In the aftermath of the attempt on Ronald Reagan’s life, people rediscovered the back of their newspapers. The front pages were crammed with diagrams of brains and photos of Jodie Foster’s midriff and instructions on how to buy handguns. You had to flip way to the back if you wanted to read about anything besides the shooting.
Except … hello … what’s this? Here in the back of the Washington Star from Wednesday, two days after the event, is an important-looking story about the shooting. It’s an interview with the paramedic who helped Reagan into the emergency room. It says the president was ashen and faint, looking much worse than we’d been led to believe. Yet the story, by reporter Howie Kurtz, is buried on page A-8 of the midday edition, behind such timely articles as “Williams Called Corrupt at Trial” and “Voyager Data Puzzles Team Viewing Photos.”
The Star might not have thought very much of its story, but somebody else did—namely the Washington Post. The Post stole Kurtz’s account and played it prominently on the front page of its Thursday edition. Meanwhile Thursday’s Star gave page-one play to an interview in which Reagan’s doctor said, yes, the president might have looked like hell (that is, the Kurtz story was correct) but don’t worry about it, anybody who’s been shot looks like hell for a while.
In other words, the Star buried its own scoop, then went out of its way to denounce the story—even as its competitor, the Post, was labeling the story important. My, how things have changed since the days of The Front Page. Unfortunately, this is only one of many self-inflicted wounds the Star has suffered recently. Financially troubled for years, the paper now seems intent on doing itself in; if the Star dies, the county coroner will rule it a suicide.
You know what everybody says after a suicide: “Such a waste.” That would be an appropriate sentiment here, for the Star is one of the country’s top newspapers. It doesn’t usually come to mind that way because it is overshadowed in its hometown by one of the best of them all, the Post. But those who follow journalism know how good the Star is. As the second paper in medium-sized Washington, it is better than the first papers in the large cities like Houston, San Francisco and Seattle, and infinitely better than the second papers in giant New York and Chicago.
Since Time Inc. bought the paper three years ago, it has made a series of moves that seem coldly calculated to insure the Star’s demise. Time Inc. has taken the Star’s fine collection of able writers and editors and essentially switched them off; the paper has deemphasized investigative reporting, lively feature writing, political analysis, and many other things readers (especially Washington readers) demand. In its place the Star is offering dull formula reporting of “official” events—press conferences, congressional hearings, government reports, and so on. Addiction to “official” news explains the Star’s puzzling treatment of its presidential paramedic story. Because the story resulted from reporter Kurtz’s own enterprise, going out and getting something not widely believed, Star editors downplayed it. Reagan’s doctor’s comments, however, were a certified official event, so the paper gave them prominent treatment. If this seems to you like a perfect inversion of the way newspaper editors are supposed to think, rest assured: it is.
Another suicidal sign at the Star is the installation of an autocratic editor-cum-grandvizier, Murray Gart. While personally talented, Gart seems to have done the paper far more harm than good. Among the complaints against Gart: that he has fenced himself off behind pickets of expensive executive dead wood; that he has driven newsroom morale to an all-time low; that he has used the paper for his own social advancement; and that he occasionally tones down or spikes (refuses to print) stories that might offend friends or advertisers.
You might think of the story that follows as a “file obit” on the Star. Newspapers routinely prepare obituaries for famous people long before they actually die. File obits are constantly updated to take into account developments in the subject’s life; sometimes developments make the whole file obit obsolete. This file obit concerns what will, in retrospect, be interpreted as an unmistakable pattern of suicidal signs, should the Star expire. Fortunately there is time to reverse the course of events—which is why the story is worth telling.
Out of Focus
Since the early 1970s, the Star has been tossed about like a bomb with a lit fuse. It’s had three sets of owners and, despite the paper’s prestige, each has been constantly scanning the horizon for someone else to toss the bomb to before it goes off.
In 1974, financier Joe Allbritton bought the paper from the staid Noyes family. At the time its circulation was about 370,000—down from a peak of 418,000 in late 1972—and the Star printed nothing but afternoon editions.
Allbritton hired James Bellows to run the paper, and Bellows quickly concluded that the Star could never match its rival, the Post, in head-to-head coverage of breaking events. The Post had a larger staff, vastly greater resources, and most of all a larger newshole (more space for stories). So Bellows set out to make the Star a paper of style and flair—full of in-depth reporting, analysis, and witty features. He instituted a daily feature called “In Focus”—a long frontpage article on something unrelated to the day’s events, that is to say, something that wasn’t already in the morning Post. Bellows gave most news items a “soft” or “second angle” lead, emphasizing the why of their meaning, as opposed to the who-what-where of their details. Bellows knew that most Star readers had already seen the who-what-where in the morning Post— or, if not, could get the details on the evening news, which was coming on just as the paper hit the stands.
Bellows’s approach, then, was to make the Star more magazine-like. It was the same strategy many afternoon papers were using against their twin antagonists, the postindustrial economy and television. In the days when most people worked 7 to 3 shifts in factories, evening editions naturally dominated. After all, the crack of dawn was much too early to read about shifting social mores in Qatar; just before dinner, on the other hand, was the perfect time for a tired worker to put his feet up with the paper. As more and more people found themselves in managerial or service jobs working 9 to 5, this changed. It became natural to read the paper before shuffling off to the office. By the time tired bureaucrats left for the day it was dark enough to go straight to cocktails or dinner; anyone still lusting for the latest from Qatar could get it by just throwing a switch on the television. Afternoon papers became the odd man out.
Editors like Bellows assumed the best hope for the afternoon paper was to offer readers something unavailable elsewhere—the style and elegance whiz-bang newscasts can’t provide, and the analytical details morning papers usually lack. (Because most news events happen during the day, morning papers traditionally have less time to work on their stories than afternoon papers. The morning paper must go to bed with its Monday stories late Monday evening; meanwhile the afternoon paper has until Tuesday morning to work on its Monday stories, allowing more time for reflection or chasing down sources.) So Bellows made the Star stylish, and his improvements caused immediate excitement. What had once been a listless and predictable paper began to bubble. People around town started talking about the Star; people at the Post became a little jittery. An esprit built up among the Star staff, and readers could see it in the final product, which was full of excitement and daring. “In those days you looked forward to going to work in the morning,” said a longtime Star veteran. “People were loose, they were eager. You could spend a lot of time with a story and work on it until you had something that was a joy to read.”
