This article from CJR's archives is presented as part of our 50th anniversary celebration.
Reform Democrats complained that the strike stilled their voice in party affairs. Richard Brown, executive director of the reform-oriented Committee for Democratic Voters, said his group got only marginal coverage on radio and television “unless we are willing to be sensational.” The new Conservative party made the same point.
The effect in “feedback,” or comment from the public on civic issues, could be noted at City Hall. In four weeks of January, 1963, only 704 complaints about city government were registered with Mayor Wagner’s “Gripemobile,” formally known as the Mobile Information Center. In January, 1962, there had been 1,079 complaints.
The Mayor’s “issue” mail was up from 1,938 letters in January, 1962, to 2,395 in January, 1963, largely because more than 900 writers wanted to be recorded at City Hall in opposition to Governor Rockefeller’s proposal for a $400 tuition fee at colleges in the State University.
Men in government everywhere missed the running flow of comment by editorial writers, civic groups, the political opposition, and the public, that is dispensed through the city newspapers. Julius C. C. Edelstein, executive assistant to Mayor Wagner, said that operating government during the newspaper strike that blanketed the city was “like picking your way through heavy fog,”
IV. The watchdog function
Newspapers have always taken as a prime function a constant and critical watch over government. This vigilance had to be relaxed during the newspaper strike. There were a number of cases that belatedly came to public notice in which the course of events possibly could have been changed if the watchdog had not been muzzled.
On January 10, the National Broadcasting Company reported exclusively that Hulan Jack, who had lost his job as Manhattan borough president upon conviction of malfeasance in office, had returned to the city payroll for a thirty-day stay that would enable him to apply for a city pension of $3,500 a year.
NBC owed its scoop to Martin Steadman, a Journal-American reporter working for network stations during the strike. Mr. Steadman finally established what he had been trying to confirm since December 27—that Mr. Jack was working at a clerk’s salary in the Department of Public Works.
Mr. Steadman reported that before nailing down the story he had encountered evasion and feigned ignorance. When the story finally broke, Public Works Commissioner Peter J. Reidy asserted he had cleared Mr. Jack’s rehiring with a City Hall subordinate. He said he did “not want to kick a man while he is down.”
Mayor Wagner said he first heard Mr. Jack was back on the payroll on January 10, Others high in Wagner councils insisted they had not been consulted. The story broke late but there was still time for the Citizens Union and other civie groups to demand that Mr. Jack be fired again.
The mayor did not respond to such public protests until January 24, when the Board of Estimate approved the pension application. Mr. Jack’s name was one on a list of 136 and if his hiring during the Christmas holidays in the middle of a newspaper strike had not been dug out, it conceivably could have escaped public notice altogether.
Less dramatic but of more lasting significance was the question of what happened to the special report ordered by City Hall on a proposal to create a city-owned oceanfront playground at Breezy Point on the Rockaway peninsula in Queens. Secretary of the Interior Udall, Governor Rockefeller, and Mayor Wagner all had expressed interest.
The mayor had set up a committee, beaded by Planning Commissioner James Felt, to report on cost and other factors. Mr. Felt turned in the report December 17. It was not made public, nor was the conversation later between the mayor and Secretary of the Army Cyrus R. Vance about the possibility of the federal government’s ceding Fort Tilden to the city for incorporation in the proposed park. With the city’s regular newspapers publishing, it is certain reporters would have attempted at least to learn the status of Breezy Point.