A trust betrayed

The Times has failed to cover both sides of the airport debate

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In all my years at the Times, I never once was instructed specifically to slant a story to fit a pre-ordained point of view. In fact, I sometimes delighted in writing stories that contradicted the newspaper's official preferences. So far as I know, I was never penalized for it. I enjoyed a successful career at the Times, and the many lessons I learned from my betters I'm still putting to use.

But there is, in any institution, a subtle pressure to conform to the prevailing prejudices of its leaders. This is true even in a newspaper full of bright and committed journalists like the Times. I don't know, because I'm no longer there, but I doubt that any young Times reporter sees a path to advancement in promoting a series of stories that would evoke sympathy for Albert Whitted Airport. There will, instead, be knowing nods and pats on the back for anyone who feeds the public's desire to replace it.

Readers may ask if the fact that Eric Snider and I are both former Times employees has anything to do with our decision to criticize the paper's handling of the Albert Whitted story. That's for others to judge, but I would say no. If we have a self-interest at all, it is that we now work for a publication that sees itself — and wants to be seen — as a burr in the side of entrenched powers, including the St. Petersburg Times.

For me, it is also because I admire and respect the Times. I always have, and I hope I always will.

It may be humanly impossible for any newspaper to be completely impartial in the community where it works and lives. But the Times' great strength has always been its noble ideals — its commitment to the public's right to know, its devotion to public discourse, and its awareness of its civic responsibility beyond that of just any old business.

Nelson Poynter may have hated Albert Whitted Airport. But if we are to believe his ideals, they do not smile on a newspaper confusing its own interests with its larger responsibility: to inform the public as fully as it can.

Jim Harper, Weekly Planet's editor, can be reached at 813-248-8888, ext 163, or at [email protected].

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