The results, of course, included lows as well as highs. Bellows was committed to an “In Focus” feature every day. Sometimes there just wasn’t a worthwhile idea, and then a real nose-holder was hung out on the front page for all to see. But more important, while people seemed more enthusiastic about reading the Star, they were not more enthusiastic about buying it. Circulation continued to fall. Star followers protested that if Bellows just had sufficient capital, his format would make money. But Allbritton had lost interest in the publishing game. He deftly split off the Star company’s profitable holdings and put the paper up for sale. Time Inc. bought it for $28 million in March 1978, when its circulation was about 330,000.
Reaction to the Time Inc. purchase was generally positive. Bellows had departed just before the transaction, but to the reader, his absence seemed immaterial. What mattered was that the attractive Star format would be backed by heavy corporate money and sophisticated management. Time Inc. was rich with cash and had a record for turning everything it touched— Time, Fortune, Money, People, Sports Illustrated, Book of the Month Club, Home Box Office—into gold. Washington would get the best of both worlds—a great paper and a financial success.
Early on, though, there were indications Time Inc. had just one of those goals in mind. James Shepley, Time Inc.’s president and the motive force behind the acquisition, “let it be known that he wanted stories short, simple and one-dimensional,” said a former Star staff writer. “He thought 15 inches [about 750 words] was a good length for a story. At the time we were writing 30- and 40-inch stories.” Length changes alone would mean a major shift in focus for the paper; shortness rules out most kinds of creative, investigative, or analytical reporting. To the outside businessman, radically changing the formula had an obvious appeal; the Bellows formula wasn’t selling, so why not try something new? But Time Inc. seems to have dismissed with little serious consideration the idea that the Bellows formula would sell with proper backing. The company instead embarked on a “safer” editorial plan.
Shepley sent Murray Gart to be the Star’s editor. Gart had been chief of correspondents at Time magazine. There he left three basic impressions on those who knew him: as a man with commanding knowledge of foreign affairs and organizational politics; as a shameless social climber; and as a turk who specialized in cleaning out people’s lockers. When Time wanted someone out it was often Gart who swung the ax, and if it bothered him, he didn’t let it show. There was immediate speculation that Gart’s authority would be only temporary. He would fire the people Time Inc. wanted fired and reshape the paper in the company’s image; then Shepley would come down from New York and take over, or at least be a powerful publisher. That way Shepley could bask in the glamour and prominence of running a Washington newspaper without having to do much dirty work, or argue with a rebellious staff. The glamour of a Washington paper had been, for Time Inc., a prime inducement to buy the Star in the first place; it would give the company more insider clout. If the paper in question had been the Indianapolis Star, there would have been no deal. (A Star-Time axis would also create a mirror image of the Post-Newsweek alliance, Newsweek being owned by Katharine Graham’s company.)
Gart and Shepley apparently concurred on the desire to make the Star more predictable and conventional, but by all reports, Gart had a very different picture in mind regarding one part of the paper’s future—he saw himself at the center of the frame, all the way.
A Gart Attack
As soon as Gart arrived, he began to throttle back the Star’s irreverence and panache. “In Focus” was moved inside the paper, then its accompanying art was killed. When national editor Barbara Cohen, an “In Focus” defender, left, the feature was dropped altogether. Gart gave over an entire column of the precious front page to an index called “Today’s News,” which summarizes events in the barest detail imaginable. He ordered that the paper begin printing entire texts of official pronouncements like presidential speeches. This meant a painful sacrifice of the already-small newshole, but appealed to the editor because he felt it would lend “paper of record” respectability. Gart also let the paper’s investigative apparatus wither away. Now it is down to two people—reporters John Fialka and Kurtz. Both do well; Fialka is one of journalism’s least recognized talents, and Kurtz is openly admired as a born reporter. But besides handling investigations Fialka and Kurtz are expected to write some routine stories; in contrast, the Star’s lifestyle section has two people who do nothing but cover parties, and others who work parties part-time. Maybe they’re looking for the smoking quiche.
For all intents and purposes, Gart told reporters on his national staff to forget about writing analysis. “As soon as he took over the word was passed down that interpretation wasn’t going to be too popular,” said a Star editor. Reporters were told to concentrate on “official” events—staged gatherings like State Department briefings and the signing of legislation. Gart told editors to run more wire service copy on foreign affairs, reflecting both his own interest in the subject and the fact that most wire service articles are extremely conventional recountings of “official” events from foreign capitals. He specified to editors that nearly all articles outside the realm of “official” coverage be cleared with him personally.
Some of the impact of Gart’s ideas was positive. For instance, Star reporters were reminded of their obligation to go after both sides of the story. One veteran Washington journalist recalled his surprise over the different ways in which the Star and the Post covered Reagan’s budget proposals. “Some of the Post reporters I observed made little or no effort to get a variety of comments on what the budget meant,” he said. “They went looking only for facts and quotes that supported what they believed, instead of what their sources believed. Star reporters, on the other hand, went around town getting quotes from all sides. It was a real eye-opener.” But readers found this admirable diligence generally neutralized by the lack of any interpretive stories explaining what the various quotes from all sides meant. Early in his reign, when faced with an interpretive story, Gait would grumble and make no secret of his displeasure, Star editors say; finally he would surrender and mutter, “Run it but put an Analysis’ line on it.” As Gart’s power grew he was less likely to give ground. “We haven’t had to use that Analysis’ line in seven or eight months,” another editor said. “Reporters have stopped producing stories with an interpretive spin. What’s the point?”
