Houston's Shackled Press

A cautionary tale about journalistic conflicts of interest

A strong positive force that has quietly but effectively gone about the business of helping Houston Negro citizens move up into new heights of dignity and opportunity has been fired from his position. Not many Negroes were personally acquainted with William P. Stevens [The Forward Times made a common error of putting a terminal "s" on the name], but most were well aware of the fact that for the last four years The Houston Chronicle had shifted from a staunchly conservative newspaper to one that openly advocated school integration and printed editorials that warmed the heart of the depressed and disadvantaged. What the Negro citizens did not know was the man responsible for all this change was William P. Stevens, backed by John T. Jones, Jr. What they may not have realized recently, when a front-page announcement was run in the Chronicle announcing that a new editor had been hired was that the old editor, William P. Stevens, had been fired…It is an ominous warning of things to come or to say the least it is an indication of the end of a short, short era.

The editorial referred to the possibility that people in Houston might not know that Steven had been fired. On September 3 the Chronicle ran a large story on page one on the new appointments but omitted any mention of Steven, and of the Endowment, which made the changes. Over at the Post a story about the firing was prepared but killed by the top brass.

So the news of Steven's discharge had to travel by underground; two church newsletters (one said "truly disturbing," another "a tragic mistake"), two weeklies (The Forward Times and the conservative weekly, Tribune, which ran a straightforward news story). Later someone mailed out thousands of reproductions of stories in national papers and newsmagazines on a sheet entitled "News all over the U.S. but not in Houston."

John Mecom, the new owner of the Chronicle, inherited all its problems, and some of them were even magnified. Under the previous ownership, when a columnist in the Chronicle had mentioned in print that there was a plan to study a downtown air terminal, the head of the Endowment, Howard Creekmore, personally called the paper in anger. The Endowment also owned the Rice Hotel, where most of the airlines have their offices.  A new downtown terminal was not encouraged in the Chronicle

Under Mecom the Rice Hotel was still owned by the owner of the Chronicle, who still had a controlling interest in the bank. In addition, Mecom has worldwide oil, industrial, hotel, and banking interests, and in the Houston area he owns the Warwick Hotel, the Reed Roller Bit Company, the Keystone Drug Company, a building construction firm, a half interest in a huge industrial complex on the Houston Ship Channel, and 20,000 acres of land, some of which he is using to construct 5000 homes and high-rise apartments. [he possibility of a conflict of interest was as inherent under Mecom's ownership of the Chronicle as it was under its previous owners. But the Houston Endowment had been under pursuit by the Department of the Treasury and by Congressman Patman. Patman was digging deeper into the Endowment in the summer and fall of 1965, compiling an impressive record, only partly publicized at the time, of the Endowment's large-scale corporate dealings and its modest indulgence in charity. Patman proposed and even the conservative Treasury agreed that there ought to be a law limiting the right of tax-free foundations to control operating businesses.

During this period, the foundation was looking for a suitable buyer, Steven was fired, and Creekmore decided that John Mecom was the man to buy the Chronicle. Why did they pick him?

Collier's explanation is: "The trustees of Houston Endowment were determined to keep these properties in the hands of someone who has the same deep love of this community and the same concepts for its betterment and progress that Jesse Jones had." The trustees no doubt felt they were expressing "the same concepts for its betterment and progress" when they fired Steven for being too liberal, too pro-Negro, and too militant a reporter of the town.

Mecom is pro-Johnson in a Texas sort of way, but he is not an ideologue. He maintained an office in the Chronicle and ran the same kind of paper the post-Steven editors did under the Endowment. The paper remained to the right of the Steven paper. Three months after Mecom took over, its columnists on domestic affairs were William White, Henry J. Taylor, Raymond Moley, Les Carpenter, Marianne Means, Victor Reisel, William Buckley, James Reston, Max Freedman, and David Lawrence. Four of these (White, Freedman, Carpenter, and Means) are close friends of Lyndon Johnson's. The only nonconservative among the remainder is Reston, and he appeared less frequently than before. Liberal cartoonist Herbiock no longer appeared. The paper dropped Ralph McGill and Whitney Young, and conservative columnist David Lawrence was run twice as often a before.

