Tuesday, August 18, 2009

More on the Degradation of the Hartford Courant

It's depressing to read today's New York Times account of the Hartford Courant's firing of consumer columnist George Gombossy. The Times account adds new, blood-curdling details of the degradation of what had once been a fiercely independent, award-winning newspaper--the oldest in the nation, as it often likes to point out.

A few months ago, Mr. Gombossy said, he was called into a meeting with Courant executives. He had written columns about a Connecticut contracting company that was also a Courant advertiser. ["director of content" Jeff] Levine said that he had received a letter from the contractor about the columns, and asked Mr. Gombossy to meet with the company and to “be nice to them” because an advertising deal was at risk, Mr. Gombossy said.

“At that point, I told them I’m refusing and I said, ‘You’ve got to fire me if you insist on me doing that,’ ” Mr. Gombossy said. According to him, Mr. Levine then backpedaled on the demand to meet with the advertiser, but said that he could not write about a major advertiser unless it was cleared by Mr. Levine.
Gombossy also said he was told he couldn't post blog comments from readers critical of advertisers.

This is, of course, disputed by the Courant's editor. I believe Gombossy.

"Gombossygate" reflects the inherent tensions that newspapers are going to experience as the industry dies. As I pointed out in Salon a couple of years ago, the interests of newspapers and shareholders are inherently irreoncilable. The Tribune Company, which owns the Courant, was delisted in February so that's no longer a factor. What's happening here is elemental--an indication of the kind of sacrifices publishers are making to stay alive. In the case of the Courant, it is a conscious decision to sacrifice its integrity.

UPDATE: A Courant spokesman emailed me the following response:

Company Statement:

The overriding consideration on stories reported by the Hartford Courant is making sure the facts are thoroughly checked out and correct. Our advertisers have no influence on what we report, including stories that may include them. This is a long time Courant policy.

Our readers and advertisers do and should expect us to report stories we know are accurate and fully reported. George Gombossy’s story needs and is receiving additional checking and verification. This is a common practice required by our editors with all Courant news stories, including columns by Mr. Gombossy, and while employed with the Courant, he was well aware of this and accepted and followed this policy over the years.

While Mr. Gombossy's position was eliminated, he was made aware of the newly-defined consumer reporter position that will be combined with our newspaper, television station and Web site. He did not express interest.
Thanks for the statement. Good luck with that "additional checking and verification" process. It's been how long since Gombossy submitted the column on Sleepy's? Sixteen days?

Gombossy has an "official statement" of his own.

Previously, he had said as follows: Maybe someone also wants to ask her [the Courant's editor] for the email that informed me of why my column was not running and what question did I fail to answer. Her problem is going to be that no such an email exists and no such conversation took place between me and any of my editors."

I'm glad the Times followed up, but clearly this story is not over.

© 2009 Gary Weiss. All rights reserved.

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