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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
www.journalism.indiana.edu/ethics/abovelaw.html) 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
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
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
"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
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]phx.com.
Issue Date: October 18 - 24, 2002