Providence's Alternative Source!

Feeling inhibited
Providence Journal publisher Howard G. Sutton's spiking of an op-ed piece about the current state of journalism reflects a growing level of timidity

[] Expressions of concern about the current state of journalism aren't exactly a rare thing these days. Ever since Jay Harris, publisher of the San Jose Mercury News, resigned in early 2001 and criticized Knight Ridder CEO Tony Ridder's demand for profit margins as high as 30 percent, industry insiders have been worrying about the long-term impact of watering down newspapers through layoffs, buyouts, and other cuts. But when Charles "Chuck" McCorkle Hauser, a gutsy former executive editor at the Providence Journal, took up the theme in writing an op-ed piece for the ProJo, he found an unwelcome reception.

Hauser penned the recent op-ed about a panel discussion on "the ethics of information" at the Chautauqua Institution in upstate New York. Condemning the bottom-line focus of such media conglomerates as Knight Ridder, Hauser nonetheless rejected former State Department spokesman Hodding Carter III's view that a "terrible malaise" is gripping "the nation's newsrooms as the dreams of young journalists are shattered on the altar of profit."

"Even on papers whose news budgets are starved by corporations focused on the bottom line, there are conscientious editors and reporters who are striving to do a good job with limited resources," wrote Hauser, who has continued to contribute an occasional commentary to the Journal since retiring as the paper's executive editor in 1988. "Those are the people who are keeping the flame of good journalism alive."

Although Hauser's op-ed doesn't mention the Journal or its parent, the Dallas-based Belo Corporation, it's certainly not a stretch to think that he had them in mind. Mindful of the cost-cutting that comes when newspaper ownership changes from a local family to an out-of-state chain, Hauser was a vocal

opponent of the Journal's sale to Belo in 1997, and many of his concerns about reducing staff and diminishing the paper's sweep have since come to fruition. In this respect, perhaps it's not unusual that the former editor's op-ed was considered too hot to handle by ProJo publisher Howard G. Sutton, who spiked it in mid-September after editorial page editor Robert Whitcomb had praised the piece and prepared it for publication. No further explanation was offered for the move, Hauser says, after Whitcomb informed him via e-mail that Sutton "had seen it on the page proof and ordered it killed."

In keeping with Journal management's practice of not speaking with the Phoenix, Sutton didn't return a call seeking comment for this article. It's well within a publisher's rights to decide not to publish an op-ed, and Alex S. Jones, director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, finds it "entirely unsurprising" that a publisher would deep-six a piece containing implicit criticism of a newspaper.

Still, several editorial page editors describe it as unusual for a publisher to kill an op-ed already approved by the editorial page editor. The danger of corporate journalism was the focus of a book earlier this year, The News About the News:American Journalism In Peril, by Leonard Downie Jr. and Robert G. Kaiser, editors at the Washington Post. More importantly, newspapers are supposed to be about encouraging speech, not squelching it.

But as one Journal insider, who read Hauser's op-ed after being furnished with a copy by the Phoenix, says, "It's obvious why Howard Sutton spiked this column. As the publisher of a newspaper where the dreams of reporters -- young and old -- are being sacrificed on the altar of profit, he can't stand being held up to the mirror."

Another ProJo staffer says, "Given the kind of rants they allow other people to
have [on the op-ed page], I'm pretty surprised that they didn't print this, and for the life of me, I can't figure out what disqualifies him [Hauser]. It looks personal, doesn't it?"

It's a possibility. Sutton actually worked for Hauser for about two years when the latter served as general manager of the Journal Company as well as executive editor. It may be that the one-time underling got tired of the old editor's writings, such as a post-mortem on the mess at the Los Angeles Times in 2000, when ad executives struck a secret deal to share ad revenue from a special edition with the new Staples Center arena. Quoting former Times publisher Otis Chandler, Hauser noted, "Successfully running a newspaper is not like any other business. Respect and credibility are irreplaceable."

Regardless of Sutton's motivation, this instance -- of the publisher of a corporate-owned newspaper choosing to effectively censor an essay expressing concern about the impact of corporate ownership of newspapers -- is ironic in more ways than one. Under the old, pre-Belo regime at the Journal, not only did Hauser defy a federal judge and risk imprisonment by publishing mob-related information obtained from the FBI, then-publisher Michael P. Metcalf backed him to the hilt, hiring noted First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams to represent Hauser and the Journal Company -- successfully as it turned out -- before the US Supreme Court.

