This article from CJR's archives is presented as part of our 50th anniversary celebration.
In 1964, Ben Bagdikian, usually CJR’s Washington correspondent, looked north to Delaware, and examined the very heavy influence of the Du Pont family on the state’s largest newspapers. Control was both literal (their holding company owned the papers) and explicit (one family member asked, in writing, that news coverage become a “house organ” for a pet cause.) The article reported that, on issues from elections to the state’s university, the Du Ponts had ordered editorials and news coverage that suited family members’ political, financial, and personal interests. The Summer 1964 issue where the article appeared carried an unsigned editorial describing the Du Pont grandees as “men of pronounced politico-economic views who completely lack the professional’s appreciation of a newspaper’s obligations and responsibilities.” The Du Ponts let their anger at the article be known, not by complaining to CJR, but by going directly to the president of Columbia University. The Du Ponts sold the papers to Gannett in 1978. Bagdikian’s concern with the way that ownership shaped coverage in Delaware presages his later work on the dangers of the corporate press. CJR’s Fall 1964 issue carried lively responses to the article, reproduced below.
The Wilmington, Delaware, newspapers, The Morning News and The Evening Journal, are, according to a standing editorial masthead, “independent” newspapers. A formal resolution issued by their owners on April 13, 1936, and presumably still in force, instructs the editors that the policy of the paper is, among other things, to “avoid blind partisanship never to misrepresent the facts either in their news or editorial columns; never to resort to suppression except for the public good always to give all sides a fair hearing on all public questions.”
In this the two papers are no different from hundreds of others across the United States that also call themselves “independent” and solemnly declare that their owners insist on editorial freedom and want no fiddling with the news. As in Wilmington, their owners don’t really mean it, or else the words mean one thing to editors and something else to owners.
Creed Black is an intense Kentuckian, 39 years old, with reportorial and editorial experience on Stars and Stripes, the Chicago Sun, the Chicago Herald-American, The Nashville Tennessean, and the Savannah News-Press. He seldom turns his back on a controversy (“I don’t mind a fight”) and until June 1 of this year was vice president and executive editor of the two Wilmington papers.
Black’s departure from Wilmington is not unusual in the tribulations of the trade—it was an enactment of a ritual that goes on through American newspaperdom with all the unhappy regularity of Aztec sacrifices; and if some way is not found to end this combat the free-enterprise press could go the way of the Aztecs. For what Creed Black did overtly goes on silently and secretly in editorial offices and board rooms all over the country, in election years more than ever.
The owner of the two Wilmington papers is the Du Pont Company, which is to Delaware what God is to Heaven. More precisely, the owner is the Christiana Securities Company, a holding company that is to Du Pont what the Church is to God. Christiana was formed in pre-World War I days to buy out a faction of Du Ponts during one of the bitter family feuds. It now owns 27 percent of the Du Pont Company and all the stock of the News-Journal Company, which, with the exception of a paper of 13,600 circulation in Dover, publishes the only dailies in Delaware.
The Du Pont Company is run by an executive committee of nine men, called the ExComm. The Du Pont family interest in the company and other concerns is exercised through Christiana, whose ruling group has some seats in ExComm. There is a single room on the ninth floor of the Du Pont Building in Wilmington where the secretary of Christiana can cast one ballot to constitute a “stockholders’ meeting” of the News-Journal Company.
The News-Journal Company has a board of directors of ten men. Four of them are working executives of the paper, including, until recently, Creed Black. They also include the papers’ president and editor, Charles L. Reese Jr., son of the Du Pont chemist who led the company’s research to international stature in World War I. There are two “outside men,” that is, non-Du Pont. They are Ralph K. Gottshall, president of Atlas Chemicals, once a Du Pont firm, spun off after antitrust action but still in friendly symbiosis with its parent. The other is J. J. B. Fulenwider, vice president of Hercules Powder, another former Du Pont firm separated by antitrust order, with 300,000 of its shares now owned by Christiana. A seventh member of the board is Robert H. Richards Jr., counsel for the paper, a director of the Du Pont bank, the Wilmington Trust, until recently Republican National Committeeman from Delaware, and son of the legal genius who created Delaware’s friendly corporation laws and guided the formation of Christiana.
