An Editor Lands in the Rough
McKinney, Russ, Washington Journalism Review
When Editor Henry Freeman of Delaware's Wilmington News Journal applied to join the prestigious Wilmington Country Club last year, he received recommendations from two powerful Republicans, U.S. Sen. William Roth and then-Gov. Michael Castle. Critics inside and outside the paper immediately cried foul, especially after Castle received the paper's endorsement in his bid for a U.S. House seat.
After political reporter Celia Cohen alerted editors to scuttlebutt about the letters in late October and a prominent citizen (the newspaper won't say who it was) complained to Publisher Sal De Vivo, Freeman withdrew his application. Cohen was then assigned to write about the controversy and Freeman called a staff meeting to explain.
The normal policy is to deal with ethical policies privately," Freeman says. "But I didn't want the staff to deal with rumors.'
Cohen, a News Journal reporter since 1978, says she was concerned that the letters might harm the paper's reputation. "The Republicans I talked to were mad because they thought Henry had basically extorted something, and the Democrats were mad because it looked like we were in bed with the Republicans."
Freeman insists he didn't ask Castle or Roth for support but rather pointed out to his nominator, retired dentist George Zurkow, the names of a few club members he knew on a list of several hundred. They included Roth, Castle, De Vivo, two lawyers from the firm that represents the newspaper and a local businessman. "As editor, it's impossible for me not to know the governor and the senator," Freeman says.
Zurkow asked each man to write "essentially a form letter saying they knew I was of good character," Freeman says. Both Castle and Roth have said their letters were "routine" and provided with no expectations of anything in return.
Nevertheless, the incident has caused strong reactions in the close-knit state and at the Gannett-owned newspaper, where staffers are weary from union contract negotiations that have dragged on for three years. …