This article from CJR's archives is presented as part of our 50th anniversary celebration.
Bagdikian could have learned this easily with a little legwork, but, in his eagerness to take a potshot at a successful private enterprise, he obviously confined his research to a dossier of pique supplied, directly or indirectly, by Black.
Actually, as every newspaperman knows, there’s not a paper in the United States or abroad, big or small, daily or weekly, that would have brooked such nonsense from Black. Owners, in varying degree, are tolerant of many employee deviations and peccadillos, but they lower the boom fast on any poaching on their front porch. In some rare instances, they might delegate control, with definite restrictions—but surrender it? Never!
If Black had put over his grand coup, immobilizing the owners, it would have gone on Page 1 of the Book of Magic as a trick for the ages, something like plowing under a pyramid with a sandbox spoon, or scaling Mt. Everest feet first. But he didn’t have a chance and I, for one, could have told him so. On a smaller scale, I tried the same thing years ago on an elderly, whipsaw publisher in Indiana and was squelched pronto with this memorable ultimatum: “Son, if you don’t like the way we run things, go out and start your own newspaper.”
Black is a highly capable editor in many respects and it would be a pity if he were to allow his progress to be withered by an allergy to owners. Old hands in the newspaper game will extend him little sympathy in regards to his exit from Wilmington. Before taking his job here, he knew, or should have known, what the owner setup was. If he had any reservations about taking orders or suggestions from the owners, he should have said “I pass” and gone elsewhere. Nobody shanghaied him. The decision was his, he made and bound himself by it.
The News-Journal papers have their flaws and are subject to criticism, like all other newspapers. Although improvements are constantly being made, there are always others that can be achieved. The papers welcome constructive criticism as a needed burr under the saddle, as a guide to progress. But Bagdikian’s article falls in a different category.
I have been on the Morning News staff for more than 25 years and during this time have noticed no pressure to turn the papers into “house organs.” If the owners had wanted such a thing, they could have effected it long before Black arrived. Instead, being fully aware of the papers’ responsibility to the public, in the absence of competition here, they have leaned over backwards in their efforts to keep them on an independent keel. They have succeeded to a remarkable degree.
If Bagdikian makes a fair comparison of fairness, both in the handling of general and political news and in the treatment of people of all nationalities, colors and religions, and also in editorial comment, he will find that the papers here have a batting average equal to, or better than, those of 90 percent of the American press. The coverage of Du Pont Company activities has been extensive, but no more than any other paper would give an industrial enterprise of such local and worldwide importance. Both the good news and the bad have been published without concealment or distortion.
The same thing has been true in regards to the Du Pont family. A check of the files will show Bagdikian or anyone else that divorces, lawsuits, squabbles and personal adventures—anything newsworthy developing in the family—have been reported openly and fully.
One swift indicator of the papers’ independence, which might intrigue Bagdikian, is their hiring policy. The owners, if they wished, could pack the staffs with Republicans of their own conservative bent. Quite to the contrary, however, the staffs are lopsided with Democrats and liberals, many of whom are in key positions. For example, on the Morning News, the city editor, news editor, state editor, women’s editor, society editor, and the copydesk slotman, along with the assistant city editors, assistant state editor and assistant slotman, are all Democrats.