NATIONAL | summer 2002
Media Standards at Risk
Lucy Morgan, Pulitzer prize winning correspondent for the St. Petersburg Times, recently picked up a staph infection in a Florida hospital. After her release, Morgan continued to receive antibiotics from a portable drip in her arm. She was in a store and another customer asked: "Getting antibiotics?" And then: "Staph infection?" And then: "From the hospital?" Despite people's familiarity with such incidents, Morgan said a local newspaper-not hers-will not pursue an investigation. The hospital had pulled its advertising after the paper began reporting problems earlier, and the newspaper retreated.
Morgan considers the local situation part of a much broader problem. The news industry's reticence to investigate commercially powerful local institutions infuriates Morgan, whose career constitutes a vigilant defense of the public's right to know what's going on in its community.
Morgan got into newspapering via the public library. In 1965, she was a mother of three young children living in a small town on Florida's west coast. A woman rang the doorbell to ask if she would cover the city council, traffic accidents, and other local events for the nearest daily, an afternoon paper in a town 35 miles away. Morgan asked, "What makes you think I can write for a newspaper?" The answer was: "Well, the librarian says you take out more library books than anyone else in town, and if you can read, you can probably write."
Not necessarily. But in this case, the improbable screen-door interview led to plaques on the wall and a career that continues to set benchmarks.
When Morgan began reporting, the pay was 20 cents a column inch and $5 a picture. She dictated her stories by phone and sent pictures by bus. "Some of them are traveling yet," said Morgan in a drawl recalling her Memphis birthplace and her Hattiesburg, Mississippi, childhood. Soon the St. Petersburg Times, now the largest paper in Florida, asked her to report for them too, and she found herself working around the clock on the morning Times and the afternoon Ocala Star-Banner. "I couldn't do that forever," she said in an interview. But the work was a lifeline that saw her through a divorce and remarriage.
Morgan, at 61 chief of the Times Tallahassee bureau and board member of the newspaper, was sweating out the end of a legislative session this spring when JAWS (journalism & Women Symposium) lured her to Fort Lauderdale for a panel that was asked to consider who would populate the "ideal newsroom." With characteristic irreverence, Morgan said she once suggested to her all-female bureau they hire a man in case they needed to move heavy cartons. A coworker replied, "Couldn't we just get a dolly?"
Morgan won her Pulitzer Prize for a mid-1980s series that led to the indictment of the Pasco County sheriff. Knowing the sheriff to be litigious, she insisted on meticulous documentation that was later essential when he did sue unsuccessfully. The same care was required in 1997, when Morgan and the Times took on Scientology, which routinely tries to escape scrutiny through the threat of lawsuit. The investigation pursued the deaths of eight members in Clearwater over a period of 17 years. The cost of such lawsuits even when won is among the commercial pressures that inhibit many media outlets.
Health care has long been a Morgan flashpoint. In a 1995 piece, "What Price Dignity?" she detailed her mother's slide toward death at 91 and the medical excesses involved in keeping alive someone who would prefer to die. The bill for occupational, physical, and speech therapy in her mother's last months amounted to $30,000.