Cash and Courage

By Brown, Bruce | The Quill, September 1, 1999 | Go to article overview

Cash and Courage


Brown, Bruce, The Quill


In January 1998, only weeks after San Juan's largest daily newspaper filed suit against the governor of Puerto Rico for withdrawing state-sponsored advertising in retaliation for unflattering news coverage, Miami Mayor Xavier Suarez placed a phone call to the Miami Herald. He was trying to reach one of the paper's advertising executives, specifically the supervisor who handles the city's account. At the time, it just so happens, the Herald had been publishing articles about allegations of voter fraud in the recent election that had restored Suarez to the mayor's office four years after he had departed the city's top job. Suarez had a message to deliver, and finding the advertising manager unavailable, he left it on voice mail.

"This is the mayor of Miami," Suarez began. "I note that we are subsidizing you and your newspaper with ads related to official notices of the city. If that's the case, I strongly suggest that you tell your maximum leader of the free world for the publishing company, and I believe that's Joe Natoli, that he better tell his maximum leader of the publishing side of the company, that is to say David Lawrence, to be a lot nicer to me, my people, my citizens and my city." And he believed that he had some leverage to use: "Because otherwise we're going to figure out every possible way of advertising in any possible newspaper except yours," Suarez concluded.

The mayor's threat against the Herald dissipated; his voice mail attracted nationwide attention (and ridicule), local prosecutors raised their eyebrows, and Suarez backed off. The Herald saw no loss of government advertising. But back in San Juan, the story would be different for El Nuevo Dia and its publisher, Antonio Luis Ferre. The Spanish-language daily, which had just sued Gov. Pedro Rosselle and a handful of his subordinates for carrying out the very kind of retaliation Suarez had dreamed up, still had a long road to travel to vindicate its First Amendment rights. A year and a half later, after litigating the case to the eve of trial, the newspaper and its lawyers from Baker & Hostetler secured a settlement from the Commonwealth that reinstated the lost advertising and promised an end to the other forms of economic coercion in which Gov. Rossello and his aides had engaged. (The terms of the settlement were reported in the June 1999 issue of Quill.)

In assessing the legacy of the El Nuevo Dia case and whether it will serve to discourage heavy-handed governmental intimidation of the media, it's hard to ignore the fact that at the very time the filing of the complaint in San Juan was generating press around the country, the mayor of the nearest mainland city appeared poised to bully his hometown newspaper in precisely the same fashion. (The Herald itself had published three pieces about the Puerto Rico litigation before Suarez placed his phone call, including a sharply worded editorial criticizing Rossello's actions.) In fact, a newspaper in southern Florida had already succeeded in a First Amendment attack against such conduct during Suarez's first term in office. As the 1st U.S. Court of Appeals would write later in the El Nuevo Dia case, "It would seem obvious that using government funds to punish political speech by members of the press and to attempt to coerce commentary favorable to the government would run afoul of the First Amendment."

This point apparently was not "obvious" to Mayor Suarez-whose re-election, it turned out, would be voided by a state judge just months after he threatened the Herald. And, if it is "obvious" to most politicians, neither the El Neuvo Dia case nor any piece of high-profile litigation is going to wipe from the political landscape government officials willing to exploit their positions to bend the press. Boss Tweed tried to evict The New York Times from its offices when it was closing in on Tammany Hall; Louisiana Gov. Huey Long levied a tax on his opponents in the media; Richard Nixon tampered with the FCC licenses of The Washington Post's television stations during Watergate. …

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