Public policy in a newspaper strike

When New York City's presses stopped, a lot went uncovered

New York city newspaper workers—including journalists, delivery truck drivers, and pressmen—went on strike on November 1, 1962. They would be off the job for 114 days. In the gap, suburban publishers produced special city editions, and New Yorkers, used to the nation’s most vibrant and diverse newspaper culture, had to turn elsewhere for news. In their appraisal of what readers likely missed, New York Times reporters Clayton Knowles and Richard P. Hunt found ample evidence that on a wide range of issues, the city just didn’t work well without papers providing a steady flow of civic information. Their piece is a fascinating guide to mid-century New York, and resonates with today’s debates about diminished newsroom capacity. The below paragraph originally ran above the article.

How does a newspaper strike affect the functioning of government in a metropolitan area? In search of a detailed answer, two experienced reporters (who, in normal periods, cover city affairs for The New York Times) took a close look at what happened to New York’s government agencies, political parties, and pressure groups during the first two months of the strike. Their investigation was sponsored by the J. M. Kaplan Fund and Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism.

Loss in dollars and cents is the most popular measurement of the impact of strikes; dislocation in normal living is another. But when a strike shuts down the major newspapers in a great metropolitan area neither yardstick is adequate. There is a third important dimension in a newspaper strike—the effect on public policy. This inquiry attempted to determine the effects of the New York newspaper blackout on:

• The public services that newspapers normally provide.

• Public debate on decisions of government.

• The “marketing” of ideas that go into the generation and formation of public policy.

• The newspapers’ traditional “watchdog” function.

Government uses the press as a vehicle for information, as an auxiliary to law enforcement, and as an arm of administration. The extent of newspapers’ services was demonstrated in the strike: some tasks were left undone; some were done less effectively,.

I. Public information

The strike posed a difficult public-relations problem for government. Many officials did not consider radio and television or the substitute newspapers adequate to tell the public what their agencies were doing. Reports and statements were in some cases withheld; in others they were abridged.

The City Department of Health cut its annual report from thirty-two pages to ten. “There was no point in publishing the full report in a vacuum,” a spokesman for the department said.

The State Commission on Human Rights withheld its annual report as well as studies of racial patterns in employment in the hotel industry and in department stores.

The City Department of Buildings held up its findings on two disasters: on the human error that had caused a boiler explosion at the New York Telephone Company’s upper Manhattan office and on the faulty construction that led to the collapse of a garage roof in a luxury apartment house.

The Department of Real Estate delayed a report answering charges that it had favored religious institutions by assembling parcels of city-owned real estate for sale as tax-exempt sites. The department had found that only eight of many hundreds of sales could be so construed. It held up its report on the ground that it had been criticized in the major dailies and was entitled to the same forum for reply.

The news strike also slowed the distribution of a major public-relations effort by the City Commission on Human Rights. “Progress Report” was published, but copies moved slowly. “Normally we would have had hundreds of letters and telephone calls requesting copies, because people would have read about the report in the newspapers,” a spokesman said.

The strike also deprived two city agencies of a valuable weapon in enforcing laws to protect consumers and tenants. Markets Commissioner Albert S. Pacetta said that fear of publicity normally helped keep shady merchants in line. The cheats, he said, hold back because they know how customers react to a newspaper story about a conviction. But in the blackout the highest sentence ever imposed in the city against a butcher with a heavy thumb—$750 or 30 days in jail—got scant attention. Such a story. Commissioner Pacetta said, “normally would have brought a flood of letters, giving us new leads.”

Buildings Commissioner Harold Birns told a similar story about the fight against slumlords. “Landlords don’t want to be known as slumlords,” he said, “There’s a distinct difference between a $500 fine and a $500 fine plus a story in the Times.”

The City Rent and Rehabilitation Administration had a similar problem in rent control. Rent-control officials announced on the first day of the strike that they had won $1,400 in refunds for twenty-two Bronx tenants who had been overcharged on deposits. Nobody reported the story, and other tenants who could have been helped were not alerted.

