When a Newspaper Shills

All told, it might hustle residents right out of 1,000 homes. It could cut through precious wetlands, level a Hilton hotel, knock out a marina, and gouge 100 acres of fill dirt, piling it in unseemly ten-foot-high heaps. And it could cost up to $3 billion.

Three cities — Hollywood, Dania Beach, and Davie — are fighting it tooth and nail. And ultimately, it would open the gates to huge growth that would add to already horribly congested roads and ongoing water shortage problems.

There is no doubt that the airport expansion issue, which is coming down to the wire for a vote by the Broward County Commission, is complex and monumental in its significance.

But the Sun-Sentinel has it all figured out:

"It's needed. Get on with it."

That's the "bottom line" of the editorial published last Tuesday in the newspaper before a key public meeting with the Federal Aviation Administration.

But the paper saved the best for the FAA meeting itself, which took place that evening at the Broward Convention Center. Howard Greenberg, the newspaper's senior vice president and "general manager," rose to speak in favor of expansion, saying he was representing the Sun-Sentinel and urging the hundreds of people in attendance to read that day's editorial, which he promised contained a lot of "facts."

Funny, a good perusal of the editorial reveals almost no facts whatsoever. No price tag. No number of homes affected. No numbers on passenger traffic at the airport. No mention of the fact that despite projections of steady growth in traffic at the airport, the number of passengers decreased last year by almost 5 percent.

No, nothing but lines like, "No matter how often, or hotly, it is debated, a runway expansion at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport is a must. Period."

The presence at the meeting of Greenberg, who has a long history of coziness with the Broward County Chamber of Commerce, and his public speech about the Sentinel's being in favor of expansion rankled the opposition, including Broward County Commissioner John Rodstrom, who also spoke.

"If you read both newspapers [on the airport issue], the Miami Herald is nonpartial and very balanced," he said the day after the meeting. "The Sentinel isn't balanced at all. The two papers have very different views on this issue. The Sun-Sentinel is full-speed ahead."

Rodstrom was especially displeased with the headline over the news story written by the Sentinel on the meeting: "Expansion supporters out in force."

Many of the supporters were senior citizens bused in from Kings Point condominiums in Tamarac, recruited by pro-business groups. Others work for mega-builder Terry Stiles, one of the expansion's chief proponents. (I should note that I found the actual article to be balanced despite the stance of the newspaper's owners.)

The Miami Herald, which has been editorially neutral on the expansion, went with the more general headline of "FAA gathers runway input."

The same day, the Sentinel ran an op-ed column supporting the expansion by Jim Cummings, a construction magnate who heads the Broward Workshop, a business group of which Greenberg is a member. Cummings called for the commission to be "objective" in making its decision while urging it to support the project.

Cummings, by the way, has made millions building parking garages at the airport. Wonder if that has impaired his own objectivity in any way?

Let's get this straight, though: Perfectly reasonable people disagree on the airport expansion issue. Also, newspapers can say anything they want on the editorial page, no matter how one-sided or wrong-headed (the Sentinel was one of many newspapers that was in favor of the Iraq War, for instance). But the daily newspaper based in Fort Lauderdale, I submit, has been irresponsible on the airport issue — for several years now.

The press should never simplify such an important and controversial issue, one that may put hundreds of its subscribers out of their homes, whether coverage is on the editorial page or somewhere else in the newspaper.

And the speech at the public meeting by Greenberg (who last week met with Sun-Sentinel staff, urging them all to get on board with the mission of marketing the newspaper)? Just plain wrong, in my book. But I wanted a second opinion on that, so I asked longtime South Florida journalist and media ethicist Edward Wasserman, who is now a journalism professor at Washington and Lee University in Virginia, what he thought.

"It's always distasteful to see a newspaper business person sounding like any other chamber growth junkie," he wrote me. "After all, even though [Greenberg is] not on the news side, he still draws his credibility from being associated with it.

"When he says he's giving 'the newspaper's' position, there's an implication that some independent wisdom has been brought to bear on arriving at a position that's sincerely believed to be in the public interest (rather than one that will benefit the paper by stimulating sectors of the local economy that in turn nourish ad-supported media). The newspaper, in that regard, is never just another business in town, even when it acts like one."

Exactly. Newspapers are supposed to be better than that. What Greenberg did and what the newspaper has done on its editorial page isn't quite a journalism crime (or a "sin," as Wasserman put it); it's just untoward, unseemly, beneath the calling.

So I'm going to call on the newspaper's bosses, the leaders of my town's main daily newspaper, to treat the airport expansion issue with more professionalism and dignity. It's not too late.

And it's needed. Get on with it.

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Journalist Bob Norman has been raking the muck of South Florida for the past 25 years. His work has led to criminal cases against corrupt politicians, the ouster of bad judges from the bench, and has garnered dozens of state, regional, and national awards.
Contact: Bob Norman