Editor says “unpatriotic” story led to dismissal
The editor saw it as an opportunity to tell another side of the Gulf war story. The publisher saw it as misguided journalism and grounds for dismissal.
By David J. Wolbrueck
David J. Wolbrueck is the former editor of the Round Rock (TX) Leader.
Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.
Source: FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 3, no. 6 (June 1991), p. 2.
This case was produced for FineLine, a publication of Billy Goat Strut Publishing, 600 East Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202. Reprinted with the permission of Billy Goat Strut Publishing. This case may be reproduced for classroom and research purposes. Publication of this case in electronic or printed form requires written permission from the publisher and Indiana University. An exception is granted for use in readers designed for specific academic courses.
As the February 11 edition of the Round Rock Leader began rolling off the presses, I remarked to reporter Wai-Peng Lee that the lead story — her interview with a local Palestinian-American who criticized the Persian Gulf war — was likely to draw flack from our readers.
I never imagined that in a matter of days the story would cost me my job and prompt Lee to turn in her resignation.
I had been managing editor of the Round Rock Leader for 10 months. Round Rock is a bedroom community of 32,000 about 15 miles north of Austin, the state capital. By February, Round Rock had caught the patriotic fever sweeping the country. The city was festooned with the colors of war red, white, blue and yellow. A pro-war rally was in the works.
Leader coverage of the Gulf conflict had to this point mirrored the community’s pro-war slant. I was delighted then when Lee discovered IBM engineer Issa Mahmoud, a Middle Eastern native and 27-year American citizen with children attending local schools. At last, the newspaper had an opportunity to present another side to the story.
Mahmoud spoke frankly and intelligently, mostly about Middle Eastern culture. But he also criticized U.S. involvement in the war and called President Bush a liar for covering up what he said were the real reasons for the war — to divert attention away from failed domestic and economic policies on the home front.
Monday’s edition is printed Friday and goes on the stands on the weekend. At day’s end Monday, publisher Ken Long called me into his office and told me I was fired. Long explained that both he and his father-in-law, Leader majority owner Bill Todd, agreed I’d exercised “poor judgment” in running the story.
Long also alluded to an incident the previous August when I’d run a reporter’s opinion piece critical of the city’s call for voters to approve tax- funded bonds for a minor league baseball stadium. The Leader had endorsed the proposal.
Next Long amplified his objections in an unusual Page 1 editorial appearing in the next edition. He proclaimed the article “misguided, misdirected journalism” that belonged more appropriately on the editorial page. His editorial implied that I’d deliberately run the article while he was out of town and said the story ran without the “approval or knowledge of management.”
He apologized to President Bush, servicemen and women and their families. Long pledged the Leader‘s wholehearted support for the president’s “handling of the liberation of Kuwait” and “every U.S. effort to halt tyranny in that part of the world.” To allay any remaining doubts about the paper’s patriotism, Long concluded his editorial: “. . . we hope the flag flying from our office and the yellow ribbon on our tree will remove any doubt about our loyalty to the President and our men and women in uniform.”
Lee’s byline was removed from her stories in the edition following her Mahmoud article, an action Long told her was meant to shield her from harassment. Lee said she received no calls about the article and she soon resigned.
Tipped off by the apology, the Austin American-Statesman reported the firing. The paper was deluged with calls, most protesting the firing, receptionists said. Others wrote letters to the editor.
“Do you have such a low opinion of your readers that you think we cannot hold onto our convictions in the face of scrutiny?” asked one.
Looking back, I can see that the conflict was inevitable. Long frequently enforced his own personal opinions and biases on news coverage. At
Halloween, for example, Long decreed that no pictures of witches or devils would appear in the Leader because he said such art promoted Satanism. Coverage of a months-long dispute at the Chamber of Commerce that was highlighted by the ouster of a prominent Chamber employee was kept to a minimum by Long, who this year heads the organization. Long also ordered that the foreclosure auction of the mayor’s home not be reported, though the mayor had a history of financial problems.
The problem at the Leader is fundamental: a failure to differentiate between the roles of publisher and editor. The editor’s job is to provide a forum for all members of the community. The publisher is the business manager who keeps the paper on sound financial footing so it can provide that forum.
That does not preclude the publisher from having a say in editorial policy and direction. But this division of responsibility can only remain intact if neither publisher nor editor allow themselves to be influenced by friends, advertisers, or cronies at City Hall.
I believe that the Leader‘s credibility was badly damaged by the whole affair. Reader Bruce Selcraig summed it up quite well: “Unfortunately, you’ve confirmed in some peoples’ minds the old stereotype of the timid small-town newspaper editor who is frightened of controversy, intimated by advertisers, and suspicious of ideas not his own.”
The following is an excerpt from a front-page editorial by Round Rock Leader Publisher Ken Long. It was prompted by a Leader article critical of the Gulf war:
. . . We extend our apologies to all who were offended by the article. I, likewise, was offended when I returned from a vacation to find the article dominating our front page.
In particular, I wish to apologize to the families who currently have loved ones serving in the Persian Gulf. Our personal prayers and public support will continue to be with them daily.
. . . I offer my apology to our Commander in Chief. . . We support President Bush in his handling of the liberation of Kuwait and will continue to endorse every U.S. effort to halt tyranny in that portion of the world.
. . . The front page of any newspaper is the most important. . . . Rather than publish this editorial apology inside the Leader, we desire to have it appear in the most obvious area possible so our readers will know where we stand. Furthermore, we hope the flag flying from our office and the yellow ribbon on our tree will remove any doubt about our loyalty to the President and our men and women in uniform.
Editor’s note: Round Rock Leader Publisher Ken Long substantially confirmed the facts in Wolbrueck’s story. He added that the dismissal was also prompted by earlier events he can’t discuss because of the possibility of litigation.