Academic journal article Journalism History

Pressing the Press: W.E. Chilton III's Investigation of Newspaper Owners

Academic journal article Journalism History

Pressing the Press: W.E. Chilton III's Investigation of Newspaper Owners

Article excerpt

During twenty-five years as owner/publisher of West Virginia's largest newspaper, the Charleston Gazette, W.E. Chilton III developed a journalism philosophy that he called "sustained outrage." Newspapers too often failed, he argued to the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association in 1983, to examine "basic injustices and fundamental idiocies." This philosophy was underscored by a deep belief that newspapers were dying at their own hands by pursuing profit rather than robust democratic debate. Thus, in 1980 and 1986, he ordered his reporters to hunch two in-depth investigations into his fellow West Virginia newspaper owners and publishers. This study explores these unusual investigations within the context of historical industry criticism and ongoing concerns over the fate of First Amendment values without a vigorous press.

William E. "Ned" Chilton III, the third-generation owner and publisher of West Virginias largest newspaper, the Charleston Gazette, accepted the national Elijah Parish Lovejoy Award on November 8, 1982, with fire, his gravely voice predicting the death of newspapers. The press, he told the crowd, was not only under attack from an onslaught of electronic competition, including the computer-spawned "cybernetic revolution," but from corporate newspaper owners who insisted on mass profits, pap rather than news, and tepid chiding instead of editorials that demanded true reform. "It worries me ... to read that media stocks are among the nation's hottest growth and profit properties," he said. "Keepers of the tablets shouldn't have to go around in sackcloth, but neither should they be wrapped in ermine."

Chilton invoked the press' unique role in American life and warned of a dire threat to free expression if their mission of "protecting First Amendment freedoms" was not passed on to the next generation of technology. He was referring to the explosive growth of cable television in the early 1980s. Though he could not see the Internet revolution that has assaulted the press recently, he correctly predicted the impact of video and why new technologies threatened newspapers, telling the crowd that "video is bringing to viewers data and information from myriad fields and sources never previously covered."

Newspapers were their own worst enemies, Chilton asserted. Though occasionally interested enough in the public sphere to investigate government failings, they rarely if ever used their First Amendment protections to look at each other and to hold themselves accountable for their responsibilities to public debate and clean government. "Are newspapers as willing to accept criticism and print criticism about themselves as they are to dish it out?" he continued. "I think not. In addition, newspapers aren't as eager or as quick to mix it up with other newspapers as they are other institutions in their society. Why? No newspaper is always correct."1

Chilton's words were not empty rhetoric. Intensely wary of allegations of hypocrisy, he never leveled charges at others that he would not confront himself. In 1974, for instance, calling for more transparency from public officials, he demanded West Virginia Attorney General Chauncey Browning and other statewide elected officials release their income tax returns. Browning replied that he would if Chilton would. At first reluctant, Chilton ultimately released his 1973 tax returns to the Gazette, which did a front-page story.2

He followed the same pattern when it came to scrutinizing the press, allowing the spotlight to shine as brightly on himself as on others, a policy that more than once put him in the position of having to answer questions from his own reporters. In 1980, the chairman of the Republican Party in Kanawha County, where the Gazette was located, held a well-attended news conference to announce his apparently sincere intention to ask for a new state law that would require some Democratic politicians to report Gazette news stories as paid political advertising. …

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