Hauser and Metcalf's stewardship of the Journal as a public trust offers a stark contrast to the bottom-line oriented managers -- first, Stephen Hamblett, and then Sutton -- who succeeded Metcalf after he was killed and in a mysterious and unexplained 1987 bicycle accident in Westport, Massachusetts. Within a year after control was assumed by Hamblett, the first person outside the Metcalf family to serve as publisher in close to a century, Hauser was out and he moved back to North Carolina. Hamblett proceeded to downsize the paper, preparing it for sale by cutting staff, killing the Evening Bulletin and the Sunday Rhode Islander magazine, and he profited handsomely when the Journal Company was sold to Belo in 1997.

Sutton, who began his career at the paper as a circulation statistician in 1973 and became publisher in 1999, has continued in a similar vein. His tenure has been marked by an ongoing dispute with the Providence Newspaper Guild, which represents about 500 reporters, advertising employees, and other workers, and the union has been working without a contract since early 2000. Sutton's reign has also coincided with the departure of dozens of talented staffers, the decision to close the Journal's Newport bureau -- a once unimaginable move -- and a buyout last year that attracted a surprisingly large amount of participation, further winnowing the paper's reporting ranks.

Asked about his current assessment of the Journal, Hauser --- who has a lifetime subscription as part of his retirement package -- says, "I think it looks really good. It looks really slick, but it doesn't have nearly the amount of staff-written material. It shows the fact that the staff has been cut way back . . . It's not a bad newspaper, but it doesn't have the quality that it once did because of the reduced staff. The people who are there are good and they work hard, but they can't deliver the same product."

The Journal truly remains a good paper in many ways. Kathy Gregg does an excellent job in leading the paper's State House coverage, for example, and the three-person investigative team, led by Mike Stanton, unearthed many of the Cianci administration's questionable dealings long before they were vented last summer in US District Court. Despite the shortcomings that come with less staff, the paper still develops important stories and remains the most influential news organization in the state. If Sutton's decision to spike Hauser's op-ed was just an isolated instance, it probably wouldn't amount to much.

But viewed in the context of a number of other episodes in recent years, it's hard not to see this choice as another symbolic marker of how the Journal has become more cautious and less true to its core principles.

In October 2000, for example, the paper's growing aversion to self-scrutiny was evident when it delayed publication of a technology column critical of the ill-fated :CueCat computer device, in which Belo was a major investor (see "Disappearing ink," News, November 23, 2000). In summer 2001, scores of reporters were troubled when one of their peers was taken off a
story, apparently without a good reason,
after a complaint from a source (see "ProJo editors cave on reporter after subject complains," This just in, News, August 2, 2001).

In December 2001, Sutton spiked a hard-hitting editorial that raised relevant questions about Lifespan, the state's largest health-care organization (see "The ProJo's vanishing editorial," News, December 7, 2001). Coverage of the dispute with the Guild -- a labor matter at one of Rhode Island's largest employers -- has been slightly better than non-existent. And amid internal concern that the paper is less willing to break ground in cases with litigation potential, the Journal ceded the early lead to other media in covering the unproven allegations of sexual harassment against House Speaker John B. Harwood (see "A mixed message on the Harwood-Collins case," This just in, News, September 13, 2002).

Asked about his reaction to Sutton's decision in killing the op-ed, Hauser, 73, in a telephone interview from his home near Chapel Hill, North Carolina, says, "I guess I was amused at Howard Sutton's sensitivity, that he would be so sensitive personally . . . I guess that glass slipper must have fit Cinderella."

PRESS TIME was just hours away. Acting without a warrant, the FBI broke into the Atwells Avenue office of Raymond L.S. Patriarca, the godfather of organized crime in New England, and planted a listening device in 1962. Using the Freedom of Information Act, the Providence Journal obtained summaries of years of the bugged conversations in 1985, but US District Court Judge Francis J. Boyle had issued a gag order, prohibiting the paper from publishing the information, and he scheduled a hearing for two days later.

Faced with the decision of what to do, Hauser made the case to Metcalf that the Journal should publish the material. "Timeliness was a crucial issue -- not because of the 20-year-old material in the story, but because allowing a court to interfere with time of publication would be abdicating our responsibility," Hauser wrote in a 1989 account (available at for FineLine, a newsletter on journalistic ethics. "If we did not stand on principle, our failure could come back to haunt us in the future, in a case where timeliness was essential. On the eve of an election, for example."

