Editorial October, 1997

Wounded Pen

The current investigation of the Seminole Tribe of Florida's people and government by the St. Petersburg Times is taking a toll that one will never read about in that newspaper. It calls to question the ethics of the reporters, editors and business tycoons of the Times and the tabloid style investigative techniques they refuse to discuss.

The newspaper has every right to pursue any story concerning the Seminole Tribe. Unable to get the story they want, apparently, the Times has decided to vacate good journalism -- research, fact-checking --in favor of mass harassment, threats, cajoling employees to steal documents and using psychological "intimidation" on innocent people. This misuse of the First Amendment is disturbing to us and embarrassing to the worldwide journalism community now following this issue.

Take the case of one Seminole Tribal member whose name must be kept confidential for obvious reasons. Nearly every member of her family has been contacted by Times reporters. Each person reports the same technique: "They got us on the phone by saying they wanted to know something about chickees. They said they were doing a story about the ways Seminoles used to live," says one source. "Then they began asking questions about the Tribal leaders. Asking about white people, asking me to get them budget documents. It made me nervous. I told them to stop calling. Then they'd call back and harass my mom. I felt like kicking their asses. I hope they never show up in person anywhere around my family!"

They probably won't. Times reporter Jeff Testerman has admitted that Times lawyers have advised reporters not to go onto Tribal lands. The lawyers and their scribes are fearful some sort of legal predicament might occur on sovereign soil. The reporters requested a "neutral place" to talk. "They don't seem to get it. The Reservation is my world. Everything else is their world," said the Chief, who met them in Gulfport, a few miles from the Times downtown building. "There is no neutral site."

One member of the harassed family, however, continued to talk with the reporters. They called her at work, away from her family, day after day after day, "probably about 50 times or more," she estimates. "I didn't want to talk to them, but they kept calling." Why did she continue to talk to them? Her reasoning sends a strange chill up the spine of this project: "I was afraid not to talk to them. I didn't want them to get mad at me. I didn't want them to print negative things about me."

An early conversation with reporter Brad Goldstein revealed to her that the Times had done extensive background checks on Tribal members. "He knew more gossip about the Seminole Tribe than anybody I know. He thinks he knows who is sleeping with who, who owns this or that, whose family doesn't like whose family, everything."

The reporter knew about an illegitimate child. He knew about friends and lovers who were connected to drug smuggling. He knew embarrassing things - some true, some false - about this Tribal member. "He implied that others were telling him these things, that there were people who didn't like me. That he was going to try and keep this information out of the paper. He kept saying he needed my help.

"He seemed to think I knew something, that I could get him information. But I really didn't have access to what he was looking for," she added. "I don't remember what I told him. I gave him my opinions is all. I was afraid if I wasn't nice to him, he would burn me in print."

She believes her job would be put at risk, her employer embarrassed and her position in the Seminole community ostracized if the Times printed embarrassing personal information about her. "I was between a rock and a hard place," she says, weeping. "I know they are out to hurt the Tribe and I would never want to participate in that, but I also know they could easily ruin my life by printing bad things about me and my family. I still don't know what to do. He's still calling me."

The stress of dealing with this situation is taking a toll on this Tribal member that borders on the criminal. There are others in her same predicament. Persons not normally used to dealing with reporters. Persons who naturally respond to guilt trips or other such intimidation techniques. For these people, talking to the St. Petersburg Times has been the wrong decision," says attorney Don Orlovsky of West Palm Beach.

"When a conversation starts to become a situation of blackmail, where one party is inferring either you give me information or I am going to smear you, then it takes on the same dimension as stalking and gets into a whole criminal type of aura," the attorney says.

"They may have a right to a story. But people have a right to be left alone. They should first say 'Leave me alone' and that request should be honored. It is like a woman on a date. No means no. If it persists, then, by all means, the phone company security and the police should be contacted. There is also the right to go into court and have a judge grant a restraining order."

Some of the top experts on journalistic ethics have blasted the Times for its tactics in pursuing this story. Its quest has been called "a fishing expedition" by those who know that this is not the way good journalists operate. The issue has been explored in newspapers and magazines around the country, including Tampa Bay's own Weekly Planet and the prestigious journalism trade publication Editor and Publisher. Several Internet web sites, including one maintained for Investigative Reporters and Editors, have wired this issue around the globe.

The Times is irritated that The Seminole Tribune has opened the looking glass into their investigation. Since their story has not been printed, they have theorized, the Tribune's inquiry into their business is unprofessional. That's a cop-out and they know it. Times reporters snuck onto the reservation with bells tied to their sneakers. The commotion caused by these so-called investigative reporters became news, whether they have printed a story or not.

The real source of the staff's irritation is their own frustration with working 11 months, now, on a story that will win the Times no awards when it is finally printed. No matter how stupendous their expose on the Seminole Tribe turns out to be, articles by this newspaper and others have soiled their investigation. No awards committee - much less the prestigious Pulitzer or Robert F. Kennedy Foundations - will smear themselves by honoring the questionable ethics of this newsgathering debacle.

One could feel the reporters'contempt in the air at the Gulfport meeting. Plainly put: the award-hungry St. Petersburg Times has been embarrassed. Like the Wizard of Oz,, its stately facade has fallen and the newspaper's shameful yellowed tabloid skin revealed.

At the very least, "Florida's Best Newspaper" should tame its investigative shrews and own up to the damage it has caused innocent people and the profession of journalism.