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.