Pulitzer's New Prize

The Cardinals have billed Michael E. Pulitzer as an owner, even when he wasn't. Now that he is, can we trust the Post to tell the truth?

Post editor Ellen Soeteber says she knows readers may be skeptical, especially given a lengthy Sunday editorial endorsing massive public subsidies for a new stadium that ran five days before the newspaper reported the Pulitzer purchase. "I know -- I know -- that there will be absolutely no change or involvement in how we cover the Cardinals, how we cover the stadium issue, the editorial stance we take, which was taken completely separately and completely ignorant of these other developments," she says. "I do understand that there are people in the public who might perceive it otherwise, and that's the only level of discomfort that I get, is over the perception that people will have." In a March 25 follow-up editorial, the Post told readers the editorial board had no idea that Pulitzer and its chairman were on the brink of buying a stake in the team when the paper endorsed public financing for a new stadium on the previous Sunday. "We realized it would look defensive, but we just felt like we couldn't avoid addressing it straight-on," explains William Freivogel, deputy editorial-page editor.

Soeteber, formerly an editor at the Chicago Tribune, says she prefers this situation to the one in the Windy City, where the Cubs are wholly owned by the Tribune Co. "Even 100 percent ownership wouldn't affect our coverage," she says. "Certainly 4 percent won't. The stake is so small, you know, it's such a small part of the team. It's not like he's going to run things there. Mr. Pulitzer is not involved in the day-to-day operation of the newspaper. In fact, he's not even in St. Louis any longer on a regular basis. His principal residence now is in Santa Barbara, Calif."

Ridgway says Pulitzer executives were concerned about appearances but decided the investment was so small that no one should be worried that the corporation would have influence on the paper or the team. "As far as we're concerned, it was a nonevent for us," he says. "We are a totally passive investor, both us and Michael. I guarantee you that, having a 4 percent interest in a closely held corporation, you have nothing to say about anything." But even a tiny stake in a major-league team can prove a lucrative investment, especially when a new stadium is involved. The best example is George W. Bush, who saw a $600,000 stake in the Texas Rangers balloon into $15 million inside of 10 years, thanks to a new stadium built at taxpayer expense.

Danny Hellman

But Post readers haven't seen the newspaper draw any comparisons between the company chairman and the president. Nor has the Post gotten the story straight when it comes to money and the Cardinals.

A review of recent editorials and news coverage of the stadium issue shows remarkable differences in the way the Post describes the stadium deal. For example, the Post in editorials has said the team wants to freeze tax payments to the city at the 1998 level, a proposal that has never been reported in news pages (on March 19, the Kansas City Star reported that the team is willing to freeze tax payments at current levels). Also, the Post in its news pages pegs the state's share of the sales tax from Busch Stadium (which team owners want diverted to help build a new ballpark) at $5 million or $6 million a year, figures that Post Jefferson City reporter Eric Stern says he obtained from state fiscal notes accompanying ballpark legislation. On the editorial side, the Post in a March 18 editorial says the state collected $8.5 million in sales tax from Busch last year, more than $2 million more than what had been reported in news pages. Furthermore, the Post in a Feb. 19 editorial states, "The team wants to freeze its city tax payments at the 1998 level of about $8 million and use all new taxes to pay for construction costs." A month later, the amount the city collected -- and the amount the team wanted to pay the city to offset lost tax revenue -- had dropped by $1.5 million: "The team has offered to make in lieu of tax payments to the city of $6.5 million a year -- an amount equal to its 1998 city tax payments -- to offset lost revenue," the Post says in a March 18 editorial. In neither case did the paper attribute those figures to anyone.

Editorial writer Kevin Horrigan, who authored the February and March editorials, admits he screwed up. "You have every right to be confused," he says, explaining that the higher figure apparently includes taxes on the earnings of visiting players that were left out of the lower number. "I may have mixed apples and oranges." Where did Horrigan get his numbers? "They were given to me by the Cardinals," he says. Actually, Horrigan says, the numbers came from a study commissioned by the team and prepared by Development Strategies Inc., a consulting firm whose rosy economic forecasts were used to help build the case for the publicly subsidized downtown convention hotel. "I checked them out," Horrigan says. "They're not scientific wild-ass guessers. They do have some credibility."

Ah, credibility. No matter what the paper says, suspicions about its independence will remain, so long as Pulitzer stays a team owner, the news side prints stories about the Cardinals that aren't true and the paper bases editorial stances on figures from the team that are printed without attribution. In the meantime, workaday reporters will go on doing their jobs as best they can.

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