The three ownership directors are Henry Silliman, son-in-law of Irénée du Pont; Robert R. M. Carpenter Jr., known as “Bobby,” nephew of the president of Christiana, himself on the board of Christiana and owner of the Philadelphia Phillies baseball team; and Henry B. du Pont, president and patriarch of Christiana and until recently vice president of ExComm. H. B. du Pont is the ruling man in the ownership, with Carpenter increasingly influential.
The Du Ponts and the press have had a long joint history. The family first appeared in the Delaware press on January 1, 1806, when one of the papers in town (Wilmington then had a population of 3,500 and two newspapers; it now has a population of 100,000 and two newspapers) carried a grocery store ad for smoked herring, Old Peach Brandy and “Dupont & Co’s. gunpowder.” Since that time their printed presence has been more dramatic. Like any normal family, they have no love for adverse publicity, but their wealth and power have given them more than their share of it. It is a huge family, with about 1,600 contemporary members, 250 of them important in the empire and a handful of them potent leaders. It is a large but close-knit group.
For the last seventy-five years the news has often been intolerable for the Du Ponts, since their prominence made their most embarrassing private moments terribly public. These moments were plentiful, with family scandals and fights, suicides, bordello shootings, spectacular intra-family marriages and divorces (HE MARRIED A BARMAID, a Chicago Daily News headline said of a Du Pont on November 12, 1889) and senatorial investigations of the “munitions lobby” in the 1930’s. All of this gave the family good reason to fear the press.
Alfred I. du Pont saved the company for the family, and helped plunge it into the newspaper business. After most of the clan had voted to sell out to their closest competitor, Alfred formed a troika of leadership in 1902 with his cousins, T. Coleman du Pont and Pierre S. du Pont (with the help of Pierre’s ingenious assistant, John Jacob Raskob). The three cousins took over the $24,000,000 enterprise with a total cash outlay of $2,100—the incorporation fees.
The newspaper appendix to the Du Pont anatomy was acquired after the family declared war on Alfred, not so much because of his spectacular divorce and remarriage to his divorced cousin but because when he did this he inserted a flamboyant announcement of it in the Wilmington Morning News. When he got back from his honeymoon, Coleman told him, “Al, now you’ve done it,” and said he should get out of the company. Alfred refused and the fight was on, Alfred on one side with about one-fifth of the clan, and Coleman and Pierre on the other, with the bulk of the family. The feud involved politics; Coleman had ambitions to be a senator or even President. Alfred started a new bank and deliberately made his building two stories higher than the 12-story Du Pont Building one block away.
Henry A. du Pont, on Coleman’s side, bought the Wilmington Evening Journal. In response, Alfred bought the Wilmington Morning News and six downstate papers and there followed a journalistic firefight that shredded state politics, the company, and the family. When Coleman’s political drive collapsed, Alfred ran a headline in his paper:
BANG! T. C. DU PONT’S BOOM BLOWS UP!
The explosive figure of speech was considered unforgiveable bad taste in a family that lived (and sometimes died) by gunpowder.
When Alfred got his second divorce in 1906, nothing appeared in any Wilmington paper, but there was a full account in the Philadelphia papers, an enduring pattern that continues to this day on sensitive Du Pont family or Du Pont Company news.
World War I made the company what it is today, but the postwar depression caught Alfred personally $10,000,000 in debt. He sold out his share of the company and the News to his family enemy, Pierre. The same faction of the family then took control of the company and of every daily paper in the state.
Over the years the family shaped itself by shrewd decision and careful selection of in-laws to govern the company in a more orderly fashion, ruthlessly weeding out incompetent members from company leadership in the most discriminating nepotism in the country. The Wilmington newspapers were only afterthoughts in this process and they settled down to conventionality and drab dignity.