The total conversion to Gart’s official-news philosophy can be seen by examining the -front pages of the Star for one randomly selected week, March 24 through 30. Forty-one of the Star’s front-page stories, or 89 percent, were recitations of official events—presidential statements, local crimes, announcements from Poland. Only five of 46 stories were based on enterprising reporting or original thinking, or not directly linked to an official occurrence.
That same week the Post’s front pages showed 35 of 61 stories, or 57 percent, falling into the official-news category. The remaining 26, nearly half, were based on enterprising or original work of some kind. (The Post has a higher number of page-one stories because it does not sacrifice any space to a news index.)
Star officials always object when their paper is set down next to the Post; they say the Post’s much-larger newshole renders comparison meaningless. But the size of the front page is exactly the same for both papers, so it is the best place to judge relative priorities. Indeed it is ironic to note that, even as the Star has retreated to old-fashioned who-what-where journalism, the Post has increased its use of magazine-like features and enterprise reporting. In the long run Bellows’s idea seems to have had more impact on the Post than on the Star.
The Squares Dance
The new Star format is dull and predictable, but that does not mean Gart is petrified of controversy. He has hyped—with four-alarm headline language in Christ-returns-size type— several stories, among them Billygate, Peanutgate, and Murdochgate (Rupert Murdoch’s Export-Import Bank loan coincident with his paper’s endorsement of President Carter). Occasionally Gart seems willing to seize on a single story and twist it as far as necessary to keep it in the news. But Gart’s bouts with controversy are the exception rather. than the rule, and that may be a good thing, considering how sensationalized his attempts at crusading journalism have been.. (Gart set a story quota during the height of Billygate fever, demanding headline articles whether there were any new developments or not. When a Senate panel sprang a flimsy and ultimately groundless “drug-connection” charge on Billy, the Star hyped it as a banner story, “Billy Associate Tied to Drug Probe.” For more on the Star’s coverage of Billygate see “The Smokeless Gun” by Robert M. Kaus, October 1980.)
Gart has told Time Inc. intimates that he thinks Bellows took the Star so far in the direction of irreverence that he must now overcompensate with squareness. But the new format holds other appeals as well. One is that— as every undergraduate journalism student knows—writing a press conference story takes intense, strenuous effort.for about eight seconds. No intellectual, creative, or even physical exertion is required; there just isn’t anything easier. (“President Reagan is preparing to open a broad attack on waste and fraud in the federal government on several fronts this week, White House press secretary James Brady disclosed yesterday”—the banner story. of the Star’s Sunday, March. 22 edition.) Many Star national staff members are now faced with the dilemma that has plagued postmen for years—they must somehow make it seem like it takes them an entire day to finish an hour or two of work.
Few Star reporters are happy with the change to official news. One calls it “the worst kind of mindless reaction journalism—press conferences mixed in with the occasional spectacular traffic accident. Nothing happens until a government official announces it has happened.” Another called the format “stenography, not journalism.”
For some time Star reporters and editors fought the new format. But then many of the best of them bailed out—editor Cohen to National Public Radio, reporters Fred Barnes and Vernon Guidry to the Baltimore Sun, feature writer John Tierney to Science 81 magazine, investigator Ed Pound and legal reporter Robert Pear to the New York Times, metro reporter Mike Kiernan to the local NBC-TV affiliate, and political analyst James Dickenson to the Post. Apparently Gart isn’t bothered by the losses. If anything, he’s probably pleased by them. It hardly takes world-class talent to fill in the blanks of the new formula, so the loss of top performers does the paper little damage from the editorial standpoint. What it does do is allow Gart to bring in people who will obey him without protest—people who lack the stature to rebuke him, or the independence that comes from knowing they can get other jobs any time they want.
The words “apparently” and “Gart” keep appearing here in juxtaposition because he refused several requests to be interviewed. In fact most Star officials I called issued terse “no comment”s without even asking what the subject of an interview would be. Several alluded to a memo instructing that all press inquiries be referred to socialite Jayne Ikard, the Star’s new public affairs director. Star reporters should be glad Ikard is not in a similar position with any government agency, for she said, “I guarantee you no editor of this paper will speak to you on any subject.” She strongly urged me not to call Gart, warning, “If you do that it must be with the understanding that it is only to get your ‘no comment’ directly from him instead of through me.” Ikard then explained that Star executives were “tired of giving interviews” and assured me it was “nothing personal.” (Whew!)
Even the paper’s “ombudsman,” George Beveridge, refused to comment on anything. An ombudsman’s job is to discuss a paper’s policies and content. “I’m simply not going to address any of these questions,” Beveridge said.
Whatever Gart’s explanations for the new format may be, he is clearly proud of it. Television ads the Star is running testify to that. In the ads two newspapers are seen from the side, floating on a dry-ice cloud. As the announcer intones that “Some newspapers are slanted . one-sided … biased,” one of the papers slowly flops on its side and disappears (slanting off to the left, of course). The remaining paper turns to the camera and reveals itself to be the Star. “Fortunately, there’s the Washington Star,” the announcer says. He goes on to list the paper’s virtues, declaring that last year, “The Star won more awards for editorial excellence than any other paper in town.”
So I asked the Star for a list of its awards. Spokesman Ikard said, “Oh, no, I’m not going to give that out.” It’s an attractive picture—a paper whose editorialists nearly passed out demanding every minute detail of the trumped-up Billygate affair now refuses to reveal even the most basic substantiation of claims it is making in highpowered advertising. If the Federal Trade Commission still exists when this story comes out, somebody please take note. I asked Ikard why the identity of the awards (let’s make that “alleged awards”) should be kept secret. “We’ve already had quite a fracas around here about that list,” was her reply, but she declined to elaborate.
The Elite Meet
As a tonic for the Star’s declining circulation, Gart’s official-news formula would seem to have all the curative powers of a cup of hemlock. It leaves the paper as little more than an echo of what readers have already heard, eight hours before, from the morning Post. It means the Star contains approximately the same items— expressed in the same stenographic fashion—as evening newscasts, “competing” with TV by being as much like it as possible. When the average person is given the choice between reading a story and watching exactly the same thing in living color, what do you suppose happens?