After the ProJo went with the banned story on page one, Boyle found Hauser and the Providence Journal Company guilty of contempt. The judge fined the paper $100,000, and sentenced Hauser to 18 months in prison, suspended if he performed 200 hours of community service. Asked by Boyle whether he was putting himself above the law by violating the gag order, Hauser responded, "No, sir. I felt that I was obeying the highest law of the land -- the US Constitution."

The contempt convictions were reversed by the 1st US Circuit Court of Appeals, which found that Boyle's order had been "transparently invalid." When the case was appealed to the US Supreme Court, the high court let the appeals court ruling stand in 1988, agreeing with Floyd Abrams's argument that the appeal filed by a court-appointed special prosecutor was procedurally flawed.

It was a triumphant vindication, two and a half years in the making, for a man who had been viewed with no small amount of suspicion when he came to the Journal from the Virginia-Pilot and Ledger Star in Norfolk, Virginia, in the early 1970s. Previously a foreign correspondent in Paris and London for three years for United Press International, Hauser had returned to the US to work as a Washington correspondent for the Charlotte Observer before taking the job in Norfolk, and his resume upon coming to Rhode Island suggested no small amount of dash.

Yet a 1989 Rhode Island Monthly article by former ProJo staffer Bruce DeSilva described Hauser as someone who "came to work with a big bronze belt buckle with a giant #1 on it. He moved through the newsroom with a military swagger, his blue eyes brimming with icy indifference. He seldom said so much as hello to reporters. Hauser was a shy man whose shyness sometimes was mistaken for arrogance, or an arrogant man whose arrogance sometimes was mistaken from shyness."

DeSilva's story and other observers have described how the trio of Hauser, Metcalf, and Joel Rawson, now the paper's executive editor, transformed the timorous and dull Journal of the 1960s into a far more lively and compelling paper. "I think it was a fine newspaper and it certainly did a thorough job of covering the state of Rhode Island, but it was kind of stuffy and old-fashioned," Hauser recalls. "Michael Metcalf, he really believed in spending an awful lot of money on the news product. Our staff [which climbed to number more than 300] was half as big again as other papers of our circulation [of about 200,000 at the time]."

Among other initiatives, Hauser introduced a two-man investigative team, personal columns in the vein of those now written by Bob Kerr and M. Charles Bakst, and a writing program led by coach Don Murray, which subsequently attracted such speakers as Pulitzer-winning author-journalists Harrison Salisbury and J. Anthony Lukas. After backing away from an early 500-word limit for stories, Hauser supported Rawson's push for expansive narrative journalism with memorable writing and vivid storytelling. (Although still seen as having a gift for shaping stories, Rawson is viewed as someone far more concerned in recent years with administrative concerns at the paper. He declined a request for comment.)

Jack White, an investigative reporter at WPRI-TV (Channel 12), who was tabbed by Hauser to lead the paper's two-person investigative team, recalls being asked to name his own partner and how Hauser didn't back off when White chose Randall Richard, then a member of the Journal's two-person Washington bureau. "I think it was difficult for him, but he said OK," White says. "I've got to say, I love that kind of commitment."

For some other reporters, though, a fuller sense of appreciation for Hauser developed more slowly.

"He was more marvelous than most of us knew," says Carol McCabe of Bristol, who worked at the Journal from 1971-96, serving in various roles, including national writer. "He was very personally a rather shy man and he didn't mingle or glad-hand or walk around the newsroom slapping people on the back. Chuck, he tended to stay more apart, but we found out as time went on that he was doing a great deal for us, that he respected and supported the troops in every way he could."

McCabe says Hauser began promoting women at the Journal within a year of being asked to do so. She also credits Hauser with doing a lot of the things "that Howell Raines seems to be doing now [at the New York Times]," by fostering stories about American life and supporting unconventional work. "I occasionally fell very flat on my face," she says, "but he never said, `God, don't do that again.' "

Phoenix contributor Brian C. Jones, who reported at the Journal for 35 years before taking the buyout last year, says, "Hauser was kind of an aloof seeming and somewhat autocratic editor, and it really wasn't until after he left that a more human and even emotional side of him seemed to come through. He was very decisive, and sometimes in a way that just seemed my way or the highway. It was one of those things -- that until you looked back on all that he accomplished -- he was better than he seemed at the time. I think also in hindsight, he was one of those editors who did the hard thing that editors have to do, which is to stand up to their publishers every once in a while."

Jones calls his former editor's decision to press for publication of the mob-related information in 1985 "a pretty typical thing for Hauser. He sort of cut right through the chicken-shit way that lawyers sometimes restrain journalism, and instead went right to the point that the First Amendment has some immediacy to it when it involves a daily newspaper."

