By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
In mid-November, journalists and editors from across Texas gathered at a downtown Dallas hotel for the annual rite of self-congratulation known as the Katie Awards. Seats cost $50. Valets parked cars. A chocolate pate dessert followed dinner. Free wine flowed as the assemblage settled in for a marathon presentation by the Dallas Press Club.
Hours were consumed passing out more than 100 "Katies" honoring the best work of all things journalistic--to newspapers, television stations, radio stations, magazines, and public relations firms. (The nickname--Katies--is a mimic of the more famous Oscars. The trophies themselves are statues of a busty, naked woman, a design also loosely borrowed from the Oscars.)
By the close of the ceremony, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram had picked up five awards. It was not a particularly impressive showing for a major Texas newspaper, but it left publisher Rich Connor in an exuberant mood. He had even won an award for his own editorial writing.
Afterward, in an upstairs hotel suite, wine continued to flow, some of it onto Connor's shirt. He removed the stained shirt, then put his tuxedo jacket back on.
Bare-chested, tux jacket open, each hand clutching a statue of a naked woman, Connor strutted about the party in celebration. Sweet victory.
It did not take long for word of Connor's performance to pass among the 300 or so writers and editors of his newspaper. Many shuddered at the spectre of their publisher's jubilation. A handful of Katies aside, the Star-Telegram is a deeply troubled newspaper.
Finances are not the problem. A comfortable monopoly daily, the paper remains a profitable cog in the Capital Cities/ABC Inc. media machine.
But discontent in the Star-Telegram's newsroom has been mounting since about June 16, 1993, the day Connor selected columnist Debbie Price to take over as the paper's executive editor. Price's ascension to the top editorial spot stunned the newsroom staff, and sent murmurs of curiosity throughout journalism circles. Her selection was somewhat akin to a football team naming its place- kicker as head coach.
When promoted, Price was a 34-year-old columnist and onetime reporter who had no experience as an editor. Her career had been only modestly distinguished, offering no obvious reason why Connor would pluck her from the ranks and hand her the reins of the newsroom.
Connor did so, he says, because he felt Price had the ability to seize control and put a halt to what he saw as unacceptable coddling of reporters and editors. "The newsroom was the proverbial tail wagging the dog," Connor says. "This is a place where people used to be able to come, the last 20 years, and retire. Where people would sit down and negotiate what was in a story and what wasn't in a story and the way it was written. I don't believe in that. I believe strong editors make good newspapers.
"I told her this was not a popularity contest with the newsroom," Connor adds, "that they had to learn to get along with her."
To a great extent, Connor seems to have gotten what he wanted: Price has seized control of the newsroom with a righteous fervor. Many current and former employees describe the Price newsroom as an exercise in chain-gang journalism, with reporters and editors shackled to the unpredictable whims of a vituperative warden.
During the past two years, a startling number of the paper's most seasoned reporters and editors have left. A fair number of those remaining say they wish they could leave, too, but that journalism jobs are too hard to find these days.
Neither Price nor Connor has been ruffled by the departures. "I see very few people leaving here that, in my opinion, we don't want to go," Connor says.
But the paper's problems extend beyond turnover and personality clashes. Numerous current and former employees contend Price is beholden to the publisher who vaulted her to prominence because she lacks seasoned editorial judgment of her own.
Before Price, they say, the newsroom had been run by journalists with enough professional stature to countervail any tendency Connor might have to cozy up to the rich and powerful. Now, they complain, the paper has lost its guts, leaving its news columns marked by timidity and puffery. They say they have seen news stories softened, or outright killed, at Connor's behest, in apparent deference to local business and political leaders.
Connor and Price dismiss those characterizations. Price calls them falsehoods passed on by "people with agendas."
"We have a large disgruntled element. We have a lot of people who are not happy because we've made some big changes," Price says.
Reporters do love to complain, and newsrooms are fractious by nature. But the turmoil at the Star-Telegram eclipses the discord normally present at a large newspaper.