But Time Inc.’s marketing team feels otherwise. The Star’s new format and advertising are based largely on a marketing survey which found that many well-off, conservative, white suburban Washingtonians are fed up with the Post’s high-and-mighty liberalism. And though the format was changed and the ads prepared before Reagan’s victory, the arrival in town of a new wave of well-off white conservatives is hardly a setback for this scheme. For the Star, promoting the lack of “slant” or “bias” does double duty as a code for “conservative,” a genteel and diplomatic way of telling the Republican wave, “We’ll never spoil your breakfast like the Post does.”
In keeping with this approach -Gail made another move calculated to cozy up to Washington’s old-money establishment—a complete redo of the paper’s lifestyle section. Under Bellows, the section had been a potpourri of whatever didn’t quite fit the rest of the paper— sociology, half-serious politics, and off-the-wall items like the gossip column “Ear.” Gart put a stop to that fast. “We were told not to do anything even remotely political,” said a former editor.
Gart removed nearly all the flavor and insight from the section, making it about as interesting to read as Cheeze Whiz is to eat. “In Washington, style is an important story,” said Mary Ann Dolan, a former Star editor now with Bellows at the Los Angeles Herald Examiner. “The political aspects of the social scene can be just as important as the political aspects of the Hill. Trying to cover a party without going below the surface is a sham, and readers know it. Washington readers are very sophisticated. They want to know the meaning behind events. “What I can’t understand is how a newspaper run by Time could make this mistake,” Dolan continued. “The Star couldn’t do any better than to imitate Time’s beautiful, jazzy writing on culture and politics. Instead they run lists of who was at parties.”
Lists of who was at parties is, in fact, a perfect description of much of the Star’s lifestyle section. The “party girls” who attend social events (even women in the Star newsroom use this term) are instructed to name every influential name, throw roses by the dozen, and avoid saying anything untoward. The section recently printed a complex chart showing who sat next to whom at the Gridiron Club’s annual dinner. (Katherine Koob was to the left of General Robert Barrow, future historians will be amazed to discover.) A typical party story lead: “The International Eye Foundation, a nonprofit organization whose aim is to promote peace through its work in restoring sight and preventing blindness in 35 countries from Indonesia to El Salvador, held its 15th Annual Eye Ball last night. . . .”
Gart’s purpose here is less than subtle. “There’s a certain group of the old-line establishment that he is openly courting,” said a former Star official. “He wants to make it unmistakably clear they can always expect to be fawned and gushed over in the pages of the Star.” To advance his purpose Gart restored to prominence a dowager columnist named Betty Beale. Beale caters to the worst instincts of those who feel vicarious self-importance when they are thrown crumbs from the private tables of the moneyed and favored; she is enough to convert George Gilder to Bolshevism. Here is how her column after the assassination attempt began:
“The shocking news out of Washington last Monday no sooner hit the group at the Mandy Ourismans’ house in Jamaica, where the Archie Roosevelts and the Leonard Markes were visiting, than the talk turned to remedies for such senseless acts.
“The English have a tough and effective gun-control law. Two of the more macho Britishers you’ll meet anywhere, attractive Maj. Kenneth Diarce, who runs the Tryall Club there, and devastatingly handsome Mark Shand, 30, who was named one of London’s 10 most eligible bachelors (along with Prince Charles) in Queen magazine last year, think the availability of handguns in America is appalling. .. .”
Even if old-money Washington can be won over as Star devotees, it will hardly form a solid circulation base for the paper. It’s reasonable to project the permanent socialite population at around 40,000, since that is the circulation of Washington Dossier, the city’s society magazine. But what party coverage could do for the Star had little to do with Gart’s plans; what mattered most was what it could do for Gart.
“In the first few years especially, it was mandatory that any major social event Murray attended be covered by the paper,” said a Star editor. Gart would tool up to the party—he sometimes traveled in limousines—and the reporters and photographers would not be far behind. The deal he offered was obvious: invite me to your party, be assured of prominent (and favorable) publicity.
Along with the guarantee of sugary social coverage came Gart’s implicit promise to protect his socialite companions from unpleasant news coverage. For instance,.when a private study was released showing the wide variety of fees local doctors charged Medicare patients for the same operation—and giving specifics on many doctors—both the Star and the Post ran stories. The Star’s story was, most readers would agree, the better story, showing a depth of understanding the Post story lacked. But it, in turn, lacked something the Post story had—names. The Post named names of doctors charging outrageous fees. The Star discussed the problem only in general terms, giving generalized examples. Gart had ordered all doctors’ names stricken from the article.
Another case involved Mary Jane Wick, wife of Charles Z. Wick, who was co-chairman of the Presidential Inaugural Committee and is now in line to head the International Communication Agency. During the days preceding Reagan’s inauguration, there were persistent stories of ticket foul-ups; people who had ordered, paid for, and been promised inaugural tickets were arriving in town only to be told nothing was available. None of the reports offered much of an explanation as to why the foul-ups were happening.
Star reporter Marc Kaufman had an explanation. He had reliable information that Mary Jane Wick herself was skimming off tickets, channeling them to prominent Republicans and big-shot friends. Mrs. Wick was not benefiting in any monetary sense, reports said, but she was taking care of wealthy patrons and enjoying the prestige of waving a handful of the most wanted slips of paper in town. Kaufman’s information wasn’t sketchy or dubious; word around the Star newsroom was that he “had the story cold.”
Yet Gart sat on the story. When it finally appeared on March 5—five weeks after the inauguration—it ran on page three in a watered-down form that did not mention the accusations against Mrs. Wick until the fourth paragraph. Publication was linked to an “official” event— the committee’s ordering of an outside investigation of itself. Meanwhile, on the day the story finally ran, the Star’s lifestyle section featured an account of a wedding anniversary party for Ronald and Nancy Reagan. That story mentioned the Wicks as being present and described the event as “an intimate dinner among old friends.”
