The following correction appeared in "Letters," Feb. 22:

Erratum

Jim Mullin's column last week incorrectly reported that the Miami Herald had not published the names of members of an ad hoc sports arena committee headed by Knight-Ridder chairman Tony Ridder. In fact, a partial list of names was published February 7 in a late edition of the paper, which did not reach all subscribers. A full list of members was published February 17. No known felons were included.

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Nobody Touches Tony
BY JIM MULLIN

Tony Ridder's performance last week before the Dade County Commission was truly inspirational. The Knight-Ridder boss was there in his new role as leader of a group of private citizens whose desperate mission is to appease zillionaire sports moguls Micky Arison and Wayne Huizenga and find a way to build them a shiny new sports arena in Miami.

Ridder was surprisingly unassuming. He seemed not to be possessed of any discernible ego. He was shy, disarming, even reluctant. He shuffled his feet and aw-shucks'ed his way into everyone's heart. This couldn't be the same corporate automaton whose reputation in publishing circles is that of a soulless bean counter. This couldn't have been the man whose relentless pursuit of higher profit margins is being achieved by squeezing his newspapers A including the Miami Herald A to within an inch of their lives, to the squealing delight of Wall Street stock analysts.

This couldn't be the same man employees at the Detroit Free Press (who've been on strike since July) refer to as Darth Ridder for his ruthless attempts to break their unions no matter what the cost in human suffering.

The charming character who stood at the podium addressing the assembled politicians was a lovable Jimmy Stewart, a soothing, reassuring Mr. Rogers -- a little frumpy, a little pedantic as he confessed that he'd been drafted against his wishes to be point man in the battle to solve Miami's crisis du jour. (And -- it went without saying -- how best to accomplish that so it didn't look too much like venal boot licking.)

Despite his modesty, Ridder elicited from his elite audience something astonishing. Call it reverence, call it abject fear. Whatever it was, never before have our beloved county commissioners been so thoroughly humbled. They were honored by his presence, they were thankful for his interest, they were privileged to be in same damn room with the guy, and they apologized for taking so much of his precious time but nonetheless felt compelled to line up and say something flattering and redundant.

Chairman Art Teele pulled out the stops when he proclaimed that the cavalry had arrived to save the day.

Watching this gaggle of egomaniacs kiss up to Tony Ridder was definitely worth the pain of sitting through their blustering soliloquies. Unfortunately it didn't take long for the spectacle's amusement value to wear thin.

By the time it was over, the commission had agreed to "endorse" Ridder's role as big cheese in the rushed attempt to cobble together a plan for a new arena. To that end, they also voted to spend up to $250,000 of taxpayers' money to hire a deal-making consultant. As a capper, Teele persuaded his colleagues to reject the county manager's recommendation that the consultant be hired by (or at least approved by) county administrators. Instead, Ridder himself will take the money, match it with private funds, and hire anyone he wants. With a flourish, the commissioners effectively told Ridder that the fate of professional sports in Miami -- and possibly the very future of the city's downtown -- was now in his hands.

It was obvious that this display of humility wasn't prompted solely by thanks that Ridder had stepped forward, though the commissioners undoubtedly were relieved to pass this thorny predicament to someone else. And they weren't so deferential just because Ridder runs a big company. Their own county manager operates a multibillion-dollar corporation, and they routinely insult him. No, the politicos were bowing and scraping because P. Anthony Ridder is a press baron and the overlord of the Miami Herald. To even faintly risk pissing him off would be tantamount to committing political suicide.

If politicians notorious for their arrogance turn submissive in Ridder's presence, it's not too farfetched to imagine an equivalent reaction somewhere down the Knight-Ridder food chain. And if that's possible, then the minute he became a public advocate for a specific position in this highly charged controversy (namely, acquiescing to Micky Arison's demand for a new sports arena), Tony Ridder made it exceedingly difficult for Miami's only daily to cover the subject without raising questions about its motivation.

Already the Herald has published several editorials sounding the alarm and pleading for civic leadership to prevent the loss of our sports teams. How can another appear without giving the appearance of marching in lock step with the boss's agenda?

Worse, how can the paper's editors expect news reports to be viewed as objective and disinterested? How much coverage of Ridder's undertaking will appear to be too much coverage? How little will appear to be intentional silence? How much space and credibility can be given to skeptics who question the value of a new arena? What about those people who believe a hulking concrete box on publicly owned waterfront land would be a travesty? And what about aggressive reporting of those nationally recognized experts who dismiss as insignificant the economic impact of professional sports franchises?

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