Something’s Rotten in Roanoke

Times is silent on reassignment of reporter after local hospital pulls its ads

The Roanoke Times is strangely silent about whether it reassigned a reporter at the behest of a big local business.

A couple of weeks ago, a strong Wall Street Journal story peeled the curtain back on how a monopoly local hospital—and a nonprofit one at that—throws its weight around Roanoke, jacking up prices, cutting off referrals to independent doctors, and, tellingly, pulling ads from the Times after repeatedly complaining about a reporter who had been aggressively covering the hospital.

The Times moved the reporter, Jeff Sturgeon, to another beat, and in the Journal story, didn’t say whether its personnel decision was influenced by the hospital, Carilion Health System. That’s here:

As tension between Carilion and Roanoke’s independent doctors grew in 2006, a group of 200 doctors formed an organization called the Coalition for Responsible Healthcare to protest the Carilion Clinic plan. The group posted a petition on its Web site and put up billboards around Roanoke that read: “Carilion Clinic. Big Dream. Big Questions.” The local newspaper, the Roanoke Times, covered the controversy in a series of articles written by its health-care reporter, Jeff Sturgeon.

A few months later, in March 2007, the Roanoke Times moved Mr. Sturgeon off the health-care beat after Carilion complained repeatedly about his coverage. Carilion says it communicated its displeasure to the paper’s editors, but never asked that Mr. Sturgeon be reassigned. Carilion withdrew most of its advertising from the paper, but says it did that as part of a reallocation of its ad budget. “Any friction that exists between an organization like us and the media is entirely appropriate,” Mr. Earnhart says.

Mr. Sturgeon, who now covers transportation, declined requests for comment. Carole Tarrant, the Roanoke Times’s editor, said: “We’re covering Carilion like we always have and always will, and have no plans to change how we cover Carilion.” She declined to elaborate.

But in asserting that the paper’s coverage hadn’t changed, Tarrant didn’t address whether the hospital’s complaints, and the pulling of its ads, had played a role in the decision to move Sturgeon.

The story caused a stir in Roanoke, and on Sunday the paper’s managing editor, Michael Stowe, wrote a column headlined “Journal story prompts questions about Carilion coverage,” saying more than a dozen readers had written about the Journal story, with some questioning the Times’s own coverage of Carilion.

He defended the paper’s coverage:

We knew that Journal reporter John Carreyrou had visited Roanoke earlier in the summer to report on Carilion’s growing influence in the region. What new facts or sources, we wondered, might he uncover?

When the story published in the Journal on Aug. 28, we were pleased to see few surprises.

But, like Tarrant, he failed to address the only allegation directed at the paper itself: that it had removed Sturgeon at the hospital’s behest. Oddly, the column does address why the paper dropped the comic strip “For Better Or For Worse,” which is repeating its original story line, even though it still runs “Peanuts.”

In an interview with me, Stowe said he believed the issue had “been addressed” by Tarrant in the original Journal story. He also repeated that the coverage of Carilion had not changed, even if the reporter had.

“I can tell you that we feel like we cover Carilion better any other news media organization,” he said. “We have a track record.”

As for Sturgeon, he said that “we restructure and change beats all the time,” but declined to say whether Sturgeon’s reassignment was part of a normal beat change. “We don’t get into personnel decisions and why we change beats,” he said.

He said Sturgeon wasn’t “banned’ from covering Carilion and that, as he noted in his column, that Sturgeon did write a tough story about Carilion in May.

Tarrant and Sturgeon both declined to comment to me.

So here’s the record on Carilion and Sturgeon as it now stands:

A hospital complains about a reporter and pulls ads from the paper. The paper reassigns him.

The paper—offered three chances—declines to deny that one caused the other when a simple “no” would do.

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Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.