Hang Tuft

An embittered Post-Dispatch reporter says her editors hung her out to dry.

Aug 30, 2006 at 4:00 am
Standing before a crowd of roughly 50 colleagues at last week's noontime rally, Carolyn Tuft hardly looked like the city's most beleaguered reporter. Dressed in a floral-print dress, sensible white pumps and mirrored sunglasses, Tuft looked more like she was heading to church than to a hard-nosed arbitration session with editors from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

"Everything I wrote I stand behind," Tuft told her supporters, who'd gathered to rally outside the paper's offices. Many held signs that read: "Hang tough with Tuft," and "I support Carolyn."

At issue is a 576-word "apology" the paper published on June 19, 2005, following a pair of investigative articles Tuft wrote about local televangelist Joyce Meyer. The first installment, published April 18, examined the planned $2.55 million sale of two homes owned by Joyce Meyer Ministries. The article alleged that although the homes were owned by Joyce Meyer Ministries, members of the Meyer family lived in the residences "free of charge."

"The ministry pays the bills — property taxes, utilities and landscaping and renovations made to family members' personal preferences," the article stated. "Joyce Meyer, her husband, and their four children all serve on the board of directors that makes financial decisions for the ministry."

The second article, published May 1, elaborated on Joyce Meyer Ministries' financial arrangements. Alleging that "[t]he ministry's board of trustees, which is headed by Joyce Meyer, agreed to pay her a $900,000 annual salary in 2002 and 2003," the article went on to state: "The board agreed to provide the couple with free personal use of a corporate jet and luxury cars, [and] a $2 million home where all bills are paid by the ministry."

The ministry's financial arrangements were of interest at the time because Joyce Meyer Ministries was fighting with Jefferson County Assessor Randy Holman to keep its $30 million headquarters' tax-exempt status. The article quotes Holman as stating that under state law, a tax-exempt religious property "cannot be held for private or corporate profit."

Soon after the second story ran, the paper ran an editorial stating that Meyer was "cruising close to the line separating a religious ministry from a for-profit operation" and that Meyer's work has reaped "a mother lode of earthly wealth" for the pastor.

One month later, however, the paper reversed course when it published the apology. Written by editor Ellen Soeteber, who has since left the paper, and managing editor Arnie Robbins, who has since been promoted to the paper's top editorial post, the apology said the articles did not meet their "standards for fairness and accuracy."

Among Tuft's transgressions cited in the June 19 apology were several sentences clarifying the statements of Joyce Meyer Ministries spokesman Mark Sutherland. "A ministry spokesman did not say that the Meyers received free use of the plane and vehicles, as was stated in the May 1 story," reads the apology. "Additionally, the spokesman for the ministry never used the word 'hefty' to describe Joyce Meyer's salary. That was a term used by the reporter."

In the May 1 article, Tuft reports that she gleaned the information about Meyer's free personal use of a corporate jet, luxury cars and a $2 million home from "financial statements, board minutes and other documents." The article made no mention of the information coming from spokesman Sutherland. As for the dispute regarding Meyer's "hefty" salary, which was estimated at $900,000, the article states: "Sutherland noted that Meyer has never denied getting a hefty salary."

The paper swiftly disciplined Tuft with a five-day suspension without pay. Although the paper's brass later reduced her suspension to two days, Tuft maintains that her stories were accurate and merited neither an apology nor a suspension.

"I want my day in court. I want to prove that they're wrong, and I want to tell what they really did," says Tuft, who went into aarbitration on Wednesday and Thursday of last week. "We're asking for a retraction to the apology. I want for them to correct the record, to admit that the apology was unwarranted, and that I did nothing wrong."

But so far, Post-Dispatch editor Robbins isn't promising any corrective action to Tuft, who has worked at the paper for nearly fourteen years.

"I'll leave that to the arbiter," says Robbins.

Tuft and her supporters, meanwhile, speculate that there were other forces behind the apology, forces greater than the paper's professed fidelity to "fairness and accuracy."

"We want to show the fact that the apology, which was unprecedented, was not about any errors, real or imagined," says Shannon Duffy, who, as business representative for the St. Louis Newspaper Guild, sat in on the arbitration. "They negotiated the apology to avoid litigation. We can prove with correspondence [between Joyce Meyer Ministries and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch] that this apology was negotiated on Carolyn's back."

(Correspondence between Joyce Meyer Ministries and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch is subject to a protective order, negotiated by the newspaper's attorneys, and will not be made public until after the arbitrator has rendered a decision, which could be months from now.)

Six months before the apology was published — in January 2005 — Pulitzer Inc., which at the time owned the Post-Dispatch, announced plans to merge with Davenport, Iowa-based Lee Enterprises.

"Previously, editors were always in your corner. They wouldn't make you go to a meeting with somebody yelling at you without records to show that what they're saying is false. But when Joyce Meyer's people came, I wasn't allowed to say anything," says Tuft. "The sale to Lee Enterprises was in the making and they didn't want a lawsuit. They did not want anything hanging over the sale of the paper."

"Not true," says Robbins. The editor declined to elaborate on the apology, saying only: "I think if you look through other stories that we've done, I think I've said that so I don't want to comment after the arbitration hearing."

Whether editors at the Post-Dispatch caved under pressure from Joyce Meyer Ministries or didn't want to jeopardize Pulitzer Inc.'s sale to Lee Enterprises by burdening the company with a costly lawsuit is a secondary concern for the guild's Shannon Duffy.

"If the paper is so ready to cave and print an apology whenever a powerful or well-connected group threatens legal action, then how safe are any of the reporters?" she asks. "What will happen is we'll wind up with people who are afraid to tackle tough issues because they don't think their papers are going to be there for them, and if that happens, that's a really sad day for journalism."