In 1960, the executive editor, Fendall Yerxa, left to return to the New York Herald Tribune and a management consultant firm combed the country for an acceptable professional to take his place. They came across Black, who was ready to leave Savannah. The Morning News and Journal-Every Evening (as it was then called) were not very different from most papers: the owners insisted that within broad principles agreed upon beforehand, the editors were free to put out the best product they could.
Two other prominent American newspaper editors took a look and decided not to take a chance. One of them asked what would happen if he decided to endorse a Democrat. When he was told that this would be a decision for the board of directors he said good-by and went to the nearest hotel and “got stiff.” On the other hand, previous editors had not found the job intolerable and Reese, the president and editor, is a respected man in the trade. Black took the job.
The technical history thereafter was comforting. Their names were simplified to News and Journal. The typography was reformed; one paper had looked like the pre-war Herald Tribune and the other like the postwar Baltimore Sun. Some of the old content (SANDWICHES/ON MENU and MASONIC CLUB/AIDE TO SPEAK) disappeared to make room for harder news from new bureaus. An inbred staff was leavened with younger talent selected from other papers and from universities. In four years the combined morning and evening circulation went from 106,000 to 125,000. The 1963 revenue and profit were up 25 percent to the highest level in the papers’ history. What was more significant, the old picture of the Wilmington papers as Du Pont Company house organs began to fade. Younger editors even asked if the Du Ponts still owned the paper.
Despite professional appearances, inside troubles had begun in 1961. The starting point was Operation Abolition, the House Un-American Activities Committee film that was used as a set propaganda piece for right-wing causes. The Delaware State Police were showing the film under official auspices to school children, churches, and civic clubs. The paper editorialized against the official showings as dangerous precedent for political indoctrination by the police, using a factually dubious piece of work.
This stand brought severe pressures from the owners. An Un-American Activities Committee staff member and the narrator of the film, Fulton Lewis III, was a guest at the home of H. B. du Pont, where the papers were severely criticized by a group made up largely of right-wing Delawareans. The film later was shown at a program sponsored by Mrs. H. B. du Pont and Carpenter.
H. B. du Pont ordered the papers not to comment editorially on the film. Instead, for two months the news columns carried attacks against the paper by the state police chief. The letters columns carried attacks on the papers and on the patriotism of the staff. The editors themselves were ordered to remain silent. The owners’ old resolutions—never to resort to suppression and always to give all sides a fair hearing—were invoked, in vain.
At about this time the papers provoked the disapproval of the president of the University of Delaware, an institution close to the Du Ponts, who served on its board of trustees. The dispute seemed to be over the reporting of campus controversies, which the university regarded as bias on the part of the dailies. H. B. du Pont ordered the papers to suppress a number of items involving the university.
It was at this point that Bobby Carpenter, nephew of H. B. Du Pont, was placed on the board of the papers. It was plain that the papers were being enlisted in a passionate political crusade. From this time on there was growing acrimony between the editors and the owners.
In 1962, the editors proposed that they interview major candidates for state office from both parties to help them editorialize during the campaign. This was approved. But when the editors decided to back the Democratic candidate for Congress as “the lesser of two evils,” there was a special meeting of the board of Christiana Securities. Christiana is probably the richest investment trust in the world, with assets of more than $3,000,000,000, but that day its attention was directed to the cosmic subject of an editorial that compared the demerits of two candidates for Congress and came up with a begrudging net in favor of the Democrat. Christiana had the editorial rewritten outside the newspaper office. It finally appeared, watered down from the original. The papers did endorse one Democrat openly—the candidate for state auditor.
Other clashes came quickly. When Shell Oil wanted to build a refinery in Delaware, the owners ordered the papers to stop comment on the issue. When Congress was considering legislation for relief of the Du Ponts in selling their General Motors stock under court order, the papers were told not to criticize Senator Byrd, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. During the same period, the Du Pont Company public-relations department asked the paper not to run on page one a statement on the matter by Harris McDowell, Democratic member of Congress from Delaware, for fear it would anger a friendly senator.