For her part, McCabe believes the Journal isn't as adventurous or diverse in content as it once was. "What I hear from a lot of people is that they don't need buy the Journal if they buy the New York Times," she says, referring to the way in which the Providence paper uses many syndicated stories from the Times. "In general, I think it is more cautious not only in the content, but in the kind of things it covers." After being appointed national writer, McCabe was sent around the country -- no small thing for a medium-sized daily -- covering immigration issues at the Mexican border, election campaigns in far-flung cities, and myriad other topics. As Hauser was leaving the Journal in 1988, he visited McCabe at the paper's bureau in Washington, DC to say goodbye. Her position as national writer was eliminated the same day.

TO HIS CREDIT, editorial page editor Robert Whitcomb seems to go out of his way to run a lively and heterogeneous op-ed section at the Journal. Although reminders of the paper's Republican legacy aren't uncommon on the editorial page, editorial columnists Ed Achorn, Froma Harrop, and David Brussat consistently offer thoughtful and provocative commentaries. The in-house material is supplemented by an idiosyncratic gamut of stuff culled from external sources, including a recent gem by author Neal Gabler on the muted reaction of Americans to the wrongdoing of corporate cheats.

But after intending to do the right thing with Hauser's op-ed, Whitcomb found himself caught between various censors. At about the same that Sutton was killing the op-ed, Whitcomb was misguidedly fired by WLNE-TV (Channel 6) from his weekly gig on the Truman Taylor Show, because a ProJo editorial criticized Channel 6's decision to hire Buddy Cianci as a primary night analyst following his June conviction for racketeering conspiracy. Whitcomb didn't return a call seeking comment.

Alex S. Jones, director of Harvard's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy, points to how Boston Globe columnist Eileen McNamara was prevented from writing about a case in which two Globe sportswriters were banned from appearing from two shows on a radio station as an example of how some topics are naturally considered off-limits at newspapers.

"I think the whole point is that the publisher can do what he wants [on the editorial and op-ed page,]" says Jones, who commented after reading a copy of the Hauser op-ed furnished by the Phoenix. "If he [Sutton] had tried to spike a story that was in the business section about Knight Ridder and Jay Harris, that, to me, would have been far more alarming. This was not a great op-ed. I don't think this was keeping vital information away from the readers in Providence. Nothing in there was new news. It was an expression of opinion."

But one veteran of the Journal newsroom, who has read Hauser's op-ed, says, "The only reason I can see for [not publishing] this is because Hauser has been critical in the past for the effect that the sale to Belo has had on the Journal. And I can only assume this is some kind of strange retribution for that because the piece is certainly not openly critical of Belo or the Journal . . . [It's] a pretty valuable look at the state of journalism. I think it [the decision to spike the piece] has to worry all of us -- you do have to worry, is this part of an emerging pattern?"

Lou Ann Frala, op-ed editor at the Palm Beach Post and treasurer of the Association of Opinion Page Editors, questions whether there's a distinction between a publisher choosing to spike an op-ed or a news story. In terms of a publisher killing an op-ed that she has approved for publication, "It's never happened in the five years that I've been on this page."

John Zakarian, editorial page editor and vice president at the Hartford Courant, says a publisher has never decided not to publish an op-ed that he had approved in 25 years at the Courant. "Frankly, I haven't heard of it elsewhere," Zakarian says. "This is the first I've heard where a publisher intervenes [to kill an op-ed piece.]"

"We consider the op-eds the window of the world, the marketplace for all kinds of diverse opinions," Zakarian adds. "We make an effort to invite publication of opinions that are contrary to our own editorial opinions. There are a certain sort of general guidelines -- you can't libel, be profane, or abusive. In terms of promoting an idea or philosophy or plan, that's all welcome. That's what distinguishes lively newspapers from deadly newspapers."

There's little doubt that Chuck Hauser would agree. Although his op-ed contributions to the Journal have been relatively few in recent years, the former editor remains engaged by writing for a local paper, the Chapel Hill News, doing some teaching at the University of North Carolina, and leading journalism workshops.

Hauser says he has no intention of stopping his writing for the Journal, although he has some understandable uncertainty about Sutton's level of interest. Regardless, he recalls his time at the Providence Journal as "the most exciting professional period in my life. It was because I worked for a publisher who was dedicated to the quality of the product instead of the bottom line."

Ian Donnis can be reached at idonnis[a]

Issue Date: October 18 - 24, 2002