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
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
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.