For several months this spring, the good citizens of cyberspace were contacting The Hartford Courant—and me in particular—with sentiments such as this one: “toolan’s misguided abuse of employee freedoms of expression could HARDLY BE MORE DISGUSTING … arrogant editors are the bane of civilized discourse … suffice it to say that i will be telling everyone that will listen to object in the strongest terms the illegal and dishonorable methods of toolan and his ilk … he is no NEWSPAPERMAN … HE IS A FOOL AND A LOUT ….”
This e-mailer, who seems to be a Californian (and is alarmingly accurate as it regards his closing remark), was angry—as were the others—because the Courant had directed one of its journalists to stop writing opinion pieces on a Weblog he’d created. The site was created by Denis Horgan, who has worked at the newspaper for 22 years. For 17 of those years, Horgan wrote a news column, a stretch that ended in January when he was reassigned as editor of the Travel section. Horgan was not pleased with this change and soon after it was made he unfurled denishorgan.com.
Removing Opinions From a Weblog
The principal components of Horgan’s Weblog were opinion columns he wrote on a variety of topics, including the performance of Connecticut’s governor, the decision to go to war with Iraq, President Bush’s tough talk toward Syria, legislation on same-sex marriages, and the delicious misery that is being a fan of the Red Sox.
When the existence of Horgan’s Weblog became known, I talked about it with him two times. In each discussion, I told him about my concerns, and he politely and patiently explained that he believed he had a right to do this, and he didn’t see the conflicts I saw. He emphasized that his Weblog made clear that it was tended on his own time and had no association with his duties at the Courant. After a month of considering Horgan’s position and weighing my concerns, I asked him to stop writing opinion columns on his Weblog. He did, and placed a notice on the site that the columns were ended on the order of the editor of the Courant. Horgan also advised that he would be seeking counsel to determine how the action regards his rights.
Considerable controversy ensued, mostly online, though a few readers of the newspaper sent letters of protest. Horgan’s supporters, many of them bloggers, decried the Courant’s decision as a staggeringly ironic infringement of Horgan’s right to free speech. One critic claimed it was the equivalent of silencing Thomas Paine. Denishorgan.com received numerous posts that lambasted the decision and cheered Horgan’s consideration of legal recourse. Some argued that stopping journalists from blogging was an unnatural act and would be proven futile, too.
J.D. Lasica, who writes about journalism online, concluded: “Those of us who love newspapers wonder why fewer people trust the news media these days. We express puzzlement at why more and more talented journalists are leaving the profession. Some of the answers can be gleaned from this single episode of big media hypocrisy.”
Frankly, I’m an agnostic about Weblogs. I know they’re out there, but I have no strong feelings about blogging generally. I don’t read them, but that’s because I’m reading a whole lot of other things I find interesting, lots of it ink-on-paper, but lots of it online. So blog away.
Deciding to Act
I do have strong beliefs about the responsibilities of journalists and the obligations that come with editing a newspaper. It is tempting to suggest this was an agonizingly difficult decision that I made regarding denishorgan.com, but it wasn’t. It was easy. Let me explain why I made the decision I did.
Behaving in a manner that safeguards the integrity of a news institution and avoids real or perceived conflicts of interest is central to the compact between a journalist and his employer. Journalists should operate in ways that don’t display bias or predisposition. These are ethical considerations, not legal ones, but they are central to the conduct of journalism and must be zealously maintained.
Denis Horgan’s public profile is a product of his long-standing relationship with the Courant. Horgan and the Courant are forged by tenure and highly visible roles. After his opinion column in the Courant was ended, Horgan created a new journalistic platform for himself and began opining on issues, institutions and public officials that reporters and columnists at the newspaper must cover. Even though he was no longer writing his column, Horgan could not separate himself from the Courant by simply declaring that denishorgan.com has nothing to do with the paper, particularly while he is at the paper in the role of an editor. Nor could he disconnect himself—in the public’s mind—from his long-time position as a Courant columnist.
These realities combined to make me believe that many readers of denishorgan.com would not differentiate the Weblog’s Horgan from the one who once wrote columns for and still works for the Courant. Part of the appeal Horgan and his site held for online readers was directly attributable to his role at the Courant, yet the newspaper had no control over his comments and opinions. For example, if Horgan wrote a column about the unfitness of John Rowland to be Connecticut’s governor, some people—including the governor, surely—could imagine that mindset prevails in the Courant’s newsroom. That strikes at the credibility of the newspaper. It doesn’t work.
This is not an issue of freedom of speech. It is about professional expectations and, when they are ignored, as in this case, the newspaper’s standards and public responsibilities are compromised. Like most newspapers, the Courant has an ethics code. It has language that directs that “an individual’s interests outside the paper should not come into conflict with—or create the appearance of conflict with—the staff member’s professional duties at the Courant.” Horgan, and others, argued that since he now edits the Travel section, his public views on public matters don’t interfere with the newspaper’s coverage of those same issues.
I don’t accept that logic. I know some readers, who depend on the paper, would not accept it either, and I recognize how readers’ perceptions can hurt the Courant. Lasica is right about one thing: Fewer people trust the news media these days. So why would an editor spit into that wind?
Horgan didn’t have any discussion with editors at the newspaper before he launched denishorgan.com. But if he had proposed a Weblog in which he would write about more benign topics, like fishing or gardening or day-tripping in New England, it probably would have been approved. That isn’t what happened.
While the decision to prohibit opinion writing on denishorgan.com was not difficult, disappointing Denis Horgan once more was. Horgan happens to be a terrific person, a kind and thoughtful man. Nor is this about loyalty. Horgan has devoted much of his professional life to serving the Courant. He has supported the newspaper and its people in countless ways. In the midst of the debate about his Weblog, Horgan, as he has done for nine years without compensation, directed Hartford’s National Writers’ Workshop, an event that attracted 800 people for a weekend of conversation about writing and journalism, done under the banner of The Hartford Courant. And he’s doing a fine job running the Travel section. To date, no legal challenge has arisen.
As far as Weblogs and their future with daily newspapers, I can certainly accommodate the notion of Weblogs being part of a newspaper’s online portfolio. In fact, the Courant has had devices like that in the past. But is a Weblog truly a Weblog if it is supervised editorially? If the answer is no and that anything but complete freedom is a perversion of the genre, then I think editors must ask themselves if they are comfortable having their news organization represented in that manner. I wouldn’t be.
Brian Toolan is editor of The Hartford Courant in Connecticut.