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Media Circus

A Matter of Opinion

G. Jefferson Price has reported from all over the world for the sun while traveling with Catholic Relief Services.

By Gadi Dechter | Posted 6/7/2006

At 6 in the morning on May 31, veteran Sun journalist G. Jefferson Price III sent an e-mail to about 90 readers and colleagues. “Dear Reader:” he wrote. “You may have noticed that my weekly column has not appeared lately in The Baltimore Sun. That is because the column has been cancelled by The Sun; not because I’ve died or stopped writing. The Sun has made no announcement of my disappearance from its pages after an association with the newspaper that began 37 years ago, so I thought it reasonable to inform those of you who have reacted to the column—happily and unhappily—in the past.”

After taking a buyout in June 2004, the former foreign editor and correspondent had been writing opinion pieces for The Sun under a pair of yearly freelance contracts. Since January 2005, he’s also been on the public relations payroll of Catholic Relief Services (CRS), the Baltimore-based humanitarian aid organization run by the U.S. Roman Catholic Church.

Under his most recent contract, The Sun has been paying Price $100 per column. CRS has been footing the considerably more expensive bills of Price’s travels to many of the world’s most dangerous and distressed locations—Uganda, Sudan, Afghanistan, and Haiti, among others—enabling him to report his observations and opinions in a newspaper with a proud heritage of foreign correspondence, but one in which exotic datelines from local reporters are increasingly scarce.

In exchange for CRS’s contribution to Price’s journalism (it also pays him a consulting per diem while traveling) the Catholic aid agency got to dictate where Price would go, with whom he would travel, and, at least to some degree, what he would write about.

And what Catholic Relief Services wanted Price to write about was Catholic Relief Services.

“The whole purpose of bringing Jeff on board was to help increase the awareness within the U.S. media about Catholic Relief Services and our work overseas,” explains Elizabeth Griffin, CRS’s communications director.

After their publication in The Sun and other newspapers, CRS would frequently use Price’s columns in publicity and fundraising material, sometimes padding them with additional CRS-specific information. Price says CRS was not entitled to—nor did it ask for—prior approval of his stories, but that he would sometimes let other CRS employees in the field preview the columns, for fact-checking purposes.

“This is an ethical breach of major proportions,” says Sun editorial page editor Dianne Donovan, who says she canceled Price’s column early this month after she discovered that he was, in fact, routinely writing about CRS-affiliated programs in his columns—and had been all along.

What tipped her off, Donovan says, was Price’s most recent contribution, filed from Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, in which he weighed in on a labor dispute between a major U.S. hat manufacturer and its Mexican factory workers. Price came out sharply in favor of the workers, and his primary source for the story was the workers’ lawyer, who herself works for a CRS-supported organization called the Labor Apostolate, run by the Juárez Catholic Diocese.

Donovan refused to publish the piece, which was to run in early May.

When Price was informed of that by his immediate editor, Richard Gross, he called Donovan to discuss the matter. It was during that phone conversation that Price told Donovan what he assumed she already knew: that he often wrote about CRS-related programs and people.

That was news to The Sun, Donovan told Price, and unacceptable besides. Price demurred, insisting that the three editors beneath Donovan were well aware that he sometimes wrote about CRS, and had never expressed any objection to previous columns in which he did. In fact, the Juárez column had been enthusiastically received by two lower editors, he said. Donovan said she would discuss the matter with her subordinate editors, Gross, Ann LoLordo, and Will Englund.

“‘I don’t think you’ll get an honest answer from anyone on your payroll,’” Price remembers telling Donovan, to which she responded, he recalls, “‘You’re insulting the integrity of my staff. There will be no more column.’”

Then she hung up, he says.

As of last Wednesday, May 31, Price assumed that the principal reason for the column’s cancellation was his impolitic outburst, and not the substance of Donovan’s conflict-of-interest concern. He wrote a note to the three lower editors, apologizing for his “incredibly stupid” remark, adding, “The comment I made was outrageous and where it came from had more to do with my opinion of the paper than of you all.”

In that personal note to the three editors—two of whom reported for him while he was foreign editor from 1991 to 2001—Price appended a note he earlier sent to Donovan in which he expressed hope that his column would continue.

“I hope we can write this off to a bad day for both of us and carry on,” he wrote to Donovan, after chiding her for “the rage I aroused in you over a badly constructed remark from which you inferred I was impugning the integrity of your staff.” He repeated his insistence that the editorial department was aware from the start that he sometimes wrote about CRS-related entities. “Certainly, I was not trying to conceal CRS’ involvement with any of the agencies or individuals I have written about. . . . I have deliberately not named CRS in any of the columns because of my understanding that I was prohibited from doing so. I believe each column I have written would stand a test of fair reporting beyond what is expected in an opinion piece.”

At the core of Price and Donovan’s dispute is the precise nature of their agreement about how Price would negotiate an ethical balance between his newspaper gig and his obligations to CRS. Price contends Donovan only asked him not to “mention” Catholic Relief Services in his columns; Donovan says she asked Price not to write “about” CRS.

The agreement was a verbal one, made over lunch last June (when Price’s freelance contract switched from the domain of the news department to the editorial department), and both Donovan and Price now react with similar degrees of incredulity at the other’s divergent recollection.

