When reporters switch sides

The message is mixed when hard-charging reporters quit to become advocates.

Published May 13, 2007

He knows it may not look good: An investigative reporter with more than 10 years covering a controversial case leaves journalism to work for one of the guys at the center of the story.

Still, ask former Tampa Tribune reporter Michael Fechter whether his decision to join the staff of controversial antiterrorism crusader Steve Emerson might cast doubt on more than a decade of reporting on terrorism accusations against local Muslims, and he offers a surprising answer.

It doesn't matter much.

"Those who are going to care about this are partisans of one side or another, " said Fechter, who last week revealed his plans to serve as editor in chief of the Web site operated by Emerson's Investigative Project on Terrorism. "If you thought I was awful before this, you'll still think I'm awful. If not, this won't change your mind."

Perhaps. But it is a confusing coda for the career of a reporter who has resisted allegations of being Emerson's megaphone for more than a decade.

Known as the first Tampa Bay area reporter to allege former University of South Florida professor Sami Al-Arian had criminal links to the terrorist group Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) in 1995, Fechter stood at the center of a more than 10-year struggle over Al-Arian's guilt or innocence.

Fechter said when he told his bosses at the Tribune that he was leaving the paper for another job, he hadn't been covering Al-Arian for more than a year - he officially left the beat in spring 2006 after telling them he was going to date Cherie Krigsman, one of the federal prosecutors seeking to convict the former professor for aiding a terrorist organization.

Critics, including a spokesman for the Council on American Islamic Relations, say Fechter's romance and new employer prove longtime allegations that his work had an anti-Islamic bias.

Fechter defends his reporting, saying he disclosed conflicts before they affected his work and those who say otherwise are avoiding the fact that Al-Arian eventually pleaded guilty to one count of aiding PIJ after years of denying a substantial connection.

I had a different question: If your reporting is solid, why risk invalidating it all to the world by indulging personal and professional connections which cast doubt on your motives?

"I understand the concern and I understand the perception ... (but) in the end, we're going to be selfish and look out for ourselves, " noted Fechter, who said he had no passion for his last Tribune job covering state politics and had limited options for jobs outside journalism.

"I'm midcareer here, " added the reporter. "My choice was to stay in a place where I felt I was degrading ... or find a place that's more stimulating."

Al-Arian's case has always been difficult for local media to navigate, with the Tribune often focused on proving the former professor's ties to terrorism, while other news outlets, including the St. Petersburg Times, questioned the strength of prosecutors' allegations and considered protests of cultural bias.

Tribune executive editor Janet Coats declined to comment on Fechter's departure for this column, saying, "There's not much from my perspective that I can add to this discussion."

In a Tuesday Times story, she said, "Steven Emerson is controversial. Michael Fechter is controversial. That Michael is going to work for Steven is controversial. To put separation between them and the paper, we asked Michael to leave today, rather than wait."

Similar transitions have happened before at both the St. Petersburg Times and Tampa Tribune.

In 2003, Julie Hauserman, a former Times reporter in Tallahassee, left the newspaper and eventually became spokeswoman for a tax reform campaign conducted by former Senate President John McKay and former Pinellas Sen. Jack Latvala.

That same year, after filing numerous stories on allegations a Coronet Industries facility in Plant City may have polluted surrounding neighborhoods, Tribune reporter Deborah Alberto left the newspaper to work for law firms representing families suing the company.

Regardless of whether either journalist's coverage was affected, say some experts, the decision to vault from reporting to working for an advocate can settle a cloud over the work.

"The real problem is the perception whether or not all along you were jockeying for the position," said Jeffrey Seglin, an Emerson College professor who writes on ethics for the New York Times Syndicate. "It's not just that you have to be careful not to do something. It's the perception that you're fighting."

Former TV reporter Laura McElroy said she faced a different problem when she left WFTS-Ch. 28 three years ago to become a public information officer for the Tampa Police Department.

While police officials were asking her to consider working for them, WFTS assigned her to cover a sensitive story involving the station and police: the arrest of one of the outlet's investigative reporters, Mike Mason, on charges of "doctor shopping" to obtain multiple prescriptions for painkillers.

McElroy never told her supervisors the police department had asked her to consider working for them. Instead, she pressed police officials aggressively to justify arresting Mason, who had done his own tough reporting on the police.

"When I came to the police department, there were people in this organization who said 'Why didn't you give us a break?' " said McElroy, while stressing that top management at the department understood her actions. "But I wasn't going to compromise my journalistic integrity on one story. You spend your entire career building that."

Seglin and others suggested news outlets encourage departing reporters to avoid working with or for people they covered for a year. But Seglin noted the general public might not appreciate such a rule for a jarring reason: They assume journalists regularly make such compromises already.

Fechter said he's already lived up to the yearlong hiatus suggested by some. "I don't know that this is different than any other career, " Fechter said. "You interact with people, you network with them and sometimes that leads to an opportunity."