Guild charges Post with 'breach of ethics'

by Roy Malone

     The St. Louis Newspaper Guild has accused the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and its former editor, Ellen Soeteber, of a "breach of ethics" for disciplining investigative reporter Carolyn Tuft when the Post was threatened with a lawsuit last year by Joyce Meyer Ministries.

     The accusation came in a recent Guild bulletin, shortly before an arbitration hearing was scheduled in late August on a grievance by Tuft. She is appealing her two-day suspension and publication of an "apology" last year for alleged errors in her reporting on the finances of the ministry.

     A letter of protest signed by 124 of Tuft's colleagues defended her and called the discipline over alleged errors "unwarranted." It was a rebuke of Soeteber and her then-managing editor Arnie Robbins, for bowing to pressure from the ministry rather than supporting their own reporter.

     The letter from staffers, including a plea for re-examination of the issue, was ignored by Soeteber, Robbins and then-publisher Terry Egger. Tuft was told she would be fired if there were any more "problems." Tuft's hard-hitting stories about Meyer, her $900,000 salary, benefits for family members and avoidance of property taxes were stopped. One of Tuft's alleged errors was calling Meyer's salary "hefty," though Tuft's editor and a lawyer for the newspaper had approved it.

     Fourteen months after publishing the apology, the Post still insisted on a gag order over adjudication of the grievance. Tuft and Guild lawyers had trouble getting correspondence between lawyers for the paper and the ministry. In those letters, it appears the ministry essentially wrote the correction, or apology, as it was labeled. The ministry's lawyer threatened to sue the paper if it was not printed in toto.

     The letters are between Thomas J. Winters, of Tulsa, Okla., a lawyer for the ministry, and Joseph Martineau, lawyer for the Post. It's not unusual for lawyers to threaten a newspaper with a suit as a way of getting a correction, clarification, retraction or something of benefit for their client. Often, lawyers for both sides try to reach an agreement on how a correction should be worded.

     Shannon Duffy, business manager for the Guild, wrote that the exchange of letters "makes it apparent that the paper's apology was a negotiated settlement to escape litigation…..the arbitration hearing will provide a record of that negotiation as well as the unconscionable breach of ethics by Soeteber and the Post-Dispatch."

     Tuft said she stands behind her reporting, and there were no errors to apologize for. The ministry had taken out a full-page ad critical of earlier stories about it in the Post before demanding that the long correction be printed.

     It was known to most staffers that Soeteber had a phobia about lawsuits. She has denied she acted against Tuft because a lawsuit was threatened.

     "Our policy is to correct any error of fact we are aware of….we owe it to our readers and to history that our reporting be as accurate as possible," she said following the printed apology on June 19, 2005.

     Duffy said attempts to settle the matter during the last 14 months have been unsuccessful. The Guild's national office has supplied a lawyer and arbitration specialist for the grievance. The Post is using King and Ballow, of Nashville, Tenn., an anti-union law firm that it and other papers use for contract negotiations. Neither Soeteber nor Egger was subpoenaed for the arbitration hearing. Both have resigned since Lee Enterprises bought the Post and other Pulitzer Inc. properties last year.

     "I want the record to be corrected, to correct the apology," Tuft told SJR. "That includes any reference to unfair or unprofessional reporting and have nothing in my file."

     She said she is less interested in the two days of pay she lost. "The company sold me out. They buckled under pressure. My career was tarnished," Tuft said. She has considered a lawsuit, but said, "I'll see how the arbitration goes."

     Roy Malone, a long-time reporter, is retired from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.