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Lockdown on Fountain Street
The Providence Journal’s unwillingness to cover a large rally that reached into its own newsroom reflects an ongoing double standard on news coverage
BY IAN DONNIS
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IF A CROWD of protesters carried a boisterous rally into the heart of a local institution — say Textron, Brown University, or Rhode Island Hospital — the Providence Journal would certainly consider it news. But when just such an instance took place last week at the Journal, with a sizable swarm of demonstrators getting past the front lobby to make unsolicited visits to the newsroom, fourth floor editorial offices, and elsewhere, the story went unreported in Rhode Island’s newspaper of record.

In some ways, the situation isn’t surprising. In the almost four years that members of the Providence Newspaper Guild, which represents more than 400 workers at the Journal, have been working without a contract, the ProJo has barely covered the ongoing union-management fight. In the time since the Dallas-based Belo Corporation acquired the newspaper in 1997, the Journal’s willingness to look at itself, although inconsistent in the past, has taken a decided turn for the worse. And even in the best of circumstances, newspapers rarely do a good job of covering themselves, even though their impact in a community often approaches or exceeds many of the public and private entities that they routinely report on.

Still, there’s something striking about the sheer unexpected quality of what transpired last Thursday, November 6 — the brief, audacious upending of business as unusual in the epicenter of the state’s most storied media entity — that made it newsworthy. The action began with a lunchtime rally intended to pressure Journal management, which has declined to negotiate since the Guild rejected a contract offer in June, to return to the bargaining table. About 300 workers from the affiliated Communications Workers of America’s (CWA) district one, encompassing New England, New York, and New Jersey, were in town for a regional conference at The Westin Providence, and they joined some 100 members of various other unions on the sidewalk outside the Journal building on Fountain Street, says Guild administrator Tim Schick.

The crowd included George Nee, secretary-treasurer of the Rhode Island AFL-CIO; Linda McDonald, president of United Nurses & Allied Professionals; Rick Brooks, director of the same local; Providence City Councilman Miguel Luna; and Guy Dufault, a former chairman of the state Democratic Party and consultant to a new, much-publicized advocacy group for public employees in Rhode Island.

As the demonstrators picketed, "At some point, some of the non-Guild people took a right turn, and went inside and managed to get past the locked doors in the [Journal] lobby," says Schick, who described this as a spontaneous maneuver. "From what I understand, they made their way through various portions of the building," including the sparsely populated newsroom, the features section, and the fourth floor, "carrying signs and chanting union slogans." Schick says management sources told him that about 300 protesters made it inside the building. "The union membership is really pumped about what happened," he says, "and management can be described as being livid."

Bob Master, the New York-based legislative and political director for CWA’s district one, who says he was among those inside the Journal building, estimated the number of inside demonstrators at close to 200. "People were sort of glad we were there raising a ruckus, and acting a little surprised," Master says. "This isn’t an extraordinary event for a group like ours." Describing the length of the Guild-management dispute, he says, "We like to find ways to show our solidarity and our sympathy."

ProJo reporter Karen Lee Ziner, who was among those making their way into the building, described the atmosphere as spirited. "We circled around the newsroom, chanting the usual, ‘What do we want? Contract. When do we want it? Now!,’ over and over," she says, "and a few other things, including, ‘We’ll be back, we’ll be back.’ " Ziner estimated the size of the crowd that got into the building at between 200 and 300 people. At one point, Thomas J. McDonough, the Journal’s director of human resources, was seen frantically dialing a telephone.

The red-shirted throng of CWA members and their peers left the ProJo of their own volition after about 10 minutes, sources say, continuing to the nearby Providence Biltmore, where unionized workers are also working without a contract. The union members were similarly vocal in the lobby and interior balconies at the Biltmore, much to the chagrin of hotel management, sources say, before withdrawing following a request by police. But although the rally attracted at least some advance coverage on news-talk radio stations, it went unmentioned in the next day’s ProJo. One Journal reporter, who requested anonymity, summed up the overall situation this way: "They should have covered it. All of these things," including the breach into the Journal building and the protest at the decidedly more public Biltmore, "kind of added to its newsworthiness."

Continuing their practice of not speaking with the Phoenix, Joel P. Rawson, the Journal’s executive editor, and publisher Howard G. Sutton didn’t return calls seeking comment. (Rawson, incidentally, was away from the newspaper at the time of the protest, taking part in the annual journalism day at the University of Rhode Island. He was a panelist in a discussion entitled, "Is ‘ethics’ a four-letter word in journalism today?," during which one of the most discussed topics was whether it was appropriate for the media to identify the Chicago Cubs fan who famously pursued a critical foul ball during game six of the recent National League Championship Series.)

Managers at the newspaper, however, wasted little time in responding to the union members’ intrusion. They quickly imposed what insiders are calling a "lockdown" — making it necessary for reporters and other Journal employees to use their key cards to get from one section of the newspaper building to another, a heightened level of security usually used only on weekends. In the immediate aftermath, Schick says, "Some people who stepped outside to get a cup of coffee and didn’t bring their key cards with them weren’t being allowed back into the building." Security officers were posted at each entrance and a police detail guarded the front. The "lockdown" remained in place at least through Monday morning.

For some insiders, the Journal’s decision not to cover the breach into its own building was utterly unremarkable. "Until you called me, it didn’t occur to me," says political columnist M. Charles Bakst. "They wouldn’t normally cover something like that."