On January 7, the Rent and Rehabilitation Administration announced a schedule of rent increases that would be permitted for the installation of new kitchen cabinets. Before the strike, gouging in kitchens had created a scandal, but now only the interim Metropolitan Daily and the New York Law Journal reported the story in print.

The Health Department had found that the venereal disease rate was up, but the campaign against it was “seriously impaired” without the help of the newspapers, especially the Daily News and the Mirror.

The Real Estate Department found itself unable to advertise in the usual way its monthly sales of city owned property. In place of newspaper ads, the department tried notices in subway-car windows. The January 10 sales got the best public response in memory—more than 1,000 telephone inquiries. The department planned to use subway ads in the future.

There were examples of problems in communication among government agencies during the strike, Roland Sintron, director of the “tension control” unit of the City Commission on Human Rights, said he normally would have found out through the newspapers, rather than belatedly from the police, that two members of the Black Muslim movement had been arrested in Times Square December 25 on disorderly conduct charges. As it was, Mr. Sintron did not find out at all until January 14, when 400 Black Muslims marched in protest to City Hall. He said the protest march might have been prevented if he had learned about the arrests earlier.

Earl Fisher, chief of the commission’s complaints division, noted that the lack of real-estate advertising led to a decline in the number of complaints about discrimination in apartment rentals. Usually the volume runs to twelve or fifteen complaints a month. In December, eight complaints were received; in the first half of January, only two.

Deputy Police Commissioner Walter Arm said the police campaign to recruit 3,000 new patrolmen suffered because of the strike. He reported that applicants taking police tests dropped from more than 900 a week to 359 the first week of the strike, and later leveled off at about 500 a week. The volume is important because usually only one of ten men tested is finally accepted.

Important court news went unprinted, Bernard Botein, the Presiding Justice of the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court, First Department, said reorganization of the court structure in the city on September 1, 1962, had “immensely” reduced the number of persons held in detention awaiting trial.

He also disclosed that Justice William C. Heckt Jr. of State Supreme Court had completed final liquidation of guaranteed and certified mortgages, valued at more than $700,000,000, which had been taken over by the courts during the depression of the 1930’s. That ended a valuable source of political patronage—the appointment of trustees.

Yet neither story was reported, because the courts maintain an austere public-relations policy, and as a rule they wait for the reporters to ask the right questions. Reporters were not there on their beats to ask.

II. Public debate

The newspaper strike dampened public debate. During the first eight weeks of the strike, many important decisions in government were taken in a semi-silence. Other decisions were not taken at all.

There was no public discussion before the election of Mario J. Cariello on January 2 to fill a vacancy in the borough presidency of Queens. The factionalism of Queens Democrats extended to the borough’s five-member delegation in the City Council, who were charged by law with filling the vacancy. All five were Democrats, but two had strong old-line ties, two were reformers and the fifth was a former insurgent. The newly installed county leadership, moving behind the curtain of the news blackout, sidetracked several candidates and persuaded Cariello to give up a twenty-one-year career on the bench—but without debate. When an identical situation existed in Queens in 1959, debate over the vacancy, fanned in the press, produced one of the most bitter primary battles in Queens history.

The void was noticeable again in the Board of Estimate’s decision to kill the Lower Manhattan Expressway, a project incorporated in the city’s master plan since 1941, There had always been some opposition to the $100,000,000 project, though the federal and state governments would have paid the bill. The board acted just after the city’s newspapers, most of which had strongly backed the proposal, had been shut down. The strike bottled up protests from organizations like the Regional Plan Association and the Commerce and Industry Association.

The muffling effect of the strike was evident again when the Board of Estimate approved a zoning change that authorized the razing of Pennsylvania Station, which some consider an architectural ornament, to make way for a new sports arena and office buildings.

Informal opposition, led by the Action Group for Better Architecture in New York, was given great leeway by the City Planning Commission. “But without newspapers to report our position, we could not capture the widespread public support needed to halt such action,” said Norval White, who headed the protest committee. “This project had the appearance of being rammed through.” He noted that the Planning Commission hearing was held January 3, and its decision was given on January 16. The Board of Estimate voted approval January 24.

