Nobody Touches Tony

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 -- including the Miami Herald -- 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?

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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Jim Mullin
Contact: Jim Mullin