A standoff that is bizarre even by newspaper-management standards has been playing out for the past month at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, leaving reporters and editors curious about just who is in charge of the paper's newsroom.
Vice President and Executive Editor Debbie Price, through an attorney, contends that she was fired from her job in mid-May after protesting unethical journalistic practices by her bosses. She has not been seen in the newsroom for weeks.
But a Star-Telegram spokesperson--assigned by Publisher Rich Connor to fend off questions about the situation--says Price has not been fired, and remains on the company payroll. Her name is still being printed on the paper's masthead.
Is she or isn't she executive editor? Those who know won't say.
Darrell Keith, a high-powered Fort Worth attorney, is representing Price, and says he has been meeting with lawyers sent in by Star-Telegram parent Capital Cities/ABC Inc. to "resolve this matter without going to the courthouse."
But Keith won't say whether he is trying to get Price her job back--assuming she lost it--or negotiate agreeable terms for her departure.
In the meantime, Publisher Connor has not issued so much as a memo to let editorial employees know whom they work for, or what has happened with Price. The newsroom is supposedly now being run by Senior Metropolitan Editor Paul Harral.
"Very highly placed people here at the paper don't know what's going on," says one veteran staffer. "Maybe three people know what's going on, and they're not saying."
What is clear is that Price--Connor's hand-picked editor and one-time protege--has not been at work since mid-May, and there is no evidence of her once-heavy hand in the editorial operations of Fort Worth's monopoly daily.
The Byzantine showdown has produced an information vacuum abhorrent to a roomful of reporters and editors. Price's reign as editor has been turbulent ever since she was promoted from columnist to executive editor by Connor three years ago--vaulting over other editors into a job disproportionate to her experience.
A January 4 cover story in the Dallas Observer, "Snoozepaper," described the low morale, staff flight, and newsroom grumbling that has ensued since Price's promotion. Numerous reporters and editors say Price has quashed news stories that reflect badly on prominent Fort Worth citizens, and can become verbally abusive when her authority or journalistic judgment is challenged.
Since word of her possible firing surfaced in May, several parties have been planned by reporters and editors to mark the event. But each was canceled when it remained unclear whether she was really gone. "We've had the limos rented," one staffer says. "But the official word has never come down."
Price has become the newspaper's own Elvis, with staffers on the lookout for sightings. Newsroom employees watch her office carefully for signs that she might have visited, or to see if any more of her personal effects have disappeared. A janitor entering Price's office to water the plants can trigger a whole day's worth of speculation.
Keith says his client is not reporting to the newsroom, because, as far as she's concerned, she has been fired. "It's Debbie's position that she has been wrongfully terminated," Keith says. "She's staying at home because she doesn't have a job. She's looking for another position in the journalistic field."
Although he will not discuss the impetus for Price's firing, Keith says Price was dumped after she "stood up for truth and fairness in journalism.
"When she challenged what she considered to be unethical journalistic practices, she was terminated," Keith says.
Vague as that characterization may be, it is more than Star-Telegram management will say.
Publisher Connor did not return calls from the Observer. Early on in the management mystery, some staffers enjoyed a double-dip burst of glee when rumors spread that Connor and Price had both been canned by higher-ups in Cap Cities. "The first rumor we heard was that Rich was gone, and there was one celebration. Then we heard both of them were gone, and there was another celebration," one staffer says.
But Connor has remained in the publisher's office, and has flitted about the newsroom telling people he is still in charge.
Questions about Price's status are being directed to a Star-Telegram vice president of special projects, who will not even discuss the situation unless she is identified only as a "spokesperson."
"I can tell you that Debbie has not been terminated and is still on our payroll," the spokesperson says.
So is she coming to work? "I can't tell you that," the spokesperson says.
Well, is she actually running the paper?
"Look, here's all I can say. She has not been terminated and is still on the payroll."
What about Price's supposed stand for journalistic ethics?
"I can't help you anymore," the spokesperson says.
The mysterious defense of ethical standards cited by Price's lawyer is a difficult concept for some staffers to envision. One of the problems with Price, they say, has been that she has been too willing to compromise standards when prominent individuals attract scrutiny.
Several veteran reporters and editors have quit the paper in response to Price's kid-glove treatment of the wealthy and powerful.
The only ethical flare-up that surfaced about the time of Price's disappearance involved apparent efforts by Star-Telegram management to force a reporter to reveal his source on a story involving prominent Fort Worth millionaire Ed Bass.
Several staffers say reporter Barry Shlachter was called in by an editor and asked to reveal who his unnamed source was in a story about litigation over the Biosphere, which is one of Bass' pet projects. Shlachter supposedly refused to do so, believing the information was being sought so it could be passed along to Bass' attorney, who wanted to know if he had a leak on his legal team.
Shlachter would not discuss the meeting when contacted by the Observer. "I can't really go into that," he says. "It was resolved without my having to compromise any professional standards. That's all I can say."
Price returned from a European vacation one day after the Shlachter incident. The next day, she was gone. The timing has fueled speculation that Price's ethical stand involved the questioning of Shlachter.
But many are skeptical. They say Price had often been responsive in the past to concerns of the Bass family.
They also say Price had been fuming for several months about her dwindling importance at the newspaper. More and more resources were being diverted from her downtown domain to the Star-Telegram's independent Arlington edition, which is being challenged by The Dallas Morning News for dominance of that lucrative suburban market.
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"It was becoming clear that she was going to be third or fourth fiddle" within editorial ranks, one staffer says. Her power dwindling, the staffer says, Price may have latched onto the Shlachter incident for leverage in negotiating a severance package. "That might have been a real good excuse," the source says.
Price could not be reached for comment, and attorney Keith says he has instructed his client not to talk to reporters.
Keith himself will not comment on the relevance of the Shlachter incident, except to say that it "played a part in the circumstances that led up to the event that directly culminated in her firing."
The Star-Telegram newsroom is waiting for a better explanation than that. "This is so weird," says one staffer. "I don't know what I believe any more.