By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Says another former editor at the paper who quit: "There were times when she was brilliant at seeing flaws in a story...that was a huge attribute of hers that I think a lot of other people at the paper never really recognized or appreciated. Having said that, I think those were flashes of brilliance. Her editing didn't make any sense. She was making it worse instead of better."
The former editor, like many others, believes that Price's mandates originate in the office of publisher Rich Connor. Grateful for her improbable promotion, the theory goes, Price is not likely to buck the publisher, who in turn is cozy with the elite and powerful of Fort Worth.
Price and Connor both reject that theory. "If you find people who think we've been soft, I'll be very surprised," Connor says.
In early February 1994, Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison faced both re-election and a trial on four felony charges and one misdemeanor charge of abusing her previous office of state treasurer for political and personal gain. Criminal trials of sitting U.S. senators are rare, and Hutchison hired top-flight attorneys and equally capable spin doctors to fight the accusations. Relations between the press and Hutchison's team were often testy.
Although the case was brought by Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle--whose Austin office has jurisdiction over wrongdoing by state officials--it was to be tried in Fort Worth. In advance of the trial, the Star-Telegram planned multiple stories, including profiles of District Attorney Earle and accused Senator Hutchison.
The profile of Earle was assigned to Joe Cutbirth of the paper's Austin bureau, a genial, if slightly hyper, political junkie who had covered the case and broken stories on Hutchison's travails. It ran as scheduled, about a week before the trial began.
The profile of Hutchison, however, prepared by one of the paper's downtown feature reporters, never saw the light of day.
According to Stan Jones, then the paper's government editor, Hutchison's handlers feared that the profile, set to run the day before jury selection began in the case, was going to be a "hatchet job." Jones says David Beckwith, the senator's spokesman, called Rich Connor directly and demanded that the profile not run. "There's no question that it was Rich that he contacted directly," Jones recalls. "I know it for a fact. Debbie has acknowledged it."
Without reading the story, Jones says, Connor agreed to hold it out of the paper. "The decision was made that we would not run the story. It was not expressed to me that Rich had killed the story, and I'm sure Rich would tell you that he didn't kill the story," Jones says. "The way that it was put to me was that this story wasn't ready. The story was not appropriate to run on the eve of the trial, that it might prejudice the trial in some way."
Connor acknowledges having received a call from someone in Hutchison's camp complaining about the story, but says that he cannot recall who it was. "Beckwith? Beckworth?" says the Star-Telegram's publisher of 10 years, groping for the name of a top advisor to one of Texas' senators.
The story was held, but Connor says it was not his doing; Price made the call and he agreed with her decision. "I can tell you that I felt that the profiles we had done of the protagonist and antagonist in that instance were very, very unbalanced," he says.
Price says she made the decision to scrap the story, but that it had nothing to do with concerns expressed by Hutchison's camp or pressure from Connor. The story, she says, was not fully reported, and she did not consider it complete enough to appear in the paper. She says it was a decision she reached even before Hutchison's press aide called Connor.
The tale of the missing profile follows some contorted twists and turns.
According to Cutbirth and Jones, District Attorney Earle had been reluctant to grant an interview, and did so only because the paper was also planning to profile Hutchison. After Earle's profile ran, Earle was invited to meet with the Star-Telegram's editorial board, and, while there, asked when the Hutchison profile was going to appear.
"Connor jumped on me in the editorial board meeting in front of Earle wanting to know: How did Ronnie know this?" recalls Cutbirth. Connor apparently believed Cutbirth had made some sort of unholy deal with Earle to gain the earlier interview with him, Jones says, although that was not the case. By the time of the editorial board meeting, Cutbirth says, Connor had already told Hutchison's camp that the profile would not run.
The paper found itself in a bizarre situation. Earle had agreed to an interview only because he anticipated the paper was also going to run a profile of Hutchison. "Where I think Rich [Connor] made a mistake was early on telling Dave Beckwith that he would hold the story," Jones says. "Then I think he locked himself into a position and he couldn't get out of it."
In an effort to save face, the paper assigned another reporter from the Washington bureau to quickly pull together a slapdash profile of Hutchison. By running the truncated profile, Jones and Cutbirth say, the paper hoped to appease Earle without offending Hutchison.