Houston's Shackled Press

A cautionary tale about journalistic conflicts of interest

Among the most fervent declarations about American institutions are public testaments to the need for freedom of the press, and no one pronounces these with more passion than the press itself. From standing mottoes on page one, in prose and poetry across editorial pages, and in unrelenting rhetoric from publishers' conventions comes the message: the democratic process is founded on the rock of free and independent newspapers.

Most of these calls imply the danger of control by government. Some suggest other threats, from welfare statism to public apathy. Over the years, among the most insistent alarmists of the internal threat to freedom has been the Houston Chronicle, the largest paper in Texas and at one time the property of Jesse Jones. But so far in this decade the greatest contribution the Houston Chronicle has made to the maintenance of native American institutions is to conduct a continuing and depressing demonstration on how not to operate a free paper in a free society, and to remind its brethren in the trade that the most immediate threat to a free press in this country is their own conflict of interest.

In the 1950s the Chronicle was an unabashed mouthpiece for the city's aging oligarchy, dull, jingoistic, reactionary, and falling behind its competitors. Brought in to rejuvenate the paper in 1960 was William P. Steven, a professional editor (moderate Republican) who reversed the paper's dying tendencies and looked at the Chronicle as though it were being published for the whole community. In addition to this heresy, he was pretty radical: he supported higher education, Lyndon Johnson, and civil rights. So last September he was fired by the oligarchy. It was the most spectacular story in American newspapering that week, reported in all major Texas dailies, the wire services, and national newsmagazines. But in the Chronicle's account of its change - the conservative team of the 1950s was put back in charge -Steven's name did not appear, and he became an unperson in the manner of fallen political gods in the Soviet encyclopedia. The paper began shifting back to the right.

Three months later the oligarchs agreed to sell the Chronicle to the Houston oil millionaire John Mecom as part of an $85 million package that included hotels, banks, office buildings, and a laundry. The deal would change the commercial power structure of the sixth largest city in the country, but the Chronicle's bland story was one eighth as long as the one in the opposition Post. After Mecom moved in, the paper continued its rightward shift and changed largely by playing up its new proprietor's interest in oil, horse and automobile racing, and providing spectacular coverage of his daughter's wedding.

On June 7 of this year the Mecom deal collapsed, and the Chronicle reverted to the oligarchy, along with the laundry. Apparently the deal fell through over disagreement on the final price for the biggest bank in the package. The Chronicle did not report that the deal had been canceled, let alone why, presumably on grounds that it was none of the public's business. Readers were not even told that they had lost a newspaper proprietor. Mecom's name, like Steven's before him, was merely dropped from the masthead and replaced by that of Jesse Jones, who has been dead ten years. If Houstonians depended on their biggest paper, they would not know that their community had undergone a profound change, even though the paper was part of that change. And they would not know that their leading newspaper, the most prominent Texas representative of that crucial institution of a free and independent press, was being bought and sold like an anonymous link in a string of corporate hot dogs. On the basis of that record, the Chronicle's readers will probably have to rely on rumor and gossip to tell them what happens next to their newspaper.

Among the depressing morals to be drawn from the turbulence in Houston is the reminder that the American press has hardly begun to think about, let alone solve, a fundamental problem of conflict of interest. The press has been vigorous about pointing to conflict of interest among politicians, occasionally exposing men and agencies in government who let private profit interfere with their public duty. Newspapers were particularly noticeable stressing the horrors of conflict of interest and payola in broadcasting. At infrequent times a few papers will even expose individual reporters or editors who compromise their reportorial objectivity by taking money, favors, or glory from news sources. But they have been virtually silent about a major source of conflict of interest in journalism: the danger that the publisher of a local paper will have a financial interest in an enterprise that should be reported objectively but is not.

For example, the group that controlled the Chronicle last year also controlled a large bank in town which experienced a bitter stockholder struggle that was reported in the Wall Street Journal and on page one of the opposition Post, but never mentioned in the Chronicle.

So it was typical that when the Chronicle was sold last December, along with the same large bank and downtown real estate, Houstonians depending solely on the Chronicle would have known nothing of the event unless they had caught the final edition of the December 6 paper, and even there they would have been limited to a twelve and-a-half-inch story. Six months later when it was "unsold," the readers were told nothing. The Post had three chaste paragraphs forty-eight hours later.

The Post has not always compensated for the deficiencies of the Chronicle.It cooperated. for example, in keeping out of print in Houston the name and fate of the discharged Steven. Competition does not necessarily produce good newspapers. There are too many cities where it seems to produce the opposite - Boston, San Francisco, the afternoon papers in New York City - and a number of places where monopolies print good newspapers - Louisville and St. Petersburg. Competition merely increases the odds that news will be printed and public questions asked and investigated. There is no longer competition in 96 percent of American cities with papers, and in the remaining 4 percent the tide of monopoly seems to move on inexorably, as it has in Houston in recent times.

Until 1964 there had been three papers in the city. For years, the best one was Oveta Culp Hobby's morning Post, staid, occasionally enterprising, but never as vigorous or as authoritative as one would expect from the only morning paper in the country's sixth largest and remarkably rich city. There were two afternoon papers. The Scripps-Howard Press, a wretched paper, was a flamboyant, superficial jab in the civic rib cage. The other was the Chronicle, reactionary and stingy with the news, for years the voice of its early owner, Jesse Jones, and after his death, of his fiscal trustees.