In large part, the turmoil is a product of Price's management style, which some employees describe as the "Off With Their Heads" approach. "If she came in and her muffin wasn't puffed, 'Off with their heads,'" says one former reporter.
But the criticism is also a reflection of a new reality dawning in newsrooms across the country. Scrambling for circulation and in some cases survival, newspapers are searching for ways to make themselves more palatable to readers. While the Star-Telegram is in no danger of folding, it does face uncertainty this month when its corporate parent--Capital Cities/ABC Inc.--will be absorbed by the Walt Disney Co. in the second-largest corporate merger in U.S. history. Rumors abound that the paper will be sold to new owners--possibly even A.H. Belo Corp., owner of The Dallas Morning News--although Disney has not revealed its intentions.
With daily newspaper readership sliding--the Star-Telegram's daily circulation slipped 3.3 percent to 240,659 in 1995--publishers and editors are groping for ways to keep readers buying their products.
But as Connor and Price reshape the Star-Telegram to their liking, they are doing more than just changing the content of the paper and running off experienced journalists; under the mantra of "reader satisfaction," they are also breaking faith with the underlying tenets of good journalism.
The Fort Worth Star-Telegram has always labored at the edge of Texas journalism. For years, while competing dailies slugged it out in Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio, the Star-Telegram had Fort Worth to itself.
"Over the years, the Star-Telegram always had a reputation of having a lot of good writers and kind of being this big tree that falls in the forest," says former reporter Joe Cutbirth. "Sometimes there are people there to hear it, and sometimes there are not."
The paper won its only Pulitzer Prize for reporting in 1985.
In 1986, Capital Cities installed Rich Connor as publisher. He came to the Star-Telegram after eight years in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, where he earned his stripes with the parent company by helping break the unions at the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader. In this extroadinarily bitter 1978 labor dispute, virtually all of the paper's employees went on strike and were permanently replaced.
Shortly after arriving in Fort Worth, Connor brought in a new editor, Mike Blackman, from the Philadelphia Inquirer. Many reporters and editors recall the Blackman years with fondness. "It was the dawn of the golden era," one reporter recalls. "[Blackman and his hires] just took Fort Worth and kicked it in the teeth. We were getting assignments like 'Go out and find out who runs this town.'"
In 1991, the Star-Telegram hired another editor of national stature--Mary Jo Meisner, city editor of the Washington Post--to serve as managing editor. With the death of the Dallas Times Herald later that year, the Star-Telegram had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to establish itself as a major Texas voice rivaling The Dallas Morning News. Reporters and editors were optimistic that Meisner would lead the charge.
A reporter who has remained at the paper through several regimes credits Meisner with drawing the best from the paper's staff. "With Mary Jo, we always felt we knew what she wanted--we knew where we stood," says the reporter. "Boy, you just wanted to go out and get that great story, because you knew Mary Jo would recognize really great reporting and a good story."
But Meisner would not stay at the paper long, and the opportunity was squandered.
Shortly after Meisner became managing editor, Connor subdivided the newspaper into three departments, wiping out much of Meisner's domain. Independent newsrooms were carved out of the staff to publish separate editions in Arlington and Northeast Tarrant County. The zoned editions had their own editors, publishers, and reporters who did not report to Meisner.
Rather than attempting to expand the Star-Telegram's coverage and turn it into a regional newspaper, Connor envisioned an emphatically local newspaper that did not stray much beyond the borders of Tarrant County. He told staffers he wanted the Star-Telegram to be "the best small-town newspaper" in America.
In early 1993, Meisner left to take the editorship of the Milwaukee Journal (now the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel). Meisner declined to discuss her reasons for leaving the Star-Telegram, except to say that she was offered a great job and took it. Star-Telegram veterans believe Meisner left at least in part because she was frustrated that Connor's new three-newsroom structure had undercut her role as managing editor.
When Meisner left, many of the paper's downtown staff members expected, and hoped, that the mantle would pass to her well-liked and respected deputy, Ken Bunting. Blackman was still the paper's top editor, but, under the new structure, the managing editor effectively ran the Fort Worth newsroom.