H. B. du Pont also told the paper to put the damper on stories of public charges of mismanagement at the Wilmington airport, whose chief activity is handling the business of a private aviation corporation in which H. B. du Pont has an interest.
Some idea of the clash between owner ideologies and professional practices can be seen in the complaints of board members. The significance of these conflicts is not so much in the views of the owners (who, of course, have views, as do all interested citizens) as it is a revelation of what happens when an owner fails to understand the role of the monopoly newspaper and the discipline of news.
Henry Silliman and Robert Richards, both members of the paper’s board, formally requested through Richards that the paper give a prominent play to a family wedding. “I do not know if this is in accordance with your policy or would require a deviation from your rules. If the latter is true, there should be exceptions to every rule ”
At a time when Richards was on the paper’s board and also Republican National Committeeman from Delaware, Richards complained bitterly to the editors that the paper’s reporter had written a conventional news account of a Democratic rally when he should have turned it into a pro-Republican essay. Richards even wrote his own anti-Democratic story as an example of how the paper should have carried it, though presumably Richards was not at the rally himself. “This was a matter which, if properly handled, could, in my opinion, have been very useful to the Republican Party and their success at the polls in November,” he wrote.
When Wilmington began having racial troubles, H. B. du Pont told his editors, “A continual overplaying of integration in our papers certainly plays right into the hands of the radical element of our population many of the writers on your staff seem to have a degree of dedication to certain causes which would make them appear to be quite far to the left.”
Most revealing is the collection of complaints issued by Carpenter to the executive editor:
On an editorial praising President Kennedy’s Supreme Court appointments: “Why should we devote space to one who is an enemy of private enterprise and the capitalistic system?”
When editors asked him if his complaints about their comments on a bill by Representative McDowell meant the paper should oppose everything McDowell was for, the answer was, “I would say, Yes.”
When an editorial criticized some Republican choices of candidates: “Are we endorsing the Democratic Party by criticizing the Republican Conventions? Could we not become a house organ for the conservative cause?”
When he objected to running a letter to the editor signed by sixty-four University of Delaware students favoring integration, the editors asked if they should close the column to all letters from students. His answer was, “Yes.”
On an editorial noting that French Socialists had outmaneuvered French Communists: “Should the News-Journal take the position of favoring actions of any Socialist Party? I believe it is a grave error for a subsidiary of Du Pont to follow the philosophy of the ultra-liberal whose objectives are destruction of capitalistic systems.”
It is apparent in retrospect that two conflicting developments had occurred. The Wilmington papers, as with most metropolitan dailies in this country, were in fact broadening their professional and social scope. This was in line with the growing sophistication of the overwhelmingly Democratic or moderate Republican urban audience. At the same time, the owners seemed increasingly rigid in their demands for ultraconservative orthodoxy and family convenience, both in the news columns and editorials.
With the 1964 election campaign approaching, and with Senator Barry Goldwater involved, it was obvious to the editors that something had to be done to resolve these conflicts. The editors pressed the owners for a statement of what they expected of the papers, some mandate that could be followed. When the editors suggested that the papers be committed to the Republican cause with editorials to “focus on an objective appraisal of the chances of the various candidates,” H. B. du Pont objected that this idea would “leave editorial writers free to snipe at candidates for the Republican nomination for President.”
Black asked mostly for consistency. In a memo noting that he had received orders from four or five separate owners plus the public-relations department of the Du Pont Company, he asked, “How many bosses are we expected to please and take orders from?” (He had, for example, run the names of large holders of General Motors stock, as released to the national press by the Du Pont Company public-relations office and had received bitter castigation from two members of the Du Pont family.)
On May 19, 1964, the owners of the Wilmington News and Journal gave their answer. They said that Charles M. Hackett, executive assistant in the public-relations department of the Du Pont Company, would be the boss of news and editorial operations of the papers, with Black serving under him. Black quit. The day before, the announcement was made that the Wilmington papers had won five of fifteen possible first prizes in a publishers’ association judging of papers in Pennsylvania and Delaware.