( Mrs. Wick denied the charge that she skimmed tickets, and her husband called it “scurrilous.” The outside investigator’s report is not due until summer.)
Gart’s eagerness to pander is not unique to him, however. Personal acceptability among the elite is a longstanding goal throughout the Time empire.
“The corporate structure of Time Inc. craves influence and access,” said a former Star official. “They place great emphasis on social contacts.” A present Star reporter observed, “Time’s idea of an important journalistic breakthrough is to hold a luncheon and have the vice-president speak. The fact that nothing newsworthy goes on at the lunch—indeed readers don’t even know it’s occurred—is insignificant. What matters is that the Time people have rubbed shoulders.”
Again Time Inc. officials may not discuss this point in interviews, but boast of it plainly in their advertising. A recent two-page ad that ran in the New York Times magazine (and other publications) displayed a huge, full-color photo of Time White House correspondent Laurence Barrett sitting alone with Reagan in an intimate setting. The ad copy proclaimed that “Barrett’s exclusive interviews with Reagan sustained a Time tradition of access to world leaders.” In the photo Barrett is doing the talking and Reagan is listening; it’s a safe bet that Barrett is not delivering a forceful critique of administration policies.
To help satisfy its “access” fetish, Time Inc. has made what one informed observer called “a fixed corporate decision to give Reagan a long generous honeymoon.” That generosity can be seen in both Time magazine and the Star’s pages. Early in the budget battle, the Star ran a pageone story by one of its top national reporters proclaiming “Newly Docile Hill Not Inclined to Cut Reagan’s Programs.” The story likened Congress to “a shetland pony content, for now, to be led around by its new master with a minimal amount of pawing at the earth.” Fawning about Reagan even dampened—temporarily—the Star’s freewheeling columnist, Judy Bachrach. Bachrach generally has the green light to write about whatever she pleases. When she prepared two columns critical of First Lady Nancy Reagan,.Gart asked her to sit on them for a while. Bachrach asked how long; Gart suggested a month. Bachrach waited exactly one month, then went with the columns.
At the Star, honeymoon arrangements were being made long before the groom was even chosen. The paper put off its endorsement of a presidential candidate until the last possible moment—the day before the election. Gart, it is said, was hoping for some definitive poll that would establish who would win, allowing the Star to jump on the right bandwagon. (Gart was no fan of the Carter administration, but he did not care to jeopardize his access by endorsing Reagan if there remained any chance of a Carter victory.) When the last possible moment rolled around and the outlook was still clouded, the Star endorsed no one. Instead it ran a mushy bowl of editorial oatmeal called “Summing It Up,” which began, “The 1980 campaign, like others before it, has developed its own distinctive character and tone. And the salient issues have broken, as usual, in conflicting ways. Equally important, the candidates have revealed personal qualities that will inescapably affect our judgment about their prospective performance in the Oval Office.” Makes you want to rush right out and exercise your franchise, doesn’t it?
The Heads Nod
In the Star newsroom, Gart is not exactly Mr. Popularity. The fact that he is disliked is inconclusive, of course; many skilled editors are unpopular, because it is in the nature of their jobs to be demanding. What’s revealing is the intensity of the reaction. “A certain amount of grousing about the boss is inevitable,” said a former Star staff writer, “but with Gart it’s different. He’s hated—open, venomous hate. It’s universal. There isn’t a single person there with an honest good word for him.”
Yet as far as I could determine (and you know I tried) there isn’t anyone at the Star with a significant story of Gart being irrational, abusive, or insulting. By all reports he is a perfect gentleman—humorless and a player of favorites, but these are hardly fatal flaws. Why then is he hated with such intensity? It stems from the imperious style with which he runs the paper, and the widespread perception that he is driving its quality and reputation into the ground; that is, the complaints are substantive, as opposed to vindictive.
“Gart believes in the military chain of command,” said a former Star official. “He sits in his office and issues orders. He never consults anyone, and he deals only with those directly below him in the pecking order. In turn his subordinates deal only with their subordinates. By the time a reporter receives instructions, they’ve been filtered through three or four levels of authority.”
The impact of Gart’s self-aggrandizing isolation is predictable: he is perceived by his staff as inaccessible, arbitrary, and untrustworthy. Few are convinced that he has the Star’s best interests in mind; one insider called him a “cold, clammy hand strangling the paper.”
The depth of distrust was demonstrated last fall, when Gart heard a plausible-sounding tip that then-Secretary of State Edmund Muskie might resign. He ordered national editor Harry Kelly to order a reporter to write a story to that effect—but also ordered that the reporter not make any attempt to verify the accuracy of the tip. It is said the Star newsroom was infuriated by the order, not just because it violated fundamental principles of fact-checking, but because reporters and editors alike automatically assumed Gart’s motives to be suspect. The story eventually appeared, and was played as a key Sunday front-page item—but without byline or any indication of origin, odd for what should have been considered, if true, a major scoop.
The editor’s highhandedness bears on newsroom morale (and the paper’s prosperity) in other ways. For one, Gart has surrounded himself with wimpish types distinguished primarily by an advanced ability to nod their heads up and down on cue. Publisher George Hoyt, sources say, has little real sway over business decisions. Associate editor Sidney Epstein, perhaps the paper’s top survivor, has coddled his way into the additional title of associate publisher, but still is said to have little of meaning to do. Associate editor Roger Wilkins, a veteran journalist, writes occasionally, but appears to have scant input into editorial policy. What ombudsman George Beveridge does is anybody’s guess. (I asked and he even refused to comment on that.) National editor Kelly is regarded as a glorified functionary; one Star insider called him “Gart’s water boy.”
“The Star has become a one-man band, reflecting only the interests, talents, and limitations of a single man,” said a former official. “His subeditors have lost their initiative. They just sit around and wait for instructions. No matter how talented one man is—and Gart has tremendous ability—if he is the sole source of ideas and initiatives, the paper is just not going to be very good.”