One day in June, Connor summoned the paper's staff for an announcement. Many thought Bunting would be named managing editor. They were wrong.
Connor announced there would be no new managing editor. Instead, columnist Debbie Price was being named to the newly created post of executive editor, reporting directly to Connor. Blackman retained the title of vice president and editor, and theoretically stood above Price on the organizational chart, but from that day on, Blackman would disappear from the daily operations of the downtown newsroom.
Although he still holds the vice president's title, Blackman now oversees the paper's opinion pages and edits the Arlington edition. He says he grew tired of the bureaucracy and hassles of running the whole show, and relishes being a hands-on editor again.
Ken Bunting would eventually leave to become managing editor of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
Connor's announcement put Price squarely at the helm of the downtown newsroom. Stunned silence followed. "People were shocked when Rich made the announcement," Price says. "There was not a peep. Nobody said a word. Certainly there wasn't any applause."
Staffers say it took a while for them to realize that Connor was not joking. Price was a perfectly good journalist, they say, but none of her colleagues thought of her as executive editor material.
Price had joined the Star-Telegram as a reporter in 1980 after graduating with a journalism degree from Southern Methodist University. She left to work as a reporter at the Philadelphia Daily News and the Washington Post. She returned to the Fort Worth paper in 1991, along with her husband, Larry Price, who now runs the Star-Telegram's photography and graphics departments. Not long after her return, Price became a metro columnist.
"She was a very good columnist," says one former assignment editor. "She was controversial, created debate in the community, touched on the hot issues. She did what I think a columnist should do, which is provoke, so people will think."
Price as a columnist was fine. But as executive editor? Even she says the prospect gave her pause. When Connor first broached the possibility, Price jokes, "I knocked over my water at lunch. I thought he was kidding. It took me a while to tune in, to tell you the truth."
Initially, Price says, she resisted. "I first told him I was happy writing a column and didn't think I'd be interested. Then I thought about it a little bit more, and I thought, 'Nobody is ever going to hand me this kind of opportunity again.'"
Some staffers were receptive to Price's quantum leap through the ranks. "My initial reaction was, 'Hey, this could be pretty neat,'" says Stan Jones, a projects reporter who Price promoted to government editor. "I knew that Debbie was a talented columnist and a talented writer, and she'd been around in journalism for several years."
Any feel-good bonhomie that staff members might have felt for Price, however, began dissipating soon after she settled into her new office.
When he promoted Price, Connor says, he wanted an editor who would reassert control over the newsroom, whip the staff into shape, and get rid of those who could not measure up. "I wanted somebody in this newsroom who would run it with a strong hand," Connor says. "I wanted a hands-on editor who looked at stories, who evaluated the performances of people, who said, 'This is what we do at the Star-Telegram, and this is what we don't do.'
"I didn't want a consensus builder," he continues. "I didn't want somebody who sees reporters as artists, and thinks that therefore with that goes all sorts of license and freedom. I said, 'I want you to go in there and put your stamp on this newspaper. I want you to run it as if it was yours.'"
Price seems to have taken her patron's wishes to heart.
Former Star-Telegram government editor Stan Jones, who now runs his own insurance franchise in Fort Worth, says a big reason he quit the paper was the "Friday night massacres."
Since the Sunday paper is generally considered a showcase because it has the largest readership--the Star-Telegram's Sunday circulation stands at just over 340,000--Sunday stories tend to be carefully edited, receiving their final tuning on Friday night. Under Price, Jones and other editors say, the process is a nightmare.
Price edits many of the Sunday stories herself, and at about 6 p.m. on Friday, the copy starts coming back to the editors and reporters, often marked up with notes and questions from Price that are longer than the original stories.