The ending followed tradition. Black wanted to publish his letter of resignation, which said, in part: “I, for one, need no further evidence that the ownership wants the Morning News and Evening Journal operated as house organs instead of as newspapers.” H. B. du Pont vetoed the idea. After the first edition of May 19, carrying simply the news of his resignation. Black posted his letter on the news room bulletin board and the Philadelphia papers printed it before Wilmington did.
H. B. du Pont, at the time, denied Black’s assertion and said the newspapers “have never been and never will be operated as a house organ for any organization. Christiana Securities Corporation reaffirms their determination that the News-Journal Newspapers be operated independently with the objective of being a constructive influence in the community, in the state, and in the nation.”
Efforts to obtain further comment from the papers’ management during the preparation of this article were unsuccessful. H. B. du Pont was unavailable for comment. Robert Carpenter, when asked about his role in requesting changes in the newspapers’ content, said, “I wouldn’t want to comment on the subject.” Charles L. Reese Jr., president and editor of the newspapers, also declined to discuss it.
The depressing quality of the Wilmington episode is that it is not unusual. Few families are so powerful, organized, or dominant in their state as are the Du Ponts, but newspaperdom is filled with owners whose assumptions of their responsibilities are based on their non-newspaper businesses and whose journalistic enterprises are peripheral both to their personal experience and their daily attention. Unlike the McCormicks and the Ochses, such owners do not have to live with the day-to-day consequences of their decisions, nor face constituents whose information and opinions they oversee.
Decision-making in newspapers has a fundamental difference from that of most enterprises. Success in conventional business has a simple measure: survival and profit-making. Both are essential to newspapers but a paper that only survives and only shows a profit can be a failure as a newspaper. The newspaper is a community educational institution run for profit. The owner’s relationship to the news he prints is something like a university trustee’s relationship to reading material selected for archaeology courses.
There are hundreds of dailies in which editorials on certain subjects are as predictable as a catechism, whose news departments are designed to over-react or under-react to certain kinds of news, notably financial and political, not because of incompetence or sensationalism but because of the impulse to create a picture closer to the dreams of the ownership. Nor is it unusual for owners to believe that their paper’s staff is filled with radicals dangerous to the point of doubtful patriotism. Owners, typically, are conservative Republicans, and staffs—in journalism, as in most fields—tend to be Democrats.
If there were a tradition within newspapering to contain this distrust and tension between owners and staff, as there is in universities, it could result in a pluralism with the advantage of a checks-and-balances system. But there is no such tradition. Too many owners have been alienated too long from the social realities their staffs must perceive and report (and amid which the staff lives and owners generally do not). The Boston Transcript was perhaps the last metropolitan daily that lived within a closed elite. The power of both the Transcript and its elite were changed with the Depression. Millions of words in thousands of editorials will not bring back the mid-twenties.
There are continual legislative and vigilante attacks on freedom of the press. It will be an uncomfortable time when the owners of newspapers have to depend for preservation of this freedom on the understanding of constituents with whom the owners have been out of sympathy and, worse, out of touch, for thirty years.
When Creed Black resigned he got the unexpected sympathy of some prominent citizens of Delaware, partly because not many hired hands publicly dispute the Du Ponts. Some publishers wrote him that owners will never learn. Editors sympathized with him. And one bright university student who had planned a newspaper career wrote:
I have always had a few doubts about the newspaper business if this is at all typical of the behind the scenes actions in the fourth estate, I’ll have no part of it.
“Case History: Wilmington’s ‘Independent’ Newspapers,” the article by Ben H. Bagdikian that appeared in the summer, 1964, issue, attracted more comment than any other feature in the Review’s three years of publication. The article described relations between the editors of the Wilmington News and Journal and the papers’ owners, a subsidiary of the Christiana Securities Company. It was read into the Congressional Record by Senator Clark of Pennsylvania. It won approving comment in several score letters from journalists across the country.
