Courant-Fox 61 accused of bending over backward to please key advertisers to increase revenue, forsaking ethics

The managers at the nation’s oldest newspaper of continuing circulation and its sister television station in Hartford are being accused by me and a television personality of trading in journalistic ethics in the past year for more revenue to counter the recession.

In my case I was fired Aug. 3 – after a 40-year stellar career at The Courant – as the newspaper’s first investigative consumer columnist, for refusing to “be nice” to its key advertisers.

In the case of Fox 61/WTIC-TV reporter and personality Shelly Sindland, she filed formal complaints in July with the state accusing the station of – among other things – selling news.

In this column I will disclose for the first time the complete list of key advertisers I was to be nice with. I was directed by The Courant’s top management to write nothing negative about them in my columns or blogs, nor approve of any reader negative comment, without first giving top management a chance to censor and potentially kill the offending item. The list – which includes state agencies – applies to all Courant reporters and columnists.

My Aug. 2 column disclosing a state investigation into allegations that the nation’s largest mattress retailer was selling used mattresses as new, one filled with bedbugs, was killed without explanation. I was fired the day after.

Sindland has received wide media attention for her very specific allegations of sex and age discrimination as well as specifics about how her TV station – where she still works – had a locker room atmosphere that was approved at the top. She claimed that young sexy reporters and anchors were showcased instead of “older” women like herself.

However, her written claims to the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities about selling news have been overlooked by most mainstream media, which focused on the more titillating aspects. In this column I will detail all the facts that are on the record.

Tribune officials have denied Sindland’s and my overall allegations, but have so far declined to discuss specific issues.

Courant/Fox 61 Publisher Rich Graziano was quoted in the New York Times as dismissing my complaints as those of a disgruntled employee. I guess he had not had a chance to see my personnel file, where there is not one negative word about me or my attitude and which shows that every year I received top raises. One year I was given a special raise to stay at the paper and turn down inquiries from a headhunter.

Since the New York Times article appeared on Aug. 18, top managers at Tribune and The Courant have apparently been told by their lawyers to stop making comments, especially ones that are false.

Underneath it all, there are far more serious allegations that everyone in Connecticut, and throughout the country, needs to be concerned about.

As the recession is hitting media revenues hard, marketing and salespeople are taking over the leadership of many newspapers and television stations. In some cases they have little appreciation of the constitutional role the media have to keep the public informed. Journalistic ethics come second to revenues.

It is especially troubling in central Connecticut where The Courant, with 130 outstanding news employees still left, is the main collector of news that the rest of the state’s newspapers, radio stations and television stations depend on.

In our case, Tribune decided this year to combine the operations of the newspaper and its sister station, Fox 61/WTIC, under one manager, Graziano, who then hired Jeff Levine, a marketing executive, to run the news operations of both. A television station is now being built inside The Courant, where at the end of the year the two entities will become one.

If Graziano and Levine were ethical journalists, this would not be a problem in my opinion. Combining the two would create great synergies that could save both from extinction.

Courts and public opinion will get a chance to decide who is telling the truth, but I will present all the facts I have available – including the list of prime advertisers The Courant gave me so that I would know to ring the alarm bell at Levine’s office in case I even considered writing one negative word about them. Other Courant reporters and columnists have received similar orders recently.

At the television station, 40-year-old veteran journalist Sindland filed her written complaint in early July. She made repeated references in her complaint to “ethical violations related to receiving payment for news stories.”

Her complaint states that as early as February she told management of her concerns that the station was improperly getting paid for airing news stories.

She said that in mid-May she went to her company’s personnel department “regarding my concerns that the respondent (Fox 61) was committing ethical violations related to receiving payment for news stories.”

She said she was told that if her allegations were investigated by the company it would “only make matters worse” and could lead to Sindland’s losing her job.

Her complaint does not provide any further details about her allegations.

However, I believe that some television newscasters were given special instructions on how to interview key advertisers and how to present their stories.

I called Sindland Friday and asked her to provide the public with more specifics of her claims. She declined, citing her attorney’s instructions.

Thankfully, my lawyer is more flexible and has no trouble with my laying out my case.

I don’t need to repeat all the allegations – they are available here.

So that people can better understand the issues, I am making public the list of key advertisers The Courant management gave me with instructions that before I wrote any negative column or blog item or approved a reader comment about one of these companies or entities, it would have to be approved by the highest editor. Prior to that order, my columns were read by one editor and went in the paper pretty much as I wrote them, and none of my blogs or reader comments needed censoring from anyone.

You will notice that the state of Connecticut – the government of Connecticut – as well as other public institutions are included in this list. Following the list I will add a couple of pertinent internal e-mails that shed light on this issue.

