Full Details of Gannett, Chiquita Deal - at Last

Article excerpt

Court documents obtained by 'E&P' show news group agreed to extensive demands in out-of-court settlement

It's long been clear that a high price was paid -- in the coin of careers ruined and a newspaper giant humbled -- following The Cincinnati Enquirer's investigative report on question- able business practices of Chiquita Brands International Inc.

As the 1998 debacle unfolded, the Enquirer fired a star reporter, renounced its yearlong investigation of its hometown corporate behemoth, prominently published an apology, and said it had paid Chiquita more than $10 million.

Critics questioned why the Enquirer and its parent Gannett Co. Inc. would retreat so quickly and completely. Now, documents obtained by E&P show Gannett gave up far more than had generally been known. It struck a confidential agreement with Chiquita to muzzle some of its journalists and to report to Chiquita on investigations of Enquirer staff. It also implicitly approved of Chiquita's legal pursuit of the lead reporter of the series, Michael Gallagher, who was fired for stealing voice-mail messages from the banana company.

Critics said the revelations portray a newspaper company that failed to protect the newsroom from corporate interests.

"I think it's a disaster for independence of the news," said Ben Bagdikian, former dean of the University of California's Graduate School of Journalism at Berkeley. "It means that within the Gannett organization anybody who takes any kind of initiative that might offend an important corporation will simply hold back."

Gannett spokeswoman Tara Connell rejected such assertions. "Gannett is a company filled with dedicated, hard-working journalists who don't break the law to get stories," she said. "These unfounded criticisms are an insult to them and the work they do every day."

Connell said the confidential agreement "shows the very high price the Enquirer paid -- financially and reputationally -- to extricate itself" from the Chiquita morass.

The agreement was among papers filed in District of Columbia Superior Court in a lawsuit brought by Lawrence K. …