Loss of initiative, many Star veterans believe, is crippling the paper. Editors seldom propose story ideas for fear of being shot down by the boss; reporters who want to do anything outside the realm of “official” coverage must come up with ideas themselves. Only two Star editors (besides Gart) are said to be regular sources of story ideas—metro editor Dennis Stern and sports editor David Smith. They can exercise initiative in large part because Gart doesn’t care about their sections.
“Murray is interested in `respectable’ topics,” said a Star editor, “presidential politics, the Middle East, the arts. He doesn’t care about the City itself or about sports.” It may be no coincidence that metro and sports are widely regarded as the best sections in the Star. The metro section often beats the Post’s far larger staff to important stories, covers breaking local events (like the assassination attempt) at least as well as the larger paper, and continues to produce invigorating enterprise journalism—for instance, a recent series of articles by Jane Mayer detailing the problems of the city’s ambulance services. Meanwhile sports is the Star’s last preserve of lively, in-depth feature writing. It continues to run long, bouncy articles by top feature writers like Betty Cuniberti, and also offers a basketball writer named Steve Hershey who has a local cult following.
But in the sections Gart does care about— national and lifestyle—his control is absolute. “You can disagree with Murray in the privacy of his office,” says a Star editor, “but never in public. At the daily [editorial] conferences there is almost no discussion.” The consequence is exactly what you’d predict. “When Gart has good ideas, everything’s fine. When he has bad ideas, no one will tell him so.”
The Extras Accumulate
One good idea Gart had was to shift movie critic Tom Dowling into a bureaucracy-beat column called “Federal Cases.” Movie reviewing was a good showcase for Dowling’s excellent writing, but the new column provides him with fresh professional challenge and strengthens the Star’s coverage of an underreported area. One bad idea Gart had was a front-page feature called “Today’s Violent Local Crime.” Instituted as a “response” to the shootings of John Lennon and prominent Washington doctor Michael Halberstam, the feature was a shaded box that simply described the day’s most gruesome bit of violence. It had a perversely hopeful quality, as if the paper were saying, come on you thugs, let’s get out there and produce. The feature was unveiled with little explanation, and many readers picking up the paper wondered if the Star was trying to turn itself into the New York Post, or its editors had simply flipped.
Yet no one could tell Gart to his face what an embarrassment his brainchild was. Then, luckily, the boss went on vacation. Deputy editor William Mcllwain could stand no more. He killed the feature. What if anything Gart said on his return is not known.
Another area in which Gart often freezes out his subordinates is hiring. He has a preference for young reporters from families of social standing, and is willing to overlook modest journalistic credentials in order to get them. During Gart’s tenure the Star has hired two daughters of governors, the children of high New York Times and Time magazine executives, the son of a nationally known judge, the daughter of a famous diplomat, a woman rumored to be the “great and good friend,” as Time would put it; of a top Time Inc. executive, and Gart’s own godson. Gart also promoted his personal assistant to a reporting post despite her lack of newspaper experience. From the standpoint of producing reporters, his hiring policies have shown mixed results. The “good friend” and the personal assistant were busts, but Celestine Bohlen, daughter of diplomat Chip Bohlen, is described by other journalists as a top performer. From the standpoint of morale, however, Gart’s policies have been crushing. Editors have on occasion just been handed new reporters and told to use them. Sometimes, depending on the recruit’s social prominence, editors have been told to give the new reporter priority over more accomplished personnel already on the staff.
There are only a few people at the Star Gart has been unable to master—yet. That group is composed mainly of the paper’s syndicated big names—columnists Bachrach, Mary McGrory, “Ear” (Diana McLellan), Jack Germond and Jules Witcover, and cartoonist Pat Oliphant. They are vital to the paper’s prestige and income. Of the group, Bachrach is clearly Gart’s pet; one Star reporter described her as “the only happy person at the paper.” Gart is proud of having won Bachrach away from the Post, and sees to it her column gets excellent play. But oddly, while most Star writers are suffocating under Gart’s grip, Bachrach may be the victim of too much freedom. Because of her relationship with Gart she is seen as above criticism, leaving no one to warn her when she is about to embarrass herself (a recent column began, “Darkness spreads over Havana like molten asphalt . .”). Anyone who reads Bachrach can see she has a gift, but without rigorous editing and a dose of humility, something even the best writers need, Bachrach may never realize her full potential.
In other areas of his work, Gart’s behavior is perplexing. He has gone to considerable trouble to institute a new three-page op-ed section, an exciting and promising experiment. Rockingchair columnists are taking a back seat to unknowns who often generate surprisingly good ideas. Using unknowns means accepting page after page of ragged copy that needs lots of work; Gart seems undaunted by this, and has expanded the op-ed staff. And so the paradox: on the news pages he fears enterprise and condemns top writers to grinding out a snorefest of fungible formula pieces, while on the op-ed pages he seeks excitement and devotes extra resources to assisting amateurs. He’s doing exactly what his magazine training should tell him to avoid, meticulously separating fact from opinion until the facts have no meaning and the opinions are unsubstantiated.
The jury is out on some other ideas of the new Star regime. One of them—different local inserts (“zone editions”) for the suburbs—sounds terrific, but appears to have inflated printing and distribution costs and spread the reporting staff too thin without boosting circulation. Another idea, conversion of the afternoon-only paper to 24-hour continuous publication, seems to have done a great deal of harm. Time Inc. has added a morning edition, the “A.M. Extra,” and a midday edition, the “Capital Special,” both for sale on Washington newsstands. Not only do these low-sales editions increase printing and distribution costs, they totally skew the efforts of the reporting staff. In order to produce the A.M. Extra edition, reporters must meet a 1:30 a.m. deadline. Since few reporters who have just met a 1:30 a.m. deadline can reasonably be expected to stay up all night producing a fresh treatment for the afternoon edition, the A.M. Extra becomes, as one Star editor said, “the tail that wags the dog.” Many afternoon (home-delivery) stories are rehashes of or even the same as A.M. Extra stories, making the Star, in many respects, just a morning paper that comes out eight hours late.
