Monday, August 17, 2009

The Hartford Courant Loses Its Last Shred of Dignity

When I worked at the Hartford Courant fresh out of college in the 1970s, the Courant had a rock-solid reputation for integrity. One of its rising stars was George Gombossy, then head of the Willimantic bureau and later a muckraking consumer columnist.

The Courant has fallen on hard times financially, having been swept into bankruptcy by its publisher the Tribune Company, but at least you'd hope the paper was holdings its head high. Alas no.

The paper is embroiled in a messy controversy over Gombossy, who was fired after the paper yanked a column he wrote about the Sleepy's bed chain. He was going to report a state "investigation into consumer complaints that Sleepy’s sold mattresses or box springs that were used instead of new, and in one case infested with bedbugs."

Sleepy's, you see, is a big advertiser. The Watchdognation.com blog reported:

“We’re on the precipice of real danger in society here,” Gombossy told me Sunday night. “This is not about me. I’m fine. I’m going to be 62 in less than a month. I can retire. That’s why I’m in a position to raise this issue.

“We’re in a very dangerous situation where most media companies including the Hartford Courant are run by marketing people now instead of journalists, and they do not understand why we have the ethics that we do."

Sleepy's is the biggest mattress chain in America, so the story that Gombossy broke has national implications.

Years ago, when reporter Don Bolles was killed, reporters swarmed over Arizona as part of what was then known as the Arizona Project, and which later became Investigative Reporters & Editors. When an atrocity like this happens, reporters should respond similarly. This time the target is not just Sleepy's, but the Courant.

The Courant is a monopoly newspaper in much of the state. Is this an isolated instance or an example of a broader malaise at the newspaper? The people, particularly in Connecticut, have a right to know.

Here's one question I'd like to see answered: did the Courant take action against Gombossy on its own, or did it knuckle under to a complaint from Sleepy's?

Gombossy is trying to fill the gap with a weblog, ctwatchdog.com. But that's no substitute for a gutsy media, to the extent such a thing still exists.

In a memo posted on Romenesko this afternoon, the Courant claims that Gombossy's "position was eliminated" and, as for the column, that it "is being held by the newspaper to get answers to certain questions."

Uhh, excuse me. This was a column about an investigation by the attorney general. The source was the attorney general, on the record. The column was scheduled to run on Aug. 2, more than two weeks ago.

What has the Courant been "checking" during that time? Whether Sleepy's wants its ads run on page three of page five, maybe?

© 2009 Gary Weiss. All rights reserved.

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