July 25, 2011

JOURNALISTIC PHONE-HACKING, AMERICAN STYLE:

A reporter phone-hacking scandal in Britain has resulted in the closure of that nation’s largest newspaper. Folks outside of journalism might not recall a similar phone-hacking case in the United States with a rather different tone.

On May 3, 1998, the Cincinnati Enquirer published the results of a yearlong investigation of Chiquita Brands International, headed by billionaire Carl Linder, one of Cincinnati’s leading residents. The 18-page spread accused the company of bribery and other crimes in foreign lands and of abusing Central American workers.

The expose seemed destined to win a Pulitzer. But on June 28, the newspaper abruptly ran a front-page apology renouncing the entire story and saying it would pay Chiquita some $10 million in compensation. The apology was repeated the following day, and the day after that.

Yet, the information in the story wasn’t necessarily wrong.

One reporter had simply gone too far in gathering it. Michael Gallagher, a veteran journalist, had illegally dialed into Chiquita’s voice message system and recorded messages. Then he had lied to his editors about what he had done.

I don’t recall any congressional investigations.