There are recurrent rumors that Time Inc.’s master plan for the Star entails junking afternoon editions and competing head-on with the Post as a home-delivery morning paper. If so, the A.M. Extra, which paves the way, will turn out to make sense. If not, it will be seen as a catastrophic misjudgment.
The Flowers Fly
Do not think, though, that Gart is running his paper entirely in a vacuum. He has a board of directors to respond to, and respond to them he does. Coverage of issues concerning Time Inc. is so rosy the Star’s pages might as well be embroidered with flowers.
In the summer of 1979, for instance, President Carter was preparing to nominate Thomas Watson, head of IBM, as ambassador to the Soviet Union. Watson’s name was not well received by commentators, the Star among them. A Star editorial blasted Watson as “a businessman who does not speak Russian or have any special expertise in Soviet affairs or, for that matter, in any aspect, of foreign relations beyond the commercial sphere.” The editorial hinted darkly that “some [ambassadors] are expected to run embassies and negotiate with foreign governments; others sit behind the big desk under the Great Seal of the U.S. for different reasons.”
Then a telephone call reminded someone that Watson sat on Time Inc.’s board. In a blinding flash Star editorialists recognized the genius of Carter’s diplomatic master stroke. The paper suddenly declared that Watson’s confirmation was “a reminder of how strong a case there is for not giving the post to a Foreign Service officer and for giving it to a knowing outsider.. . .” The Star followed up with a flurry of stories concerning Watson’s progress towards Moscow, including one that ran unbylined because, it is said, Gart himself wrote it. The culmination was “Watson Presents His Credentials,” detailing the ambassador’s official introduction at the Kremlin, a meaningless ceremonial event.
Any Star stories that mention cable television must be read and approved by either Gart or Mcllwain, since Time Inc. is the owner of Home Box Office and other cable carriers. Cable television is a hot topic locally because it has yet to be introduced in Washington—and one of Time Inc.’s subsidiaries is competing for the business. When Time Inc. introduced its science magazine, Discover, the Star afforded lavish coverage. There was a preview article followed by a lengthy feature article (headlined “Science Magazine That’s Ready to be Discovered”) and a report on the christening party (photo caption: “Timothy Leedy, advertising sales director for Discover, greets Nobel Prize winner James D. Watson”). When Andrew Heiskell, chairman of Time Inc.’s board, retired last fall, the Star sent someone to New York to cover the event (travel is rare for Star reporters). The result was an interesting and not excessive profile of Heiskell—alongside a sticky ball of schmoo about the farewell party. The party story began by quoting a waiter (apparently after he got the tip) as saying, “Here at the Plaza you see the world go by—all the important heads of state, the leaders of the world, all the giants. But there’s no one like Andrew Heiskell.”
Sometimes the bowing and scraping before Time Inc. gets so far out of hand it backfires, at least for Gart’s purposes. When Hedley Donovan retired as editor-in-chief of Time magazine, the Star ran a profile so transparent it actually embarrassed corporate officials. While not quoting waiters, the article described Donovan as “an unflappable, laconic man with a physical appearance as imposing as a giant oak in a pine thicket … a strapping man with piercing blue eyes….”
At other times deference to the corporate father affects Star employees directly. Dowling’s longevity as a movie critic was not advanced when he panned “The Empire Strikes Back” in the same week Time had Darth Vader on its cover; he was shifted off movies immediately after. Even Gart’s godson, David Wood, has felt the heat. In March Secretary of State Alexander Haig appointed Dean Fischer, a correspondent in Time’s Washington bureau, as his official spokesman. Naturally the Star reported the announcement prominently. It also noted that “Fischer was a principal reporter for Time’s recent cover story on Haig, which portrayed Haig, hands on hips in a belligerent pose, as `taking command.'”
That was a refreshing bit of honesty on the Star’s part, but it wasn’t exactly right. Fischer had not been a “reporter” on the story—he hadn’t written any of it. Wood was judged to be the guilty party. There was a backroom explosion; the Star printed a retraction; and Wood (whose recent performance, Star reporters say, has been impressive) was demoted to a copy desk job. Of course Wood had been wrong on a fact, which made it hard to protest his punishment. But it turns out he wasn’t that far off—the essence of his story was correct. Fischer had worked to sell the Haig cover story within Time’s hierarchy. When Time brass began to vacillate 24 and talk of postponing the profile, informed sources say, Fischer weighed in in favor of running it pronto. Wood’s real crime apparently was not bungling a fact, but daring to think of reporting a Time Inc. matter honestly at all.
Perhaps it is Gart’s preoccupation with an imaginary Time Inc. board of directors looking over his shoulder that leads him into the dangerous game of spiking stories.
Last summer, for instance, reporter Kurtz and another Star staffer spent three months preparing a series of stories on housing discrimination in the Washington area. Gart sat on and eventually spiked the series, although it is said that nearly every editor on the paper urged him to use it, believing the series produced powerful evidence of racial and ethnic discrimination in housing. Associate editor Eileen Shanahan, the only Star official who would speak about this incident (and then only briefly) said, “I liked the series and I urged the editor [Gart] to run it.”
Later, Gart consented to publication in nonseries form of some of the information obtained during the investigation—consenting only after it had been bowdlerized to remove all but one reference to specific incidents or specific real estate firms. Kurtz sought and was granted permission to place the series elsewhere—on the condition that it not be identified as having originated with the Star. But when word got back that Kurtz had contacted the local city magazine, Washingtonian. to ask if it was interested, Gart did a two-and-a-half gainer from the inverted pike position over the news. He demanded the series be returned and essentially shelved forever.
The effect on newsroom morale was catastrophic. Reporters and editors—even .company men—speculated that Gart’s true motive was to protect real-estate advertisers. No one produced proof of this, however. Shanahan said, “I went to no small trouble to find out if that was true, and I found no evidence of any kind to support it.” What’s telling is that nearly everyone in the Star newsroom assumed the worst to be true.
