NORTH HERO, Vt. -- In the current issue of Harper's magazine, contributing editor Thomas Frank writes about my old boss. Frank's "Easy Chair" column talks about USA Today founder Al Neuharth (pictured here), along with Margaret Thatcher and conservative political activist Howard Phillips, all three of whom died in April. (The link I've given you to Frank's piece will give you just the start of it. To read it all online you have to be a print subscriber. It's in the July print issue.)
Neuharth was publisher of the Rochester, N.Y., Gannett newspapers when I worked there for the Times-Union from 1967 to the middle of 1970. (Rochester is about half a day's drive from my brother-in-law's place here on Lake Champlain.)
Neuharth did some good things as a newspaper man. Despite what Frank calls his "banality and brazen self-assertion," Frank gives him credit because "somewhere in his heart, this guy actually cared about journalism."
Well, yes and no.
Let me tell you a story about Neuharth and ethics. I'll let you draw your own conclusion.
The Times-Union staff was pretty young when I was there. Lots of us were in our 20s. And we were a restless group when it came to putting up with journalistic mediocrity, which we sensed was marrow-deep at Gannett, despite several obvious exceptions.
So one night a bunch of us asked Neuharth if he'd meet with us off campus to let us talk with him informally about what we thought was wrong and what it would take to start producing a really good newspaper. Sure, we were arrogant, but our hearts were in the right place.
To his credit, he agreed to join us. So one evening lots of folks crowded into the one-bedroom apartment my wife and I occupied on Park Avenue a block or two from the George Eastman house. We sort of let Al have it, complaining about lack of resources to cover the news, about an emphasis on fluff versus substance and on and on.
He listened and engaged us. A bit after 10 p.m. things were winding down but hadn't quite hit the end when someone announced that we had run out of beer. I guess we were bad planners.
Al immediately asked me to accompany him a block and a half to a convenience store called the Food Tree so we could get more beer.
As we got up to the counter to pay (yes, Al paid), the first edition of the morning Gannett paper, The Democrat & Chronicle, arrived at the store and got tossed in a stack near the cash register.
Al grabbed half a dozen or more copies of them, put them on top of the beer and told the cashier that he, Al, was new in the neighborhood and would need this many D&Cs every night, so he should increase his newspaper order to cover that.
I was dumbfounded. Not only was it a lie, it was a stupid, short-term-gain lie that would benefit the Gannett company for no more than 24 hours before it would become obvious to the store operators that it was a lie. And then what would they think?
I determined that night that I couldn't work long-term for someone with ethics like that, and by the summer of 1970 I had accepted a job at The Kansas City Star.
For that and for other reasons, I never had much respect for Neuharth. And since then I've been extra aware that the ethical values we live out in public do not go unnoticed.
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While I'm on the road for awhile the chances are that I won't be posting a second item here each day as I usually do.