TOP MAJORS/CLASSIFIED ADVERTISERS
CURRENT YEAR FROM 01/01/09 – 06/30/09

ACCOUNT NAME
MACY’S
STOP & SHOP
HARTFORD HOSPITAL
PRICE CHOPPER FOODS
SHAWS
RITE AID PHARMACY
BIG Y
J.C. PENNEY
SLEEPY’S
SEARS ROEBUCK & CO
GOODWIN COLLEGE
A&P FOODMART
KOHL’S DEPARTMENT ST
C V S
TARGET STORES
BEST BUY
OCEAN STATE JOB LOT
MASHANTUCKETT PEQUOT
WAKEFERN FOOD CORP
WALGREENS CO VENDOR
HOME DEPOT
ACG/SPORTS AUTHORITY
LOWE’S
ST FRANCIS HOSPITAL
Dicks Sporting Goods
PURITAN JUVENILE
ALDI FOODS
MICHAEL’S ARTS CRAFT
BERNIE’S
WALMART SAM’S
T J X CORPORATION
BUSHNELL MEMORIAL HA
STATE OF CONNECTICUT
NASSAU CARRIAGE HOUS
JO ANN STORES
MOHEGAN SUN RESORT
NAMCO
RAYMOUR & FLANIGAN
STAPLES
GEISSLER’S SUPERMARK
TURF MASTERS
ST OF CT UCONN HLTH
TOWN FAIR TIRE CENTE
CABELA’S MARKETING &
HARTFORD STAGE CO
RADIO SHACK
STEW LEONARD’S
LA Z BOY RETAIL
JENKS PRODUCTIONS
TOYS R US INC
VERIZON WIRELESS
A T & T
PEOPLES’S UNITED BAN
NEW ALLIANCE BANK
BANK NORTH
CONNECTICARE

AUTO
ENFIELD HONDA
MITCHELL
CROWLEY
HARTE NISSAN INC
EXECUTIVE HONDA
STEPHEN AUTOMALL CEN
WESTBROOK HONDA
MIDDLETOWN NISSAN
BOLLES
MIDDLETOWN TOYOA
LANGAN
DECORMIER NISSAN
SUBURBAN SUBARU
GENGRAS
BERTERA CHRYSLER
VALENTI AUTO GROUP
SCHALLER
PAPA’S
GROSSMAN CHEV. NISSAN, GEO
BILL SELIG FORD
O’NEILLS CHEVROLET
GALE TOYOTA
MORANDE FORD
HOFFMAN
DOWLING FORD

REAL ESTATE
PRUDENTIAL CT REALTY
COLDWELL BANKER
METRO REALTY GROUP
HARVEST PROPERTIES
CHAPMAN GARDNER
WILLIAM RAVEIS
VILLA APARTMENTS
LANDWORKS
TOLL BROTHERS INC
PULTE HOME CORP.
REMAX ADVANTAGE
CAMBRIDGE MGMT CO.
INTERTOWN REALTY
ASPEN WOODS/HAMDENDE/GARDEN HOMES
WHITE OAK DEVELOPMENT, LLC
HOMEBUILDERS ASSOCIA
STEPHEN AUTOMALL CEN
ARG RE/DEVELOPMENT LLC
MILLER REAL ESTATE
PARK PLACE TOWERS
PEBBLEBROOK
SENTRY REAL ESTATE
PRUDENTIAL CT REALTY
WILLIAMS REALTY SERVICES
GINSBURG DEVELOPMENT COMPANY L

From: Gombossy, George
Sent: Friday, July 10, 2009 3:32 PM
To: Hazell, Naedine
Cc: Delucia, Lynne; Haar, Dan
Subject: Re: TOP ADVERTISERS JAN-JUN 2009.xls

This of course will present challenges since even the state of ct is a top advertiser

Sent from my iPhone

From: Hazell, Naedine
Sent: Sunday, July 12, 2009 11:28 AM
To: Gombossy, George
Cc: Levine, Jeffrey S; Delucia, Lynne
Subject: RE:

Obviously, we’re treating this blog differently than others in that it seems many of the posts will need to be reviewed by an editor first, including reader comments…We don’t currently have a procedure for this.
It’s worth holding off on posts until we can talk and clarify the blog’s roll going forward or if we want to try a different format.
—–Original Message—–

<TOP MAJORS-CLASSIFIED ADVERTISERS JAN-JUN 2009.xls>

Sent: Sunday, August 02, 2009 11:42 AM
To: Hazell, Naedine

Cc: Levine, Jeffrey S; Delucia, Lynne; Hunt, Kevin
Subject: RE: 100 comments waiting for publishing on CTWachdog

Naedine

After spending several days reflecting on both my memory of the last
meeting between yourself, Lynne, Jeff, and me, conversations prior and
after that meeting, as well as checking notes I took during the meeting,
and immediately after, I agree that we have much different takes on what
was said as well as what was agreed on during that 40 minute session.