In 1960 the Press had a circulation of 102,000. The Post, with 218,000 and the only staff exhibiting signs of metropolitan-caliber ability, grew slowly to dominance in the city. The Chronicle had a circulation of 205,000, but it was out of sympathy and out of touch with large segments of the community. John T. Jones, Jr., the titular head of the Chronicle, decided it was time for a change. Jones, the favorite nephew of Jesse Jones, is tall, slender, slow-speaking, with a facial resemblance to his uncle except for a contemplative quality.

John Jones decided to change the Chronicle to a paper for a modern metropolis, which Houston desperately needed. For years the city had been wracked by ideological wars of the most primitive kind, most dramatically in its educational system. The schools were dominated by citizens who regarded sympathetic mention of the United Nations in the classroom as Communist indoctrination, racial integration as an alien plot, and who eschewed such forms of federal aid as school lunches but grasped it in the form of federally supported military training for high school boys.

Jones's instrument for the awakening of the Chronicle was William P. Steven, a man of heavy build and hearty voice, with a national reputation for rejuvenating newspapers. He had started out in his native Wisconsin, had edited in Tulsa, and had enlivened the Minneapolis news scene. He is of that breed of newspapermen who possess instinctive rapport with their generation, a drive to go where the action is, and an immunity from the contagion of bureaucracy and ultrarespectability.

Like his friend Lyndon Johnson, Steven is a calculating plunger. (Years ago he told a Time magazine reporter that his editing philosophy is "Plan now, print later," but it came out in Time as "Print now, plan later" and continues unchangeable in the corridors of Time as a famous Steven quote.) He parted with the Cowles management in Minneapolis largely because young John Cowles had risen to the point of editorial leadership, and a good newspaper can stand only one leader at a time. It is typical of Steven's shrewd enthusiasm that he found his next job by compiling a list of all the papers in the country with three characteristics: big enough to pay him a good salary, dull, and with an editor over sixty. There were eight. In each case he arranged for a friend who knew the owners to let the publisher know Steven was a good man and available. One of the papers was the Chronicle.

In September of 1960 John Jones and Steven spent a day and a half talking in a room of the Rice Hotel in Houston. Jones wanted Steven to do for the Chronicle what he had done for papers in Tulsa and Minneapolis, make them interesting and make them grow. The two men liked each other. As they approached a decision, Steven told Jones, "You know, John, there is one thing that troubles me about working in the South that you ought to know. I feel that integration is an essential fact in the demonstration of democracy. I think it is necessary for the full development of the economy. And I think it is the only way to make our foreign policy mean anything in a world of mostly dark skins. Outside of that, I have no strong feelings on the matter."

As Steven remembers it, Jones replied, "The Chronicle supports the law of the land. The only trouble I'll have with you is that you may want to talk about it too much."

The Chronicle stopped being dull and archaic. Emphasis moved from columnists of the far right, like Paul Harvey and Fulton Lewis, Jr., to those of the center, like James Reston and Max Freedman. The paper subscribed to the Los Angeles Times--Washington Post wire service and the New York Times News Service (after the Times service appeared, conservatives in town began calling the Chronicle their Pravda).

Almost at once Steven began building the local news staff, which was suffering from inbreeding, age, and malnutrition. Top reporters at the Chronicle in 1960 were getting $120 a week, and he raised their salaries to $165. He attracted bright young journalists from outside to the paper. One photographer, Ted Rozumaiski, became the only man ever to he named twice as national Photographer of the Year. Reporter William Porterfield won an Ernie Pyle Award in 1963. Saul Friedman was named a Nieman Fellow at Harvard. The staff began doing a series of articles on urgent local problems, among them sympathetic accounts of the nature of racial relations in the city (there are 300,000 Negroes in a city of a million). Much attention was devoted to the need for faster development of higher education. The Chronicle withdrew its support from the conservatives on the school board, pressed for televising of school-board proceedings against the bitter opposition of conservatives, and won.

Steven spent money, but he also saved some. For years it had cost the paper $100,000 to publish a 6 AM, edition merely to get an extra 7000 circulation in the fight against the Post. Steven scrapped that edition. In 1964 the Press finally gave up and sold its assets to the Chronicle, which then became the largest paper in 'Texas, with 254,000 circulation.

The opposition Post began to perk up. It brought down William Woestendiek from the highly successful Long Island Newsday, and its national and foreign news improved. The changes were long overdue in a city with four universities (total enrollment 25,000), a large petrochemical and shipping community with global rather than parochial interests, and the huge NASA space center.

For the first time, urgent issues could be discussed openly without destructive recrimination. The pre-Steven Chronicle spoke for the financial lords of the territory and their eccentric politics, and everyone knew it; the most dangerous political radicalism it had entertained was to support Governor John Connally, even though he is, in a manner of speaking, a Democrat.

A man who lived and worked in Houston during the Steven period said, "You have no idea what a difference it made that the Chronicle changed. It wasn't dangerous to be a Johnson Democrat anymore, or to support minority groups, or speak in favor of Medicare. Before, if you supported these things, they made you feel like the village crazy man."

The nature of this change is implied in the award given Steven in October of 1964 by the Houston chapter of the American Jewish Committee "in recognition of his constructive and effective labors in guiding the Houston Chronicle toward accomplishing the information of our populace and the improvement of opinion in Houston."

Presented by

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


Cryotherapy's Dubious Appeal

James Hamblin tries a questionable medical treatment.


Confessions of Moms Around the World

In Europe, mothers get maternity leave, discounted daycare, and flexible working hours.


How Do Trees Know When It's Spring?

The science behind beautiful seasonal blooming

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In