The White committee, in fact, lost its last chance to oppose the project at the Board of Estimate hearing because it overlooked the item on the board’s calendar. “We goofed,” Mr. White said, “and it never could have been missed if newspapers had been publishing.”

New York State Democrats, with their center of gravity in the city, were hampered by the strike in executing major policy changes that needed broad discussion. Looking ahead to the 1964 election, the leadership wanted to overhaul the state organization to mend weaknesses revealed in the 1962 campaign.

A state advisory council, made up of leading Democrats now only periodically active, was to be formed. Announcement of plans for the advisory group was withheld for some time, and was finally made in the eighth week of the strike. It created hardly a ripple in the city’s stand-in press. A $250,000-a-year spending program, ambitious for a party carrying a campaign debt of more than $500,000, was proposed but never achieved.

Party leaders, including William H. McKeon, the state chairman, sought to break ground for the program in speeches in the city; without press coverage, they could not reach beyond their immediate audiences. “How can you spell out programs and the rationale behind them when half of the state’s people are without their major and basic source of news?” Mr. McKeon asked.

Feeling unable to mobilize public opinion, several members of the city delegation in the legislature who were unhappy with the Democratic party’s old-line leadership there abandoned moves for a showdown.

The annual exchange over finances between the city and state, almost always conducted extensively through the news columns, was once described by the late Leo Egan as a minuet. This year it was a minuet without music.

New York City was heading into a fiscal crisis when the strike began. Two things were readily apparent: Spending in 1963-64 would exceed the $2,785,000,000 expenditure budget for 1962-63, and revenue would fall short of expenditures by as much as a quarter of a billion dollars.

That the city would have to get help from its governmental sire, the state, was a foregone conclusion. The city’s standby authority to levy a payroll tax would have met less than half of the need. Other unused tax power was unsuitable or inadequate. More state aid would have helped, but Governor Rockefeller had been elected on a “no new tax” pledge and state finances were strained.

Nonetheless, Mayor Wagner addressed his customary annual letter on city finances to the governor on December 2, asking for additional state aid in a score of categories and requesting, once again, authority to impose a tax on off-track betting. He informed the governor that the city was in a “crucial financial situation.” The strike began before public dialogue on the city’s plight could get started. The mayor said the shutdown had handcuffed him.

The state’s fiscal situation was no less difficult for the governor. His budget, presented January 30, totaled $2,889,000,000, up $294,000,000 from the 1962-63 figure. (It raised state aid to the city by $50,000,000.)

The devices that had helped balance recent budgets were no longer adequate and the governor, seeking to boost revenues, proposed “updating fees and charges” by $110,000,000. An outcry immediately greeted the governor’s proposal to boost automobile license fees by $48,000,000. Critics called the move a thinly disguised tax increase.

Within twenty-four hours after submitting his budget, the governors had to use television to defend the fee increases. He hoped to forestall a legislative revolt, but his appeal was limited to his television audience and curtailed newspaper coverage. Almost certainly, he would have gained additional support from New York City newspapers.

III. The marketplace of ideas

Officials, political parties, and organized factions use newspapers (and other media) in a variety of ways to put ideas before the public. The formal statement, the official leak, the trial balloon, argument, gossip, and complaint—all serve to market ideas long before any official action is taken. During the newspaper strike, much of the marketplace was closed.

Civic and minority groups complained they were silenced. Dr. George H. Hallett Jr., of the Citizens Union said the strike had a “paralyzing effect on civic activity.” John M. Leavens of the Citizens Budget Commission said the strike “stopped the clock on public business.”

Milton M. Bergerman, chairman of the Citizens Union, was more specific. He said: “We are in a situation in which the nation’s second biggest government, the two-billion-dollar-a-year-plus government of New York City, is operating in the dark, making important and even grave decisions without the benefit of full public discussion and the airing of all sides and shades of public opinion.”

Others raised this point before the Board of Estimate at its January 24 meeting.

