Editing a magazine for Sarasota, Florida, offers many opportunities, but covering major national figures isn’t usually one of them. So when Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, who lives in Sarasota and launched her political career by lobbying for the Ringling Museum, decided to run for Congress, we scheduled a story for the summer issue.
An internationally known politician who is loved and loathed with equal fervor, Harris has raised more money for this election than almost any other candidate in any other race in the country. Newsmakers like this don’t often emerge in our own backyard, especially newsmakers who come out of the milieu we specialize in covering-Sarasota society and the arts. Of course we’d do a story about Harris, and of course we’d put her on our cover. And of course we expected that the story, which was written by Susan Burns, who has won regional and national awards for her searching, scrupulous reporting, would never satisfy Harris’ most fervent fans or enemies, no matter how fair and balanced we thought it was.
And sure enough, we received a rush of calls, letters and e-mails objecting to our coverage. Many asserted that by featuring Harris, we were endorsing her. (I was taken aback when I asked them how they could have drawn that conclusion from the story, which included comments from critics as well of supporters of Harris. They hadn’t read the story, most unblinkingly assured me, nor did they intend to, since the cover, showing Harris looking relaxed and radiant, had made our intentions perfectly clear.) I had just finished replying to an angry e-mail when I heard that the Sarasota Herald-Tribune was having a Katherine Harris crisis of much larger proportions.
The paper had run a front-page Sunday piece about Harris the same week our story came out, and they were getting the same kind of letters and e-mails we were-some from the very same people. In answering one of those e-mails, managing editor Rosemary Armao noted that she did not intend to vote for Harris and explained why. Her comments were posted on the Internet, and Armao, a journalist with a far-reaching reputation for integrity and dedication, was forced to resign.
Here’s a look (edited for length) at the e-mail exchange that stirred up all the fuss.
Reader Dennis Plew’s e-mail to the Herald-Tribune: "The one-sided puff piece on Katherine Harris was beneath the dignity of an independent newspaper. I would like to know how it got into the Sarasota Herald-Tribune in the first place, what the paper intends to do to see to it that such sycophantic paeans are not repeated and what your paper intends to do regarding giving the other local candidates for Congress equal time."
Armao’s reply: ".Katherine Harris is an international figure, like her or not. She’s going to be the next Congresswoman from this area, like it or not. We are the hometown newspaper covering her and we were determined to get information and reach sources . that the rest of the national media would not. We succeeded.
"The piece was far from a paean; no Republicans have thanked us. The showy photo-the only one she would allow-the stories about her casual entrance into politics, her involvement in numerous scandals, the assessment by the Senate president, the obvious emphasis on socializing and style rather than substance, all show throughout that piece. . .The piece is balanced and fair, but if you dislike Harris, you don’t want to read balanced. You want to see venomous stories.
"As to the space devoted to the piece, I’m sorry that offends you, but she is an extraordinary citizen of the area. No, I have no intentions of covering each of the Democratic candidates to the same extent. Based on the viability of their candidacies, the money raised and support garnered and based on their accomplishments and biographies, none of the Democrats comes close to Harris.
"I am personally sorry about that. I do not intend to vote for Harris, for example. But I don’t blame the media for the situation. I blame the Democrats for not finding a better candidate and getting him or her funded and I blame our culture for craving, as its public figures, women like Katherine who are very pretty, hard-working and without original ideas that I can find. That image, by the way, I got from reading the Sunday profile."
Armao’s departure shocked just about every journalist I know, and not only because most of us admitted to a feeling of "There but for the grace of God go I." I knew I hadn’t said anything about my own feelings in my e-mails, but I immediately had to review them all, anyway. Although reporters and editors have opinions about nearly everyone and everything we cover, almost all of us manage to keep those feelings away from our stories. (Opinion pieces like this one are different from news stories, of course; in fact, a few days after Armao was forced to resign for expressing her opinions about a candidate in an e-mail, the Herald-Tribune ran a column by another writer explaining why she planned to vote for Jeb Bush.)
But if we’re careful to be fair in print, we often express our feelings in private, and as anyone who’s ever fired off an impulsive e-mail knows, it’s easy-if unwise-to view e-mail as fleeting, private conversation.
As executive editor Janet Weaver saw it, Armao’s e-mail was an official communication in her professional role, one that could lead readers to conclude that her opinions were those of the newspaper. As a result, not only her objectivity but that of the entire newspaper could be questioned in past and future political coverage.
"Others might view it in different ways," says Weaver, "but to me, this is really fundamental." Journalists, she insists-and especially an editor "whose name is on the masthead"-must "let the story do the talking" rather than "defend our coverage through the prism of our personal beliefs." It was "complicated, knotty and difficult," she says, but ultimately, she concluded that Armao had irretrievably compromised her own-and the paper’s-credibility. "People have plenty of conspiracy theories about the Herald-Tribune without us feeding them," she says.
Armao, who is quick to point out that Weaver’s point of view is "not without logic," maintains that she did not "veer off the path of journalistic ethics." Objectivity requires fair and thorough reporting; but it doesn’t, she contends, imply "that you’re a blank slate.of course you have opinions." And while some papers, such as the Washington Post, prohibit reporters and editors from publicly expressing those opinions, one of the attractions of the Herald-Tribune for her was that "we do talk to readers," including through a weekly column about newsroom decisions that she and Weaver took turns writing. She wrote that e-mail, she says, not in emotion or frustration but because, "I believe in journalism and that it’s explainable to people.I believe in telling readers how I think and how the newsroom operates, and it makes me sad to think that that’s a bad thing." She does, however, now view the e-mail as "a mistake," and although she appreciates the outpouring of support, she’d like to put the episode behind her. "I’m not the saint of journalism," she says. "I’m just an editor who loves the job and wants to do right."