No one quibbles with the right of the executive editor to change copy. But they say Price nitpicks stories to death, unable to concede even the smallest judgment of style or substance to her editors and reporters. Once Price makes up her mind about a story, they say, there is no room for discussion. "When she knows that somebody is working on a story, she has in her mind how she would write that story if she were the reporter, and in her mind there is no other way to write it," says an editor still at the paper. "The reporters and the other editors do not have the leeway of developing that story as they see it. It has to be done as Debbie sees it."
Price's heavy-handed editing, they say, is just one reflection of a management style that seems premised on the theory that Price always knows best. She is known to berate editors and reporters for perceived failings, and is not hesitant to do so with others watching.
Even employees who generally respect Price's professional judgment find her management skills appalling. "I disagree with her tactics many times," says one reporter. "It's like that old thing where I don't feel so good about myself, so I'm going to trash you."
One editor recalls going into Price's office to talk about his future. He says he had uttered just one sentence when "she slammed her fist down on the desk and told me to stop whining, to be grateful I had a job. She told me when life hands you lemons, make lemonade. I'm not kidding."
Others say that Price zeroes in on employees and rides them until they leave the paper in frustration. "Once you get on the outs with Debbie, you can't do anything right from there on in," one source says. "I've seen her handle a lot of people that way. Once you start snowballing, you probably have to leave."
Price says she edits many stories in her efforts to enforce high standards of fairness and quality in her newsroom. She cannot worry about the other things people say about her. "I know who you have talked to, and there are a lot of unhappy, disgruntled former employees out there," Price says.
It is highly unlikely, however, that Price knows who spoke with the Observer, although she repeated the assertion several times during an interview. Of the nearly two dozen current and former Star-Telegram employees interviewed for this story, only a few agreed to be quoted by name. Many still work at the paper, and fear that being quoted by name could cost them their jobs. "I'm shuddering right now talking to you, thinking Debbie's going to find out," one reporter said. "That is the fear that she has fostered up there. It's absolutely paralyzing."
If Price's goals were fairness and accuracy, her staff would have no quarrel with her, they say. They wonder, though, how Price, resting on sparse laurels, came to believe that she has a monopoly on professional virtue. "She essentially doesn't know what she is doing," says one long-time reporter. "Her ego has gotten the better of her, and somehow she has convinced herself that she deserved this job."
Price's ferocious editing, editors and reporters say, is chilling the newsroom. Reporters balk at taking on complex or high-profile stories, knowing that their work will be "Debbied" before it can make the paper. Mid-level editors have become so paranoid about incurring Price's wrath that they engage in self-censorship, throwing reporters into even greater confusion.
"One thing that has seemed to really mark Debbie's tenure as editor at the time I was there was that your mid-level editors would put the fear of God into reporters about 'Debbie wants it to say this, Debbie wants it to say that,'" says former reporter Cutbirth. "If a reporter would say, 'I found a bunch of pineapples,' they would say, 'Debbie wants egg salad.' I'd say, 'Well, there's not any eggs out there, but there's plenty of pineapples.' They'd say, 'Debbie wants an egg salad, dammit. Write egg salad.'"
Price's style has also driven away many of the paper's veteran editors and reporters. Since her ascent, the paper has replaced almost all of its line editors--the rough equivalent of assistant coaches--including those overseeing government coverage, the city reporting staff, features, and the Sunday paper.
Mark Murphy, former city editor of the Los Angeles Times and one of the paper's most respected line editors, is now editing books. Former city editor Raul Reyes has moved to the San Antonio Express-News.
The paper's Washington and Austin bureaus have both lost reporters that were not replaced, and important beats such as county government, politics, courts, and City Hall have changed hands. Even rookie journalists sense the unhappiness in the newsroom. Some start looking for new jobs not long after starting at the Star-Telegram.
Discontent, Price and Connor say, is the price of change. "We've been very aggressive over the last two and a half years turning over the staff," says Price. "It's not an accident that so many people have left. We just don't have room for whiners and complainers."
Both Price and Connor say they do not know what the newsroom turnover rate is, although they say the rate for the entire company is about 1 percent. Pressed as to why an executive editor would not know the turnover rate in her own department, Price replies, "If you'd ever managed almost 300 people, you'd understand."
