America’s Phone-Hacking Scandal
On June 28, 1998, under a bold headline, “An apology to Chiquita,” The Cincinnati Enquirer made a shocking admission.
The series of investigative articles it had published a month earlier on the business practices at Chiquita Brands International were “based on illegally obtained voice mail messages” by an Enquirer reporter. To get information for the explosive stories, Chiquita’s phones had been hacked.
The growing phone-hacking scandal that threatens media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s international empire is a reminder that getting a news scoop by unscrupulous means, though rare, is nothing new and is not limited to sensational tabloids.
The Enquirer’s troubles began May 3, 1998. After a year of intensive reporting, the newspaper published an 18-page series of 22 stories accusing Chiquita of bribery and other illegal activities in the Latin American countries where it produced bananas. The allegations were supported by access codes and phone tapes that the lead reporter initially claimed he received from a source at Chiquita.
When Chiquita executives learned that the information was gathered through voice mail taps, they sued the reporter for libel, wiretapping and trespassing and threatened to sue the Enquirer. The paper agreed to pay Chiquita “in excess of $10 million in exchange for settlement of claims against it by Chiquita.”
The Enquirer also agreed to run a prominent apology to Chiquita, which it ran for three days on the front page and on its website.
“The Enquirer believed that the series’ accusations against Chiquita were based upon
what was thought to be factional information obtained in an ethical and lawful manner. … We apologize to Chiquita and its employees for this unethical and unlawful conduct and for the untrue conclusions in the Chiquita series of articles.”
Whether the allegations against Chiquita were true or untrue became secondary to the unlawful reporting techniques. The reporter lost his job, and the Enquirer lost its longstanding reputation for fairness and accuracy. The series was permanently pulled from the Enquirer’s website.
Unlike Murdoch’s News of the World, which folded in the aftermath of public outrage after 168 years in print, the Enquirer recovered and is still in business. But the paper remains a footnote in discussions on press credibility.
The Newseum’s News History Gallery contains an exhibit and video on media ethics and accuracy.