There is no question in my mind that Jeff raised the issues of whether
my column/blog will continue and whether I would be the one doing them.
Also there was no discussion about me writing “gotcha” columns or
stories, nor was there any agreement or directive on which comments
would be allowed to be posted.

The conversation began with Jeff telling me that I made a mistake in the
handling of the Price Chopper blog item and that Price Chopper said that
as the result it was cancelling a proposed $100,000 ad campaign with us.

My credibility with the publisher is now in serious doubt, Jeff said.

After further discussion about the issue of my credibility with the
publisher, the Price Chopper blog, and my instructions from my previous
managers on how I should conduct myself, I raised the question of what
Jeff wanted to do about comments readers want posted in response to blog
items.

Neither Jeff nor Lynne were clear on the process by which comments were
posted on blogs. After you and I explained that with blogs, unlike
columns and stories that appear on our Internet site, all comments must
be approved by the blogger before they can post.

Jeff abruptly ended the meeting at 2:40 by stating that he would
consider what was said and would decide whether to continue the column
and the blog, what form they would take, and who would write them.

I then asked whether he wanted me to continue blogging until he made
those decisions. He said yes as long as I followed the same rules on my
blog items as he set for my column. To further clarify, I asked if that
could include press releases from governmental agencies involved in
consumer protection issues (since they only reflect the view of the
agency), and I was told I could.

The meeting ended then, with Lynne and I leaving and you staying behind.

Just like it is very easy for me to remember that my employment is
threatened, I certainly would remember if I were told that my work was
shoddy journalism by the top editor of the newspaper/TV.

I can assure you I would have had a lot to say if I were told of writing
unethical or cheap shot stories/columns.

You can look at 40 years of my personal file (including my last
evaluation just a few weeks ago) and you will not find one word on this
or any related subjects. In fact you will have to look long and hard to
find any criticism of my work despite the fact that I have been a
journalist at The Courant longer than anyone else in the newsroom.

I have received more national and state journalist awards than any other
Courant staffer in the paper’s history – including the George Polk Award
for local reporting, American Bar Association Silver Gavel, SABEW Best
in Business columnist, several SABEW’s Best Business business sections;
twice the Ted Driscoll investigative award, Aviation/Space Writers
Association Award for Excellence, and was part of the team that won The
Courant its first Pulitzer.

Nor has there been a conversation about changing the tone of my column
from an investigative consumer column: Not with you, not with Kevin, not
with Jeff and not with Lynne. If there had been, I am sure there would
have been follow up sessions and clear specific written instructions
would have been given to me. Neither Jeff, Lynne, or Kevin have
communicated any new instructions or information that conflicts with my
recollection of the meeting.

I understand clearly your present views on how comments on my blog
should be treated. If Jeff has made up his mind on this issue and agrees
with you, it has not been communicated to me directly or indirectly.

If that decision has been made, I think it’s important for the editors
to tell readers what the new standards are for CtWatchdog blog comments
so they don’t waste their time writing comments which will not be
published or keep looking on my blog and wondering why their comments
were not posted.

As far as the issue you raised about preferential treatment of prime
advertisers, I will probably have more to say on that topic after I
learn why my column on the Attorney General investigating Sleepy’s was
not published, as scheduled, today. Never before had a Watchdog column
been held by an editor – especially on a topic of great consumer
interest and importance.

Thank you

George

George Gombossy
Hartford Courant Watchdog Consumer Columnist
Watchdog@courant.com
Blog: www.courant.com/ctwatchdog
Twitter: http://twitter.com/ctwatchdog
Facebook: George Gombossy

After receiving this email, according to a source, Courant and Tribune officials decided that they had to get rid of me and on Aug. 3 I was fired.

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6 Comments on "Courant-Fox 61 accused of bending over backward to please key advertisers to increase revenue, forsaking ethics"

  1. What ever happened to ethics and unbias in the news industry? As an employee at a major NYC newspaper, it is incredibily sad and unsettling to see Tribune upper management acting in a way that now makes one question the credibility of the paper. Unfortunately, however, this is not the first time we have seen media companies shaping news coverage and pretty much all business practices around their current key advertising list. As a “young-ing” in this industry,I have seen this happen too many times and wonder to myself, “when did this industry let big business take control and dictate our operations and actions, and why is upper management so scared to take that control back?” I just don’t get it…

    Thank you for bringing this to the attention of the public. They deserve to know the truth behind their news.