Gart’s real reason for the spiking probably was much less dramatic than knuckling under to advertisers. “Murray was bothered by the series because he’s so uncomfortable with enterprise reporting,” said a former Star writer: “To have run that story Gart would have had to go out front, to operate on his own authority. He isn’t afraid of controversy, but he likes only official controversies, where there are press conferences to go to and everybody’s in it together.”
The irony is this: after Gart spiked the series, housing discrimination turned into an official controversy. A bill to toughen up the Fair Housing Act came before the Senate, and outgoing liberals decided to make it their last stand. For five days in December 1980 the Senate filibustered over the bill, and housing discrimination was on the Star’s front page every day. If Gart had run at least some version of the series he would have lapped the field on a major story. Instead, thinking he was safeguarding his paper’s reputation, he lost a golden opportunity to enhance it.
In other cases, Gart spikes have been wholly blatant. For six years up through last spring, the Star’s food section ran a consumer-affairs colimn by freelancer Goody Solomon. A coupon war began among Washington supermarkets, so food section editor Linda Hasert assigned Solomon to write a five-part series on the pros and cons of coupons.
Unbeknownst to Hasert, the Star’s promotions department was cooking up an. ad campaign called “Star Coupon Saving Days.” The first installment of the series ran one morning during the “Coupon Saving Days” festivities. Star management hit the roof, and associate editor Epstein ordered the “first of a series” line pulled from the rest of the day’s editions (although a box at the end of the article describing the next installment continued to run, mystifying readers). By the time Hasert arrived for work the series had been spiked. She was never consulted.
Gart was out of town the day Epstein made his move, but when he returned, he concurred in the decision—despite the fact that he is reported to have admitted he never so much as. read the copy. I have, since all five stories appeared as written in the Milwaukee Journal. The series contained such rabidly hostile phrases as “Do the advantages of coupons—such as the sizable 25 discounts to users and the added sales volume to manufacturers and retailers—overcome the drawbacks?” The series was balanced and objective; if anything it was tame, even by newspaper standards. Gart never knew. (One of the paper’s editors is said to have asked him, “Aren’t we bigger than this?” and he to have replied, “No paper in second place is bigger than this.”)
To drive home his point Gart dropped Solomon’s column, pulled her off a home-repair fraud series she was working on for the real estate section, and blackballed her from the paper altogether. Gart demoted Hasert (who had challenged his decision) to a copy desk job, and was not heartbroken when she left to join other Star exiles at the Herald Examiner.
Sometimes Gart’s censorship is simply comical. He is known to be avidly anti-Nader, and to discover a “lack of space” when a Nader story is in the offing. He is also extremely protective of what’s left of Henry Kissinger’s dignity, being, like Henry the K, a former Nelson Rockefeller devotee.
Once, a story in a zone edition described Kissinger’s appearance at a fund-raiser for a suburban congressional candidate.The story said Kissinger made a “hawkish-sounding” speech to the crowd. When Gart saw that reference, he ordered it struck. But there was a problem —the press run on the day’s zone editions had already begun. For reasons involving the printing and distribution of zone edtions, it is very difficult to change anything in them once the run begins. “Breaking into the zone editions requires a classic Perry White `Stop the Presses!’ maneuver,” said a Star editor. Nevertheless, Gart insisted on holding up the whole day’s printing and distribution to excise the two offending words.
Yes, We Have Bananas
In the end, the image of Gart that emerges is one of a banana-republic dictator. He must have smarts, or he wouldn’t have gotten where he is. But he rules by fear and fiat, rather than by winning the genuine loyalty of his subjects. Most of his lieutenants are so obsessed with pleasing him (or avoiding his wrath) that they put the real work second. Meanwhile Gart the dictator judges those around him on how well they please, and somewhere in the process their original mutual goal, to save the paper, is nearly forgotten. Like the banana republic strongman, when Gart is deposed—as inevitably he will be— even those who now swear allegiance to him will mock him openly. The whole span of his reign will come to be seen as a bad dream, and people will wonder why it took so long to become obvious.
It’s uncertain whether the paper can stay afloat until that awakening. The Star lost $18 million last year, and its circulation is still declining. The last official figure was 330,000, and it is reported by Star sources the next figure to be released will be 312,000. Post officials are known to have stopped worrying that the Star will cause them any business discomfort. Gart, it is said, believes that a dramatic reversal in circulation could be sparked if the Star were to win a Pulitzer Prize—but you don’t win Pulitzers for covering press conferences.
While working on this article I approached my acquaintances who are not journalists and asked them, in the blandest way I could, what they thought of the Star. Their answers were so similar, it was as if they were reading off a teleprompter: “It’s so boring … there’s nothing in it . . . everything’s already been in the Post.” Most professed to buy the Star only for the comic strip Doonesbury, the column “Ear,” and Oliphant’s cartoons: “It’s handy to read on the subway because you can go through the entire paper in a couple of stops.”
Of course, they are spoiled. If they lived in Houston or Seattle and the Star were their paper, they would sing its praises. But they don’t. They live in Washington, where everybody reads the Post. If they are ever to be drawn back to the Star in sufficient numbers, they must be convinced the Star gives them something the Post does not. It’s hard to believe that something is bland ticker-tape news, especially when, to go after that audience, the Star must compete not only with the Post but television as well.
In the long run playing to the Post’s weaknesses, with an editorial format designed by marketing research instead of dedication to quality, is a losing strategy. It may delay the inevitable, but it can’t change it. There was a time in Washington when the Star was the top paper and the Post was the challenger. The Post turned that situation around by emphasizing quality. If the Star is now handicapped by shifting demographics and industrial patterns, well, then, so be it; even Time Inc. can’t alter demographics. The sole factor entirely within Star control is the quality, courage, and thoughtfulness of its journalism. The Post has proven that in Washington, quality and courage sell. It’s hard to understand why a sophisticated company like Time Inc. and a sophisticated editor like Murray Gart aren’t getting that message.”‘