But the reactions in Wilmington were mixed. The Review prints here three letters, two from members of the staff of the newspapers, and one that was written to the staff of the News-Journal by Henry B. du Pont, president of Christiana. It is printed in the absence of any owners’ reply addressed to the Review.
To the News and Editorial Staffs of the News-Journal Papers:
The “Columbia Journalism Review,” in its current issue, is publishing an article on the recent change in top editorial personnel at the News-Journal. I would have hoped that any comment from this source would have been a carefully-weighed examination of the situation presented with impartial detachment. The fact is, I regret to say, that the article is nothing more than a fabric of half truths, misstatements and prejudicial innuendoes, as you will readily recognize from the attached photocopy.
Such articles have the effect, if not the purpose, of placing competent and high-principled employees of the News-Journal papers in what may appear to be an uncomfortable position before their professional colleagues. This is as unjustified as it is unfortunate. Reckless disregard for truth and personal attacks upon officers and directors of your Company and its owners can be ignored. The implications with respect to News-Journal personnel, however, cannot be permitted to stand unchallenged.
The inference the reader is asked to draw is that, by the mere act of formulating basic policies it wishes the paper to follow, the ownership of a newspaper imposes upon the paper’s staff an intolerable indignity, incompatible with professional integrity. This, of course, is the sheerest nonsense. So is the further charge that this ownership insists on the suppression or distortion of disagreeable news. A newspaper’s primary obligation is, of course, to print the news, agreeable or otherwise. The fact that ownership makes decisions in areas which are clearly ownership responsibility in no way reflects discredit upon newspaper personnel. The high status enjoyed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Miami Herald, under divergent ownership philosophies, demonstrates clearly that no question of professional standard need be involved in ownership policies. The Columbia article reveals a childish petulance in reciting the out-of-context remarks of various directors and represents nothing more than an attempt to find trouble where no trouble exists.
The ownership of the News-Journal Co. is committed to no goal beyond the production of newspapers of integrity and distinction, fulfilling in every sense their responsibilities to the community. The day-to-day operation of our newspapers represent the real test. We have every confidence in the abilities of the management and the staff to maintain the highest journalistic standards.
We take the greatest pride in the professional standing of our newspapers and in the high degree of excellence represented by personnel at all levels. I should like to thank you personally for your loyalty and devotion to the News-Journal and to assure you that your high ideals and abilities will continue to find growing opportunities for professional fulfillment and personal satisfaction.
Henry B. du Pont
To the Review:
Your sense of timing is exquisite. Hard on the heels of publishing an article—to say nothing of your own editorial comment—that is directed at discrediting me and everyone else at this company in the eyes of our professional colleagues, you send us invitations to subscribe to your magazine.
Until the article by Ben Bagdikian appeared, I had held the Columbia Journalism Review in considerable respect. That respect has now been lessened considerably if not dissipated entirely.
It is an editor’s responsibility to check on both the accuracy and completeness of the story that is submitted to him. This, I submit, you failed to do in the case of Mr. Bagdikian. Worse, you have allowed his account to sway your own editorial judgment. The result is a disservice, not only to these newspapers and those who staff them, but to the entire profession of journalism.
Mr. Bagdikian’s story purports to recount many instances of alleged interference by ownership. Unfortunately, two things are missing in most of these cases—the time element and the final outcome. A very natural question to ask is, “What happened?” Why did not you, as editors, ask it? My personal knowledge of most of these incidents is slight; on those of which I do have personal knowledge, I know that Mr. Bagdikian’s story misrepresents or overstates the case.
The whole effect of the story (and I suspect its purpose) is to make Creed Black [vice president and executive editor who resigned in April] look the knight in shining armor put to rout by the evil forces of management. This is scarcely the case. Mr. Black was not the only professional newspaperman on the premises here, although it must be admitted that he was far and away the most active newspaper politician. He also had weaknesses, which should have been clearly apparent from the way he handled his resignation, that were painfully obvious to those who worked under him as well as to those who own the papers. Not the least of these was the inability to admit that anyone but Creed Black could be right.*
You have been exceedingly quick to find something “deficient or irresponsible,” but you have failed to note the underlying irresponsibility of the story you ran. Is this the hallmark of “a meeting ground for thoughtful discussion of journalism?”
