland has worked at The Tennessean since 1963, serving as editor since 1989. Between 1970 and 1976, Gore also worked at the paper, serving as a reporter and editorial writer.
Sutherland says the two men cultivated a friendship during their years together in the newsroom, which he says has endured to this day. He says he has never let their relationship affect newspaper coverage.
“We have hung out together, our wives are good friends, and we were at each other’s weddings,” Sutherland says. “It has been that kind of friendship.”
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(copyright: Editor & Publisher August 14, 1999) [Caption]