Whatever the rate of departures, she says, she does not find it bothersome. "We're pushing real hard, and that turns up the heat. It puts a lot of pressure on people. There are some people here who are shining, who are really just shining stars and doing great work, and then there's some people who've kind of been left in the dust. They're not here anymore."
Were the Star-Telegram producing remarkable journalism, more of her staff might be prone to agree with Price, but there is little to brag about. Like many newspapers, the Star-Telegram is trying to shift its focus to more intense local coverage, buying into the fad of "community journalism," which sees papers trying to be good citizens in their communities. The paper is running fewer long takeouts or investigative projects, and more shorter, happier stories.
Employees contend Price is weakening the paper's stories and watering down coverage. Price's record for diluting or scuttling hard news stories has been so consistent that it has even spawned competing conspiracy theories. Some believe that she knowingly waters down the paper's content so she won't offend Connor and the powers that be in Fort Worth. Others argue that Price doesn't understand how to pursue and present journalism with guts.
"Do we have a mandate not to piss anybody off at all and be real dull, or does Debbie just not get how to tell a story with any impact?" asks one veteran reporter. "It's happened so many times that people think it's deliberate. A reporter will come down with a story that has got some edge to it. It says right up there, 'So and so is fucking up.' Debbie will come back and say the story's really about something completely different. By the time she gets done submerging all of the interesting things in the story, you get a 70-inch piece of typing. You wonder why the story's in the paper."
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.
Disbelief was filtering around the newsroom at the prospect that, in reaction to one phone call from an irate power broker, Connor would yank a story from the paper.
Price says it simply did not happen that way. She says Cutbirth should never have made a "deal" with Earle to get an interview. The Hutchison profile was to run when she said it was ready to run, and no sooner. "Unbeknownst to me, a reporter who is no longer here had made some promises to some sources and had tried to say some stories were going to run," Price says. "They weren't scheduled to run. Nobody schedules stories to run other than me."
Price says she read the Hutchison profile before she left for an out-of-state meeting, and found it unfit for publication. Besides, she says, in order to gain access to Hutchison, the second reporter had promised that the profile would run later, before the March primary election but after the February trial. Running the Hutchison profile before the trial, Price says, would have put the paper in a position of "lying" to the senator. "That's absolutely misrepresenting what you set out to do," Price says.
While she was out of town, Price charges, Jones and Cutbirth tried to sneak the profile into the paper as part of their inappropriate "deal" with Earle. "The reporter on the Earle story and the editor on the Earle story had done some wheeling and dealing that they shouldn't have done, basically, and had tried to wheedle this thing into the paper behind my back, under my nose, when I was out of town," Price says. "All this sort of blew up in their faces. I found out about it. I said 'No, the profile is not going.'"
Price characterizes the whole situation as a fiasco that had nothing to do with phone calls to Connor. "Promises absolutely should not be made to sources on things like this," she says. "I found out about it after the fact, and basically had to come in and clean up what could have been a very embarrassing situation for the paper."
The Hutchison trial ended up not being a trial. After a jury was selected, the judge refused to allow Earle to use evidence that the prosecutor felt was pivotal to his case. Earle attempted to drop the charges, intending to file them later, but the judge instead ordered Hutchison's acquittal.
Within hours of triumphing at what could have been a career-ending criminal trial, Hutchison visited, of all places, the Star-Telegram. She was spotted--on the second floor, leaving the publisher's suite with at least two of her staffers--by a newspaper employee who still wonders why, "on a day when she was national news, she would be walking through the bowels of the Star-Telegram."
After the aborted trial, Cutbirth says an editor "called me into his office and told me that my job was in jeopardy." Shortly thereafter, Cutbirth left the paper. He is now an aide to Texas Land Commissioner Garry Mauro.