“It was our understanding he would be traveling for Catholic Relief Services, but that he would not be writing about Catholic Relief Services-related entities, you know, because they’re paying him,” says Donovan. “I thought that it would be OK for him to travel on their dime, if while he was traveling he would find other things to write about for the op-ed page. Jeff apparently misunderstood and thought it was OK for him to write about CRS-supported organizations. And I was not aware that that was happening, quite frankly.”

Associate editorial page editor Will Englund echoes Donovan’s position, saying it was understood at The Sun that Price was to “stay away from writing directly about CRS activities and find his own material. . . . Maybe this was a line that couldn’t actually be drawn.” The two editors most closely involved in supervising Price’s column, op-ed editor Richard Gross and assistant editorial page editor Ann LoLordo, did not respond to questions from Media Circus. Gross declined to comment; LoLordo said she was too busy to talk.

Price says he’s “flabbergasted”
at Donovan’s interpretation of the l
unch discussion.

Indeed, it’s easy to understand Price’s confusion about the Sun’s objection to his last column, and not to earlier ones. It was no secret to The Sun or its readers that he was a consultant to CRS; when he filed stories from abroad, the paper usually ran a note at the bottom of column disclaiming, “G. Jefferson Price III is a former foreign correspondent and editor of The Sun. He has been traveling on behalf of Catholic Relief Services.” Though Price only twice mentioned CRS by name, his Sun columns frequently praised the work of international aid organizations. He often interviewed Catholic functionaries and also mentioned by name aid organizations that were CRS field partners.

For example, in his Dec. 14, 2005, column from Colombia, Price featured a sympathetic interview with “Monsignor Hector Fabio Henao, who directs Colombia’s Caritas, the Catholic Church’s development and social service organization.” Catholic Relief Services is a member of Caritas Internacionalis, the association of 162 international Catholic aid organizations. Henao is listed on a 2002 CRS press release—still available on its web site—promoting the relationship between CRS and Caritas in Colombia. Other Price columns discuss the work of other foreign Caritas projects.

Price says his editors at The Sun never questioned these stories or inquired about his CRS-related sources or subjects. The fact that so many such columns ran, he says, was indication that they passed editorial muster and were in conformity with his agreement with The Sun.

What’s surprising about the apparent misunderstanding is not that it occurred; the ethical boundaries in opinion journalism are not strictly drawn. While a news reporter in the employ of an advocacy group would be unthinkable at any major U.S. newspaper, op-ed writers often have a dog in the fights they cover. What’s surprising—and, in Price’s mind, suspicious—is that the misunderstanding was able to persist for so long without The Sun noticing it.

Ironically, it’s the nature of the apparent miscommunication between Price and Donovan that may have contributed to its perpetuation. Because he believed that he was prohibited from mentioning CRS, Price acknowledges that he sometimes consciously stripped specific CRS references from his Sun copy. That likely made their CRS connections less immediately discernible to editors.

For example, in a Sept. 27, 2005, Sun column about a massive flood in Haiti, Price described the heroics of a Catholic priest named Venel Suffrard, whom he described as “Gonaives director of Caritas, the humanitarian and relief agency of the Haitian Catholic Church.” Price does not make explicit the connection between the Haitian Caritas and the U.S. Caritas (aka Catholic Relief Services). But in a rewrite of the same column, published Oct. 17 in The Christian Science Monitor, Price does specifically identify CRS as “Caritas’ partner” in helping to restore post-flood order in Haiti.

“Reflecting further on the question of why CRS would be mentioned in pieces I wrote for other papers and not in The Sun,” writes Price in an e-mail, “the answer . . . is that with those papers I was not working under a rule I was working with at The Sun, that being that I was not allowed to ‘mention’ CRS, which, except on a couple of occasions, I followed at The Sun.”

Price says he has no misgivings about the CRS-related stories he wrote for The Sun or any other paper. “I would not do anything differently,” he says. “It was important and still is important for me to maintain a reputation for integrity, so I would not write puff pieces for Catholic Relief Services . . . and that’s not what they wanted me to do.”

He intends to continue traveling with CRS and pitching newspapers with the stories he finds on his journeys. “What I do is write stories about people living on the darkest side of the earth,” he says, a day before leaving for East Timor on another CRS assignment. “It’s not as if I’m a lobbyist for some bad organization, for God’s sake.”

CRS says the Sun’s decision to cancel Price’s column will have no impact on the aid organization’s relationship with the journalist, and that it intends to renew Price’s contract when it runs out.

The Sun ‘s Donovan did not directly respond to a follow-up question about whether the paper ought to have differently managed its relationship with Price, given the apparent variety of available interpretations about the ethical boundaries of opinion journalism.

With one notable exception, all of Price’s newspaper stories published while working for CRS have run as opinion pieces or editorials. But on July 24, 2005, The Boston Globe ran a profile-in-courage by Price about a western Massachusetts CRS relief coordinator in the Sudan. According to Lexis-Nexis, the piece ran on Page A18, under the National/Foreign news header, without any disclaimer of Price’s employment by CRS, and which bylined him as a “Globe Correspondent.”

“That wasn’t my fault,” says Price, who says he advised the Globe about his affiliation with CRS. The Globe did not return a request for comment.

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