By: JOE STRUPP
‘The Philadelphia Story’
A case of control vs. fairness at the Daily News
When a city official’s statement of protest appeared on the same page of The Philadelphia Daily News as an earlier story that criticized her, more than a few eyebrows were raised among journalists.
Although some editors contend that giving the subject of a critical piece a place to respond is not unusual, others say allowing the offended party to dictate terms of a rebuttal ? including placement on a news page instead of on an Op-Ed page ? sets a dangerous precedent for settlement of future disagreements.
“That is very unusual, and to give news space is very different,” says Gina Lubrano, president of the Organization of News Ombudsmen. “If someone disagrees with a story, and the story checks out, I suggest a letter to the editor. Otherwise, it sounds like a he-said, she-said.”
Daily News editor Zachary Stalberg agrees that the move was out of the norm, especially since he did not believe the original story contained any errors. But he says the newspaper wanted to avoid any appearance of unfair reporting.
“We’re willing to do unusual things, and have in the past, to maintain a good working relationship with those we cover,” Stalberg says. “Placement of the letter really mattered to her.”
The series of events began May 6 when the Daily News ran a lengthy story by reporter Paul D. Davies that criticized Philadelphia city solicitor Stephanie Franklin-Suber, an appointed official whose role is similar to a city attorney. Davies’ article accused Franklin-Suber of seeking to control information about a federal probe into a city empowerment zone committee that had been appointed to oversee $79 million in federal funds.
The story cited confidential memos to committee members from the solicitor’s office, as well as comments from the committee, city council members and Franklin-Suber herself. In the same issue of the Daily News, columnist W. Russell G. Byers wrote about the matter, calling the city’s actions “a classic in government obfuscation.”
Franklin-Suber says the article unfairly depicted her office as engaging in obstruction of justice, although it did not directly accuse her of breaking the law. She says her office called the newspaper the day the article ran and requested a meeting to discuss the issue and a possible rebuttal.
Stalberg and Franklin-Suber discussed several options, including a follow-up story or a letter to the editor on the Op-Ed page. Franklin-Suber says she sought legal advice after the story was published, but says no attorneys other than herself were involved in the meeting with Stalberg.
In the end, both sides agreed to run a letter from Franklin-Suber, in a column form with her photo, in the May 21 issue on Page 7 ? the same page where the original article appeared. Franklin-Suber says she was adamant that her response receive the same space given to the original story. “I wanted something that was not buried in the back.”
In the letter, Franklin-Suber called the Daily News coverage “factually inaccurate, patently unfair, biased, and self-serving.” With the column, the newspaper ran an editor’s note that said the newspaper stood by its coverage and disagreed with Franklin-Suber’s comments, but wanted to “make clear that neither the Davies article nor the Byers column was intended to suggest that city officials and lawyers were obstructing justice.”
Stalberg says the newspaper was not worried about legal action, but believed that Franklin-Suber deserved a chance to state her case. “After listening to her, I came away feeling like they were entitled to a good, clear shot back,” says Stalberg. “I was willing to do something a little out of the ordinary.”
Newspaper industry observers had mixed reactions when asked about the Daily News’ response in this case and its possible effect on future disputes between editors and public officials.
“They may be buying themselves more trouble down the road,” says Marcia McQuern, publisher of The Press-Enterprise in Riverside, Calif. “It looks like you’re guilty when you’re not.”
Scott Bosley, president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, says he can see why a newspaper would want to avoid legal action by giving space for a letter, but adds that such moves should only be done when something is factually inaccurate.
“You don’t do it if you firmly believe that what you printed was correct,” Bosley says.
But others, such as St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times executive editor Paul Tash, defended the Daily News, saying anything that promotes giving both sides of a story is good. “If someone’s got a beef, it’s pretty standard practice to give them room to respond,” he says. “Lawsuits take a very heavy toll on both sides.”
Karin Winner, editor of The San Diego Union-Tribune, says sometimes an unusual solution is needed. “It depends on the situation and the nature of the disagreement,” she says. “There is more willingness today by newspapers to discuss things.”