Still, although one academic observer describes the Journal’s decision not to cover the rally that reached into its own newsroom as a judgment call, quite a few reporters and Guild partisans see it as an unfortunate contrast from how the paper reports on other institutions in Rhode Island. As Schick says, "We had a major labor rally with significant act of civil disobedience, and if this involved any other group but the Journal, this would have been front-page news." As an example, he cited the B1 coverage offered by the ProJo a few years back when a far smaller group of union activists stormed the real estate office of former mayor Joseph R. Paolino Jr.

Medical writer Felice Freyer, a member of the Guild’s executive board, says, "It’s sad and embarrassing, but it’s not surprising. They’ve had pretty much of a news blackout on everything that has been going on with this labor conflict, with very few exceptions. It bothers us all as journalists, because a newspaper shouldn’t be in the business of suppressing news and suppressing information."

FEW INSIDERS would have expected the Journal to examine the November 6 rally with the kind of detailed coverage afforded many other union-related issues in Rhode Island — ranging from periodic protests and disputes to the high-profile clashes between public employee unions and elected officials like Governor Donald L. Carcieri, Cranston Mayor Stephen P. Laffey, and Providence Mayor David N. Cicilline. Still, the paper could have covered itself, literally and metaphorically — and been a lot more honest with itself and its readers — had it mustered the gusto to publish even a six-paragraph brief about the rally.

Not everyone sees it this way.

"It seems to me that this is one of those cases that is a discretionary call," says Alex S. Jones, director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. "I don’t think this is an absolute, command performance riot of 10,000 people. This is something that they don’t want to give undo attention to. I don’t think this rises to the absolutely-must-be-covered standard.

"On the other hand," Jones adds, "that’s why it’s good to have more than one news organization in a town, so that if a story involving a particular newspaper is the issue — it doesn’t have to be a labor dispute — there are other people there, like the Providence Phoenix, to do the story. That’s the way that it works; news organizations often tend not to be great when it comes to reporting on their own problems. That’s what other news organizations are there for."

Kelly McBride, who teaches ethics to journalists at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida, says she isn’t familiar enough with the Journal’s coverage of labor issues to comment specifically on the paper’s decision not to cover last week’s rally. (McBride returned my call after I left a message for Bob Steele, another ethics teacher at Poynter, who moderated the November 6 ethics discussion at URI and has done some work, she says, with the ProJo. She says he hadn’t heard about the rally prior to my call.) Speaking more generally, McBride echoed Jones in describing the difficulty that newspapers have in covering themselves, particularly their labor situations. The reasons for this, she says, include a general reticence for self-examination and the inherent conflicts posed by making coverage decisions about an entity from which one draws their paycheck.

"The third reason that I think newspapers don’t cover their own internal problems really well is a general confusion of whether it’s really news or not," she adds. "I think it is news to a limited degree. But the reason that I think it’s news is that newspapers, at their very core function, are a service industry on which democracy is dependent, and therefore citizens have a stake in the internal disputes of their news providers."

In Rhode Island, the Journal regularly offers tough coverage of politicians and legislative functions. Yet even though the New York Times offered a unexpurgated look at the journalistic fraud perpetrated by Jayson Blair, such probing self-examinations seem exceedingly pretty rare. Steven Richards, president of the Boston Newspaper Guild, which represents hundreds of workers at the Boston Globe, says the paper — typically considered one of the 10 best in the country — hasn’t, to his recollection, published a word in the last three years about an ongoing contract dispute there. (Globe spokesman B. Maynard Scarborough didn’t return a call seeking comment.)

As it stands, the Journal’s decision not to cover the protest joins a gallery of similar instances of blinkered judgment, beyond underreporting the Guild-management conflict itself, at the paper in recent years:

• In 1999, the Journal delayed publication by about a month of a column by Wall Street Journal technology columnist Walt Mossberg that was critical of the :CueCat, an ultimately wildly unsuccessful computer peripheral into which the Belo, the ProJo’s parent, had invested millions of dollars.

• In November 2001, publisher Sutton killed an editorial, briefly published on the Journal’s Web site, that took on an important public health issue — Lifespan’s 1997 purchase of the New England Medical Center in Boston — and reignited charges that the state’s largest health-care organization was mishandling its finances.

• In the fall of 2002, Sutton killed an op-ed piece in which Charles Hauser, a former executive editor of the ProJo, without mentioning the paper or Belo, expressed some common concerns about the impact of corporate ownership on journalism. The move came after editorial page editor Robert Whitcomb had praised the piece and prepared it for publication.

By contrast, the Journal proceeded to get the goods when Carlos Pacheco, a veteran employee at the newspaper’s Kinsley Avenue production plant, went on a rampage in June 2002, killing three people, including himself. After some initial signs that management was interfering in coverage, the paper went on to offer the definitive account, and executive editor Rawson told Editor & Publisher, "My instruction was that we will cover this exactly like we cover anything else. We did the job."

This should be the case more often with stories involving the paper.

Instead, the Journal — which continues to offer in-depth reporting and other staples of quality journalism on a regular basis — diminishes itself by denying the legitimacy of a story in its very midst. In some cases, it puts a corporate-friendly spin on the news — using a photo of Belo CEO Robert Decherd, for example, to illustrate an October 30 business-front story on a rebound in media advertising.

Meanwhile, sources say, management is reviewing security tapes of last week’s breach and trying to determine how the barbarians stormed the gate. As metro columnist Bob Kerr says of the ProJo’s handling of the episode, "I think it raises questions about its honesty, I really do." The overall situation, he says, "Strikes me as so silly and sad at the same time."

Ian Donnis can be reached at idonnis@phx.com


Issue Date: November 14 - 20, 2003
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