“Why do this during the newspaper blackout?” asked attorney Leo Klauber when the board renewed a city lease for the Transit-Mix Corporation, a manufacturer of ready-mix cement, over objections of tenants living in the adjoining Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village housing developments.

Among organized factions—minority groups, special interest groups, and pressure groups—the feeling was strong that their respective points of view were being stified by the strike.

Vito P. Battista of the small United Taxpayers Party complained that the strike was “horrible because things are going on all over the community and we can’t make our position heard.” Roger Starr of the Citizens Housing Council, which often tilts with Mr. Battista, agreed with him for once: “It’s impossible to function in the field of public opinion during the strike.” He complained that the Brooklyn Eagle was running a series of stories on crime in public housing that was “inept, inaccurate and prejudiced.” He said: “Without the regular newspapers, there’s no place where I can answer.”

Even picketing at City Hall did not seem worthwhile without the regular newspapers. Groups wishing to hammer home a point picket because they are assured of coverage. City Hall was picketed just three times in the first two months of the strike and the strike was in its thirty-seventh day before the first such demonstration was staged by the Black Muslims.

The Congress of Racial Equality said the strike hindered its boycott against the Sealtest Milk Company, begun on January 12 in protest against alleged segregation in employment practices. A spokesman said; “It has been difficult to make people aware of it.”

The American Civil Liberties Union said its annual report was “blacked out.” The Commerce and Industry Association called the strike “very disadvantageous” to its efforts to arouse public opinion on public policy. The Anti-Defamation League of B’nai Brith called the strike “disastrous.” Oscar Cohen of the league said that it found radio and television inadequate to propagate abstract ideas.

For years, governors of New York have been “leaking” to the press portions of their annual messages in advance of delivery to the legislature. Leaks normally begin during the Christmas holidays but were postponed this year until January 2, partly in hope the news strike would have ended. The leaks got scant attention in New York City.

The New York State Log of The Associated Press reported that the governor’s office also postponed for a few days, because of the strike, its announcement of the appointment of Donald S. Hostetter, a former FBI man, as chairman of the State Liquor Authority. The Authority was under investigation and criticism and the Governor’s office evidently wanted the widest possible coverage of this step to “clean up.”

The offering of names for appointive office is often done through newspaper stories. The little-publicized resignation of James Felt as chairman of the City Planning Commission, following the death of the Expressway plan, left groups interested in finding a fitting successor without the usual channels for assisting the mayor in a choice. C. McKim Norton of the Regional Plan Association arranged a meeting of a group of community leaders to discuss the matter over coffee on the morning of January 7.

The group met again on January 23 with the mayor at Gracie Mansion, and suggested that the new chairman be recruited from outside the present commission. It offered some names for consideration. Except for the strike, discreet suggestions to leading editorial writers would have obtained a like result. The group learned that the mayor, too, wanted an outsider and had offered the Job to Robert C. Weaver, Housing and Home Finance Administrator, who turned it down. This information did not become public.

“News and policy discussion gets through by word of mouth,” said Mr. Norton. “New York has become a small town again.”

Political leaders and political parties found it difficult to launch trial balloons. One significant move was canceled because of the strike. It involved the city budget.

City officials were pondering how to raise $175,000,000 to $250,000,000 in new revenue. Among ideas discussed privately were an increase of 1 percent in the present 3 percent city sales tax and the levy of a new city payroll tax of one-half of 1 percent. The Liberal party, often the stalking horse for Mayor Wagner’s policies, was about to propose another idea—a city income tax as distinct from a payroll tax. It would have had a number of advantages, including a broader base and ease of collection. But the balloon was not launched.

“We’re a party that lives by public opinion,” said Alex Rose, party vice-chairman, “Our only role in government is as a moral force. Our role, our influence is at a standstill during the strike.”

City Controller Abraham D. Beame said that the city was stymied during the strike in pressing for a tax on off-track betting on horse races as a citystate revenue measure, A Republican informant said: “On off-track betting, nobody is going to carry the ball for the Democrats if the New York City newspapers don’t. The issue is dead while the strike lasts.”

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.

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.

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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.