Weeks after the incident, the episode is still the talk of newsrooms and news watchers not only in Sarasota but across the country-proving, if nothing else, that Katherine Harris still has a genius for igniting controversy. Here’s a look at what journalists from around the country had to say about the incident. These are excerpts (again, edited for brevity) from Jim Romenesko’s MediaNews Letters, a Web site maintained by St. Petersburg’s Poynter Institute.
o "This is a vast overreaction. The worst ethical violations in our business involved things that . are false, misleading or copied from another source. These are truly betraying the readers. Expressing an opinion, which newspapers do in editorial and opinion columns, does not rise to that level. It was, perhaps, inappropriate in this instance, but I hesitate to think what would happen if every off-the-cuff comment I’ve ever made to a reader received such scrutiny."
o "Even erring on the side of caution, another editor could have been designated to edit and cover issues related to Katherine Harris and the Congressional election. What happened to Armao was just flat-out crazy."
o "I was itching to defend Sarasota Tribune managing editor Rosemary Armao until I read the precipitous e-mail she sent this subscriber. Why would a managing editor tell a subscriber that ‘like her or not, she’s going to be the next congresswoman from this area.’ Say what? Is the newspaper astrologer speaking?"
o "Janet Weaver should have stuck Rosemary’s resignation letter in her top desk drawer, sent Rosemary home for a long weekend and then seen how everybody was feeling Monday morning. Whether Rosemary’s e-mail constituted a firing offense or whether the newspaper’s credibility was irreparably harmed didn’t have to be decided in the next 24 or 48 hours.I suspect Janet Weaver is going to look out at that newsroom next week and find it painfully silent."
o "The e-mail.tells a whole lot more than I need-or the e-mailer needs-to know…To blast.the local Democrats for their failures and ‘our culture’ for putting her in this position and even Harris for not having what Armao considers ‘original ideas’. Why doesn’t she just call the guy an idiot while she’s at it? Hey, it’s just her opinion. How refreshing."
o "It is as disheartening to many of us journalists as it is disgraceful to the Herald-Tribune that an editor’s thoughtful opinions on a serious matter of public debate.can result in her summary firing (‘resignation’? Please.) That her opinion was transmitted to an individual outside the newspaper is irrelevant. The e-mail in question was neither ‘indiscreet’ nor unwarranted. It explained eloquently how and why the paper does what it does."
o "To claim, as Janet Weaver does, that when editors speak their minds on certain issues, ‘readers can logically conclude that those editors are speaking for the institution as a whole,’ belittles the intelligence of readers and projects an image of editors as numbskulls and drones."
o "Rosemary has always been committed (no, over-committed) to improving those around her and the profession at large.So what if she said some unflattering things about Harris.? Is this such a sin that no apology could be sufficient? As for not covering Democrats as much, that’s called news judgment."
o "Apparently she’s a throwback to the days when a good managing editor both had a mind and was willing to give some bozo a piece of it. There must have been more than meets the eye in this situation, otherwise her boss probably would have used a focus group or a reader survey before deciding Armao had to go."
"How can a lesser-known candidate raise money and garner support if an editor like Armao has already decided they don’t have a chance and therefore don’t deserve the same amount of coverage as a sure thing? Is that really fair journalism?"
o "Having worked with Armao in Sarasota, I can tell you she is second to none when it comes to sending her reporters to dig up stories, pushing reporters to act as watchdogs.to think deeply and to write with care.She’s honest, even if it means saying something that isn’t politically correct..Maybe you’d prefer someone who will send you a form letter-or better yet, not bother to answer a reader’s letter.Wake up, Sarasota."
Clearly, Armao is an admirable editor who brought much to the local paper-and thus to the community. And the best defense of her objectivity is the offending e-mail, since it established that despite her negative opinions about Harris, she could edit an article that some readers, at least, considered "a puff piece." And yet.that e-mail could cloud the paper’s political reporting for some time to come.
At the least, Armao was indiscreet. But should she be fired?
It was too close to call for me, so I asked an expert-Daryl Moen, a professor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Moen-who knew all about the controversy and knows Armao-pointed out that the Herald-Tribune’s dilemma may become more common in this noisy new age of interactive journalism. Many newspapers, alarmed by the migration of readers to TV, the Web and other news sources, are trying to engage readers (critics say "pander to them"), inviting feedback in columns and focus groups and emphasizing stories about readers’ immediate concerns-sometimes at the expense of broader reporting. The Herald-Tribune has embraced this trend, from its "Your Advocate" column, which assigns a different staff member every week to answer questions and criticism about the paper, to including reporters’ e-mail addresses in their stories.
"It’s a can of worms," says Moen, who edited three daily newspapers before joining the Missouri faculty. With all these dialogues going on, he predicts we’ll hear more opinions being aired, including by reporters and writers who may not be authorized or inclined to speak for the paper. "There are going to have to be some ground rules," he says.
As an editor, he adds, he would not have said what Armao did to a reader. "It’s not codified in any ethical canon," he says, "but prevailing practice frowns upon it."
And did she therefore deserve to be fired?
"That’s a whole other question," Moen says slowly. "Let me just say-if this is the entire reason for her firing, I’m surprised. There are other options."
That’s my expert’s opinion. But what’s yours? How about it, readers-up for a little interactive dialogue?