In November 1994, Cutbirth won a Katie award for his coverage of Hutchison's acquittal. His story was selected over The Dallas Morning News' coverage of her indictment, an irony that was not lost on Cutbirth: He fell out of favor for supposedly scheming to make the senator look bad, but his good-news story about her triumph beat out the News' bad-news story about her indictment.
The Hutchison fiasco sealed Price's reputation in the eyes of many newsroom staffers. "The perception was that Rich Connor was really running the newsroom, and that he had very influential friends," says a former editor. Price "was doing what Rich wanted her to do in terms of not only how the newspaper was run, but what stories got into the paper and what they said."
At about the same time, another story was simmering that gave rise to further questions about Price's motives.
Barry Bailey was the respected senior minister of First United Methodist Church, where many of Fort Worth's most prominent citizens worship. The paper had been receiving tips that Bailey was being accused of sexually harassing church employees. At least one of the women had retained a lawyer and lodged a complaint with church leaders.
Tim Madigan, one of the paper's most respected reporters, was trying to dig into the story. (Madigan, now a feature writer at the paper, declined to be interviewed.) As the scandal developed in bits and pieces, according to several editorial employees who watched the saga unfold, Madigan was repeatedly frustrated in efforts to get the news into the paper.
Many felt that Price, a member of the church, was "filibustering" the story to death. "Debbie would sit in meetings and kept asking, 'What's the real story here? Is this church politics?'" says one source. "Madigan's position was, 'Maybe the real story is that these people are telling the truth. How about that?'"
Aware that Price belonged to the church, and that Connor was a social acquaintance of Bailey's, reporters and editors began to suspect the motives for holding the Bailey story. "The story was proceeding with extraordinary caution, at the very least," says one veteran reporter. "I mean, [they] were treating this person differently."
One Saturday, a desk editor in the newsroom received a call from one of Bailey's attorneys, looking for Price. Shortly thereafter, the former employee says, Price called looking for Madigan with orders that he was not to go to Bailey's church services the next day.
The Bailey story finally ran, but only after the scandal had gathered enough momentum--and was being pursued by other news outlets--that it could no longer be ignored, reporters and editors say. "Tim [Madigan] did finally break the story, but it was told in the least offensive way," says one reporter. "It was sanded down. Every decision that was made tended to generalize and blunt the impact. The Morning News was the one that finally came back and said what happened."
Bailey was forced out of his position, and ultimately 27 women came forward to complain about his behavior. It was a scandal that rocked Fort Worth.
Price says the story was hard on her and Connor also, but insists that she did nothing to suppress news of the scandal. She says she has taken a bad rap over the Bailey coverage. "That has been a very frustrating situation for me, because people don't understand what was going on," Price says. "There has been a concerted campaign to disseminate some false information about this."
Price says she pressed to get the story into the paper as quickly as possible, but that it could not run based on vague, anonymous complaints. "All we knew was that one, maybe more, employees of the church had made an allegation of sexual harassment against Barry Bailey. We did not know the substance of that allegation. We didn't know whether it was verbal, dirty jokes, or rape," Price says. "No one would tell us, including the lawyer for the plaintiffs. I think they would have liked to have seen a story saying, 'Sources say Barry Bailey has been accused of sexual harassment,' but that's not fair."
Price says she personally assigned Madigan to the story after rumors of the scandal reached the newsroom. "Early on, we didn't know if we had a case of sexual harassment, or whether we had a case of someone trying to use that to drum a popular preacher out of the pulpit," she says.
The story lingered because it required more substantiation, Price says, not for lack of interest on her part. "Nobody worked harder than Tim Madigan to get that story into the paper, except maybe me," she says. When the story was finally ready, Price says, it went into print. And since the initial story was written, she says, the Star-Telegram has published 58 stories on Bailey.
Her own membership in the church, she says, made the story "very painful for me personally." It also made editorial employees suspicious, especially since Price was taking phone calls from Bailey's lawyers.