    Best of luck with your fight. You have my support!

  2. Watchdog Fan | August 23, 2009 at 11:32 am |

    Love your site. Don’t get mad — get even. Watchdog Rick Guinness, former New Britain Herald reporter, had the same thing happen to him several months ago. He was our Political Watchdog for New Britain till Mayor Stewart had him fired. George, I’m glad you have this site to continue your good work uncensored. Rick went on to publish his own uncensored paper, The New Britain Advocate, and no one can silence him now, though some politicians are trying hard. City Hall has ‘agents’ out removing his copies from circulation and destroying them, but the paper will continue. You should team-up with Rick and expose all that is wrong with wealthly business people and corrupt politicians — make Connecticut a better place to live for the honest people.

    http://www.journalinquirer.com/articles/2009/03/23/other_opinion_columnists/doc49c75795d7289218551867.prt

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e7WZVPAn6m0

  3. The fundamental problem lies in Christine’s statement ” …it is incredibily sad and unsettling to see Tribune upper management acting in a way that now makes one question the credibility of the paper.”

    In any commercial organization in which ‘upper management’ controls the validity of information, all notions of fact and truth become questionable.

    May the force be with you.

  4. Reality Check | August 23, 2009 at 4:34 pm |

    What is really going on here?

    Well, in my opinion the bottom line is that both of these industries are suffering because they did not plan for the future which is now. Why didn’t they plan? Just like many other industries it was most likely corporate greed.

    If you are kissing the advertisers asses instead of the other way around then your product is just not good enough anymore. If you bring in a new sales person and marketing expert instead of a product innovator then your days are numbered. Why wouldn’t you want a product that is totally unlike anything that has ever been seen before? A product that everyone just has to have. If this happens then the advertisers will be pounding at your door instead of the opposite. Don’t blame it on the economy. Look at the Ipod.

    So George, what happened to you compares to someone having a bad day at work, coming home and kicking the dog. In this case, The Watchdog.

    (Note to TV Stations: If you do get a creative consultant don’t get a so-called expert that goes around the country making every station look the same. Hire someone who has nothing to do with news but does know entertainment.)

    Newspapers should already be totally electronic and local television news needs to stop looking like….well…local news and also be on demand at this point in time only reporting news that is newsworthy.

    I am 40 and I do not read the paper or watch local news. Never did. I don’t have to. Important news comes to me in some form on it’s own and if I do want to know more I will go online. If someone leaves The Hartford Courant at my door to try to get me to subscribe, I get mad because now I have to dispose of it. I have enough junk mail to deal with never mind having to deal with a pile of newspapers.

    Some will think “this guy does not read the paper or watch the news? He must be stupid.” Well, the next time you watch your local news, really watch it because it is written like they think YOU’RE stupid.

    Does this scare people in the industry? Why? Just be an innovator and come up with something we need. It has probably crossed your path many times but your too consumed with yourselves to see it.

    George, you are just another victim of corporate greed, laziness, and lack of creativity but honestly, I think this will work out in your favor because this site just might be your Goldmine.

    RC

  5. Jan Kozlowski | August 25, 2009 at 5:55 pm |

    Dear George:

    Sorry to hear how ridiculous and short sighted the people in control of the Courant have become. I used to subscribe to 3 newspapers a day, including the Courant, but in the past year, if I buy one paper a week, it’s usually only to forage for coupons. The news that finds it’s way to print in this new corporate world is of little use or interest and the people that are running them continue to make stupider and stupider decisions, like firing you and discontinuing the few features that are worth paying to read. These shells of journalism that the giant media conglomerates are trying to shove down readers throats deserve to wither and die. Hopefully you will find a way to continue your exceptional, relevant and vital work. Please know that we the readers and consumers appreciate everything you’ve done for us and hold you in the highest regard.

  6. Ricky Rldridge | May 11, 2010 at 3:49 pm |

    The trouble started when they brought in Rich Graziano and his Boston sales posse to run a Connecticut “news” entity. Salespeople have different motives in running a business and will impose their will on a culture to achieve “sales” goals. None of their goals involve a definitively beneficial news/content culture—all their objectives are tied to generating maximum profit which is not a bad thing—if only it sdoesn’t come at the expense of journalistic and broadcast integrity. Rich Graziano, judging by all the news he has generated (Elsa Veisor incident and the Shelly Sindlund case) is not a person I would trust when it comes to upholding the integrity of anything, let alone informative matters. Please also ask him about the “benefits” of having the Gallery Salon as the official consultants of the news.

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