By Tracy Dingmann
I have written before about what I and many other old-school newspaper journalists think is the troubling coziness between the Albuquerque Journal and the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce.
That’s because it bothers me to see the paper enter into any kind of relationship that looks like it might give it a reason to favor one business or group of businesses over the other.
But plenty of Journal watchers, even ones who I think who should know better, have told me they just don’t see a problem with it.
Well, something happened the other day that I think starkly illustrates what can go wrong when newspapers get too cozy with their advertisers.
Veteran Hartford Courant consumer columnist George Gombossy made national news in August when he chose to leave the paper after his bosses told him to “be nice” to a prominent advertiser and refused to run a column that was critical of another prominent advertiser.
Gombassy had worked for 40 years at the paper, writing columns online and in the paper on behalf of Connecticut consumers who read the Courant.
In July, the paper got new management and Gombassy began to receive pressure from his bosses to ease up on his criticisms of local businesses. Specifically, Gombassy was given a list of the paper’s major advertisers and told that he needed to notify his bosses before he wrote anything about them. He was also told to pay a visit to a local plumbing company that had complained about his coverage, and was told to “be nice” to them.
On Aug. 2, Gombassy submitted a column about the fact that the Connecticut Attorney General’s was currently investigating the mattress chain Sleepy’s after receiving a number of serious complaints from Connecticut residents. The company, which is the largest mattress chain in the U.S., maintains 74 stores in Connecticut and is a major advertiser at the Courant.
According to Gombassy, the editors held the column without explanation. The next day, Gombassy was called into his editor’s office and told his position was being eliminated. He was told he could take another similar position at half the pay. Gombassy says he was ultimately asked to leave the paper and worked his last day on Aug. 14.
But consumers in Connecticut got to read the Sleepy’s column anyway. A frustrated Gombassy ultimately ran it on his new national consumer blog.
You can read the piece, which detailed a troubling trail of complaints, including horrifying allegations of old mattresses being sold as brand new and, in at least one case, a mattress sold that was infested with bedbugs, here.
Yesterday Gombassy announced that he is now suing his former paper under Connnecticut’s Free Speech statute, which protects workers from being fired or punished for exercising their First Amendment rights in the workplace.
From yesterday’s ctnewsjunkie.com story:
“While the statute has been used by other workers who were punished for speaking out in the workplace, this is the first time a journalist has used it in Connecticut to contest his firing for acting on behalf of the public to protect the consumer,” he (Gombossy’s attorney) said.
“Our suit, if successful, should result in less pressure on journalists to commit unethical acts on behalf of advertisers as media publishers will know that it will be at their peril,” Gombossy said in a brief statement.
So, I’m wondering…. If you lived in Connecticut and read the Hartford Courant, wouldn’t you appreciate knowing whether the store you bought your mattress from had a bedbug problem? Or sold old mattresses as new?
I think you would.
But the Hartford Courant allegedly didn’t want you to read bad things about its advertisers – not in its pages or on its blogs. So, according to Gombassy, they blocked the story and let Gombassy go.
I am not saying anything like that has happened or is happening at the Albuquerque Journal.
But the Gombossy saga provides a good example of how readers who have been led to expect nothing but objectivity and straight talk can be done wrong when any newspaper gets too cozy with the people who pay the bills.