This article from CJR's archives is presented as part of our 50th anniversary celebration.

L. Judson Morhouse resigned December 27 as Republican state chairman. Substitute news media in the city accepted the surprise action as dictated (1) by Mr. Morhouse’s desire to spend more time practicing law or (2) by Governor Rockefeller’s unhappiness with Mr. Morhouse’s work as chairman.

Both explanations overlooked obvious facts: Mr. Morhouse had just conducted a successful state campaign. What is more, the release of an exchange of letters, customarily available early in “arranged” resignations, did not come for more than an hour after the announcement.

It was not until January 9 that an alternative explanation was presented. On that date, Mr. Morhouse, accompanied by counsel, appeared by request before a New York County grand jury investigating scandals in the administration of state liquor laws. Mr. Morhouse refused to waive immunity.

The absence of New York City’s newspapers eased the political embarrassment for the Republicans. Had newspapers been publishing, they would not have accepted the original reasons advanced for Mr. Morhouse’s resignation as party chairman.

Whether by accident or design, a city commitment on December 21 to assume $7,000,000 more of the cost of pensions for firemen and policemen never was announced by the Wagner administration. Fire Lines, the publication of the Uniformed Firemen’s Association, AFL-CIO, put the story on the record a full month later on January 21.

Less than an hour after copies of Fire Lines reached the City Hall press room. Debs Myers, the Mayor’s executive secretary, called a news conference in his office to have the matter explained. Raymond E. Diana, labor aide to the Mayor, said that henceforth the city would pay 85 percent, instead of 75 percent, of the pension costs for 40,000 members of the uniformed forces.

The City Hall spokesmen insisted that the pension agreement had nothing to do with bargaining on pay and working conditions that had been carried on with the firemen for more than six months. Fire Lines said in its story that picketing by the uniformed forces at City Hall, arising from unhappiness with progress of negotiations, had been called off in October only on condition that pension changes would be “explored.” The story went on to say that police and fire representatives had “negotiated the … reduction with Mayor Wagner” on December 21.

It is not probable that this story would have been buried for a month if “beat” reporters had been covering labor, the police department, and the fire department. Details actually had been announced at a public meeting of the United Firemen’s Association. Nobody covered the meeting.

V. Conclusions

The New York newspaper strike affected government by hampering its work in informing the public, as shown by the reports and statements that were withheld; by inhibiting law enforcement in the protection of consumers and tenants; by interfering with the recruitment of policemen and the protection of civil rights.

It cramped debate on an important cross-Manhattan highway proposal, on what the city should do to meet its pressing financial problems, on financial relationships between the city and the state. It grounded trial balloons from officials and politicians, and muffled the voices of civic and minority groups.

It deprived the public of its watchdog, in such cases as the affair of Hulan Jack’s pension, the plans for Breezy Point Park, the involvement of L. Judson Morhouse with the State Liquor Authority, and the increase in pensions for firemen and policemen.

The strike showed how and why the press is part of the lifestream of a democratic society, dependent as it is upon a free and continuous exchange between government and the governed. The strike cost the publishers and their employees dearly, and business throughout the city was hurt. The economic price could be reckoned and paid, but the cost to the public welfare and the public policy was truly incalculable.

 

Clayton Knowles and Richard P. Hunt were city reporters at The New York Times. Knowles later reported for the paper in Washington and died in 1978. Hunt, who went on to work for NBC and PBS, died in 1992.