Almost a year after Steven was fired, a series of articles on the Negro community, criticizing among others the slum landlords, had not been published. Reporter Saul Friedman, who has since gone to Detroit, had worked on the series four months. It was ready for publication when Steven was discharged.

On a number of urgent local issues the editorial page went blank. It decided, in an abrupt change, that the televising of school-board sessions was not important. When Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach made a major speech urging the city to complete its racial integration willingly and without rancor, the Chronicle, whose editorials under Steven had not been reticent about giving opinions, merely suggested that readers look at the speech. Another editorial recommended that readers look at a certain column of William White's. An editor told a subordinate, "That will be a signal to President Johnson that we're still with him." The new Chronicle apparently hoped to send esoteric signals to the President that would go undetected by the owners and the readers.

When the Houston Endowment fired Steven, an indignant citizen of Houston wrote to the White House: "The time has come to license newspapers to assure that they will use their licenses for the benefit of the public and not just for special interests.''

Licensing of the press is, of course, unconstitutional and unwise. But newspapers ought to worry about how often the idea appeals to a frustrated public. There is almost nothing a community can do about a local newspaper that fails in its primary duty. Starting a new metropolitan competitor is too much like a man dissatisfied with his automobile trying to start a new General Motors. He might have done it fifty years ago but not today. Nor is there any effective way he can reach owners who choose to remain unresponsive.

The country's newspaper proprietors, the vast majority enjoying a monopoly, preside over an institution that should be the most sensitive detector of change in society. But among major American institutions, newspapers have been the least responsive to upheavals in civilization since World War II. Government, education, religion, and much of corporate life have adapted to altered conditions in economic and social life, but newspaper owners have clung to the past. They seem to be reminded of their special status under the First Amendment only when someone suggests changes in the second-class mailing privilege or the payment of standard wages to delivery boys. Their response to the notion of the press being accountable to the public is to bar reporters from sessions of the American Newspaper Publishers Association.  In addition, the dangers of news monopoly are increasing.

The basic answer to this vacating of responsibility is for owners to include in their corporate hierarchy, their directorships, and their wills some meaningful representation in the public interest, quite divorced from simple property interest.

In the absence of that there are methods by which a paper ownership can establish working communications with its own community. The editor, publisher, and owner of one of the best papers in the country, Barry Bingham, of the Louisville Courier-Journal and Times, has proposed local press councils in which community representatives would regularly sit with the paper's hierarchy to adjudicate complaints and public issues. No one has been trampled in the rush to try it.

Because there has been little evidence of publisher interest in creating some method of public accountability for the press, the government may have to step in. The least that can be done is to take away the "they" of ownership of newspapers, the usually faceless controllers of the community's news. The Post Office requires users of the second-class mailing privilege to list each year all parties who own one percent or more of the stock in the publication. But at present, there is no distinction made between a one percent owner and a 99 percent owner. And the listing, usually published in the paper in early October, is meaningless because it lists only the holders of record, often trustees and third parties acting as executors of wills.

Although a few newspapers offer stock publicly, there is no good reason in law or logic why newspapers should not file for public scrutiny, under postal law, the same information the Securities and Exchange Commission requires of 4500 companies who trade their stock in the open market.  The SEC requires the filing as a public record of the names of all officers, directors, and holders of 10 percent or more of stock. Each of those persons in turn must file their holdings in any other traded firm in which they are an officer, director, or holder of 10 percent or more of stock. The present postal requirement was passed to prevent the use of government mailing subsidy by parties using the cover of education and news for propaganda or concealed advertising. The present listings do not usually tell the Post Office or the readers who the beneficial owners of newspapers are or what other financial interests they have that might constitute a conflict of interest and a distortion upon the news.

Newspapers have generally supported the idea that policy-making federal officials should disclose their financial holdings and sell those that might conceivably tempt them to influence their work for their own benefit. The American newspaper is almost a branch of public administration. It is the most important single instrument of information in a society peculiarly dependent upon public knowledge and public opinion; for its own future and the national good it needs to be as free as possible, and it needs to assure increasingly dubious readers that it is free.

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