Because Connor was known to pal around with Bailey before the reverend's fall from grace, many also wondered if Connor was really calling the shots on the Bailey coverage. Connor insists that, although he was apprised of the story's progress, the decisions were Price's to make. "I was in contact with Debbie almost constantly about it," says Connor. "She would tell me what they were doing and how it was handled. We printed that story when she was ready to print it."
Connor says any perceived delays in publishing the Bailey story do not concern him. On a story of such sensitivity, he says, accuracy is more precious than speed. "We have to worry about being right with a story," he says. "I don't give a damn who has it before we do."
Staffers, however, say the paper is less concerned with being right than being gentle to the city's powerful interests. In early 1994, a business reporter at the paper prepared a Sunday feature explaining how home buyers or sellers could save money by selling their houses themselves or shopping for cut-rate commissions from brokers. The city's brokers went "insane," one source says, and meetings between Price and various area boards of Realtors ensued. After the real-estate agents voiced their displeasure, the reporter was ordered to prepare another Sunday feature package, this one explaining all the valuable services brokers provide to earn their commissions.
Over time, the perception has built that Price and Connor listen more often to the voices of business leaders than to the reporters and editors who are paid to ferret out news. Says a former line editor, "I think people really, really felt the reason all this was being done was to protect certain interests in the city from ridicule or embarrassment."
Price and Connor could not disagree more strongly. Logically, Connor says, he has frequent contact with community leaders, and he is willing to take phone calls from anyone with a complaint about the newspaper. That's his job. Connor also says that his background--reporting at and editing several smaller Capital Cities newspapers-- prepared him well for the publishing job. "I know more people in Tarrant County than any reporter we have," Connor says. "But do we dictate coverage and do we ask favors for powerful people? No."
Price is equally adamant that no one receives special favors from the newspaper under her regime, and wonders why the prospect even merits much interest. "Your story is going to be so boring," she says. "Why do you think people are gonna want to read a story about, 'Oh boy, Debbie Price is a puppet, and this is a climate of fear at the Star-Telegram'? Who's going to read this?"
Above all things, satisfying readers is what seems to concern Price and Connor these days. In interviews for this story (Price tape-recorded hers), each revealed something of their philosophies of journalism and what makes for good newspapering. More than personalities or disputes over the handling of specific stories, their comments illustrate what is wrong at the Star-Telegram.
Price explained that newspapers are in a fight for survival and must "get better" if they are to last. "There's a reason that the public doesn't like us right now, and that's because, for too long, we've been arrogant, we've been biased...we've been inaccurate, and we've gotta clean up our act.
"It's an education process," she adds. "People who have been doing things one way for a long time think the way they're doing it is just fine. Well, sometimes it isn't."
Paramount to that change, Connor says, is less emphasis on the opinions of hard-charging reporters, and more on the interests of the community and the paper's readers. "As you well know," he says, "there are things that reporters, editors, and copy editors sit around bars--or coffee bars now or whatever--and wring their hands over. And well they should. That's their nature. They ought to question all power, whether it is held by me, or the mayor, or somebody building a racetrack. That's fine. What I worry about are the people who read this newspaper and the people we are serving in this community whose lives we are attempting to enrich with a quality newspaper."
Written between those lines is the prescription that is turning the Star-Telegram into the journalistic equivalent of a widget factory. Absent from Price and Connor's analysis is any mention of the public interest or the press as watchdog--certainly nothing as cliched as the First Amendment, afflicting the comfortable, or comforting the afflicted.
That, at heart, is the cause of the despair that has settled on the Star-Telegram newsroom. It is a feeling that the newspaper is drifting away from service to the cause of good journalism--an undertaking that sometimes requires a paper to expose readers to things that are corrupt, hurtful, or even offensive about their community. That is why they cannot share the sense of celebration publisher Connor displayed at last year's Katie awards ceremony.
"Why do you get into this business?" asks one former editor at the paper. "You get in because you're curious. You like to do fun, interesting things. You like to maybe do some investigative reporting that sheds new light and actually makes your city better or your town better. At the Star-Telegram, all of that is disappearing, little by little.