You have been guilty of the very irresponsibility you seek to “deal forthrightly with”—whatever that may mean.
Thomas R. Dew
* Mr. Black was named managing editor of the Chicago Daily News on Aug. 11, 1964.—The editors.
To the Review:
If Ben H. Bagdikian had gone whaling in a rain barrel he would have come off better than he does in this article. His attempt to blow up a cause célèbre out of the recent sacking of Creed Black was as futile as trying to popularize baldness. He ran around the facts like a poodle circling a grizzly bear and his net product, a smokescreen, is as transparent as one of the peek-aboo fashions from Paris.
In a propaganda school, his flap might rate a D-plus; but graded straight, as a “case history,” it not only doesn’t make a case, it doesn’t even make a point.
The whole piece, including his petulant sniping at the Du Ponts, could quickly be dismissed as a gnat-bite if it were not for the reflection it brushes on present News-Journal employees, myself included. This comes in his theme, parroting Black’s own outcry, that the executive editor got the old heave-ho because he was struggling to prevent the papers from becoming “house organs” for the Du Pont Company. The inescapable inference here is that the employees are, or would be, content to labor for “house organ” newspapers; and that, of course, cannot be allowed to sail by.
With the claptrap stripped away, the simple truth of Black’s severance was that he had a blind spot—he couldn’t recognize the owners. He thought they were part of the furniture until they started speaking. Then, apparently, he got the big idea that step No. 1 in making the papers “independent” (the quotes are Bagdikian’s) should be making them independent of owner control. What a whizzer that was!
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.
Before joining the Morning News, I worked on the Bloomington, Indiana, Weekly Star and Daily Telephone, the old St. Paul Daily News, the Detroit Times and the Minneapolis Tribune. I mention this only as evidence that the opinions and observations I have offered have not been colored by provincialism. Neither have they been influenced by any unusual affection for the owners. The only things I owe them are a good day’s work and the normal loyalty of an employee—and these I give.
Herbert H. Skirvin
Mr. Bagdikian replies:
My article did not make innuendos. It reported specific instances in explicit language, usually quoting verbatim the suppression orders by the owners. It included these items: H. B. du Pont, president of Christiana and chairman of the board of owners, ordering suppression of editorial comment on an important (Delaware) controversy which involved the paper professionally but which happened to be in conflict with a personal political project of his own family; similar orders concerning the University of Delaware; rejection of an editorial endorsing a Democrat and adaptation of a rewrite done outside the newspaper’s office; a suppression order on the Shell Oil refinery and on an airport where Mr. Du Pont had a personal financial interest; and a written complaint by a director of the paper to an editor saying that a news report of a political rally should have been redone in order to make it “useful to the Republican Party at the polls in November.”
I have read the complaints from Wilmington, most of them making passionate appeals for recourse to the facts. Not one communication I have seen mentions the facts in the article.
No one whose communications I have seen denies that the above incidents occurred. They say that I did insufficient research. When I see a stop sign at an intersection I do not feel it necessary to inquire at the police station whether the sign means what it says.
But it happens that I did inquire of the owners of the Wilmington papers at to the facts and their interpretation of them. Mr. H. B. du Pont was away at the Bermuda races for weeks. Mr. Robert Carpenter Jr., next owner most directly involved, was in Wilmington. I did speak to him, telling what I intended to write and offering to come to Wilmington to discuss it with him. He declined to comment. Later I asked the same of the president and editor, Charles Reese, though he was not directly involved in what I wrote, and he, too, declined to comment.
The only words I have seen from Wilmington have been denunciations of me, which are irrelevant, and the suggestion that my inferences from the facts are unsound. As to the latter, the facts remain in the article, documented and unrefuted. As for the inferences to be drawn from them, the readers can judge for themselves.