You can bet that most metropolitan newspapers would commit major resources to a fast-moving story like this: Two neighboring counties under deadline pressure are engaged in a pitched battle for the privilege of spending hundreds of millions of dollars for a new sports facility in order to make nice with the greedy millionaires whose teams will play there (for a while, at least). This sort of thing doesn't happen every day, and the long-term consequences are huge, from the burden of public debt to the prospect of reshaping the landscape for generations to come.

I have little doubt that under different circumstances, the Herald would go all out in pursuit of such a story. Since the first of the year, in fact, at least seven different reporters have written about the topic, and that does not include columnists or staffers covering developments in Broward. Since Ridder became involved last week, however, news of the executive and his ad hoc committee has completely disappeared from the Herald; no story on that subject appeared Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, or Monday. Given Ridder's own estimate that he has only 30 days to succeed or fail, you'd think there would be lots of activity, and plenty to write about. Instead the Herald has provided nothing, not even the names of those community big shots on the committee. (Any minorities among them? Any women? Any convicted felons?)

Maybe this is just coincidence. Maybe we'll soon see a battalion of hard-nosed reporters swooping down on Tony Ridder.

The Miami Herald has faced similar crises of credibility in the past. After Hurricane Andrew, former Knight-Ridder chairman Alvah Chapman and other company executives spearheaded the private-sector relief effort known as We Will Rebuild. Despite the admirable goals of that endeavor, the substantial involvement of Knight-Ridder personnel led some people to complain that Herald coverage of the group was anemic and uncritical.

And three years ago, as the effort to create a performing arts center bogged down in part because of the prohibitively high cost of land acquisition, Knight-Ridder made the county an offer it couldn't refuse: The company would donate property adjacent to its headquarters on Biscayne Bay. Some argued the location was inappropriate, even if it was free. But company officials vigorously promoted their property as the perfect solution, and the Herald shamelessly editorialized in favor of it. Such campaigning only served to reinforce critics' contentions that the Herald simply could not be trusted in its coverage of the debate, especially in light of the fact that Knight-Ridder clearly stood to benefit from increased land values of the nearby property it still owns. County commissioners, of course, chose the Knight-Ridder site, and the arts center project is moving ahead, to the financial advantage of the beneficent donor.

These sorts of credibility problems, arising from perceived or real conflicts of interest, are fueled by Knight-Ridder's well-known embrace of the latest industry fad, so-called public journalism. This approach to publishing holds that newspapers should involve themselves more directly -- and more intimately -- in their communities. And while the credo is primarily designed to affect the way local affairs are covered in a paper's news pages, it also provides philosophical justification for executives like Tony Ridder and Herald publisher Dave Lawrence to launch repeated forays into public life.

Tony Ridder, though, doesn't seem to appreciate the controversy spawned by such activity. Or perhaps he thinks of himself as just another chief executive in the private sector -- say, at Burger King or Ryder or Ivax -- and not the man who wields ultimate power over a company that is influential in ways no other organization could ever be.

After Ridder's bravura performance, New Times staff writer Jim DeFede asked him if upcoming meetings of his committee would be open to the public. Ridder hesitated, apparently having not given the subject any thought. "I need to talk to my group about that," he said.

DeFede then asked the publishing executive if he was concerned that the plan he hoped to develop would come to be viewed as a Knight-Ridder project, thus creating a conflict for Herald reporters. "I don't direct the news coverage of any of our newspapers," Ridder replied innocently. "I'm sure people are going to find reasons to criticize what I will do."

Would the Miami Herald be free to criticize him or his plan? "I hope they feel completely free to do that," Ridder said.

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