Chuck Bailey: The Last Decent Newspaperman

Jan 05

The Chief: Chuck Bailey, ca. 1980. Another good editor, the late Jack Coffman, is at the copy machine.

One of the last newspaper editors who had the courage — and the decency — to quit rather than follow orders to gut his news organization has died: Charles W. Bailey, my first editor, ran the Minneapolis Tribune from 1972 to 1982, when he fell on his sword rather than carry out the wishes of the bean counter in the publisher’s office, a small-time Republican pol from Massachusetts named Donald Dwight who had been that state’s Lieutenant Governor but who would spend a long time hiding in his Star and Tribune publisher’s office ducking a subpoena from a Massachusetts corruption probe.

Bailey, a patrician who wore a bow tie and who liked to pad around the cluttered newsroom emptying ash trays and tidying up a bit, had the advantage of being a school chum from Harvard and prep school with the scion of the newspaper owners, the Cowles family. Bailey and John Cowles Jr. were friends and so Bailey got the top spot after 18 years of working for the newspaper in Washington, where he acquired journalistic chops and a distinguished track record that 90 percent of today’s “editors” will never obtain. They are, as some of them are stupid enough to brag out loud, “managers,” rather than journalists. Reporters might attend their funerals just to see if they really are dead, but Chuck Bailey was that increasingly rare kind of editor, one who was respected by the troops and who actually earned their loyalty and affection. Today’s newsroom managers are in their positions, most of them, because they have demonstrated to the owners that they will prove reliable throat-cutters when they are given orders to gas the troops. They have cleared many hurdles along the way, proving that they have no scruples, and no backbone. They are bloodless blood-letters. Bailey was their polar opposite, a man with a distinguished journalism record (see his obituary, here) who was selected, even if by a friend, precisely because of his depth and his character.

I called him “Chief,” and he liked that. He was my first editor, and I was given the Minneapolis City Hall beat when I was hired (at $147 a week), a beat where Bailey had started after college. I think it tickled him to throw me, a St Paul kid from a Democratic family, into the Minneapolis frying pan, covering the Republicans who still controlled the city council, and the law-and-order Mayor, Charlie Stenvig, the king of the Malaprop. “That really sticks in my crow,” Stenvig said when he was angry about something.  Bailey laughed out loud and looked at the ceiling when I told him about that one, and advised me to quote the Mayor just as he spoke it, rather than cleaning him up for print. It was a lesson I eventually learned well.  I screwed up once, quoting Stenvig as running for re-election on a promise to “hold down property taxes.” But I left out two little words: Stenvig actually said he would “try to hold down property taxes.”

The mayor wanted a correction and Bailey gave him one. I was always careful, after that, to quote politicians precisely.

Bailey agreed to send me to Northern Ireland in the summer of 1974, letting me write about the war there, its causes and its effects on ordinary people. I’m still amazed he did it: I was 24 and had 18 months of journalism under my belt. But Bailey — and the Cowles family — believed in covering big national and world stories, and in trying to explain them to the good people of Minnesota, and to the ones in Montana who still read the “blue streak,” the early edition of the paper that was printed at dinnertime and put on a train to Billings in time to be read at breakfast. The paper still had foreign bureaus and correspondents then, so Bailey didn’t laugh when I suggested that he send me to Belfast for the summer. Nor did he laugh when I returned and filed an expense report that included many erasures and calibrations so that the final result came out to a wash, right to the penny. The paper had sent me to Ireland with $3000 (worth about $13,000 in today’s dollars) and I had spent even more. But being naive, and grateful for the opportunity, I didn’t think it was right to ask for more money from the newspaper. So, after much careful calculation, I turned in a report showing it was even-Steven: I had spent exactly $3000.00, and not a cent more. Bailey chewed me out after the accounting department got the report and went ballistic. “Coleman, you idiot, you can tell us that you owe us a few bucks, or that we still owe you a little money, but do not EVER turn in a report that says it’s an exact match again or you will be working for Margaret Morris, covering weddings.”

Morris was the Tribune’s society columnist, the queen of the Minneapolis pecking order. My desk was next to hers, but the only time she ever spoke to me was on my first day, when she looked over her glasses and down her nose and said, ” ‘Coleman?’ Are you related to the Colemans who are bankers in Wayzata?”

No, ma’am, I replied. I’m from St Paul.

“Oh,” she said, turning back to her typewriter.

Bailey personally edited my seven-part Northern Ireland series, convinced the editors of The Boston Globe and the Des Moines Register to re-publish it, and nominated it for a Pulitzer Prize in international reporting. Then, to make sure I didn’t get an exaggerated view of my self, he arranged to have me transferred from my City Hall beat to the Business Desk, an assignment that I took as something like being handed a cyanide pill.  After a few months, when the Business Editor, Dick Youngblood, and I had reached an equal level of misery, I was pardoned and put on a team investigating corruption in the city liquor-licensing system. By the time I had three years at The Tribune, I had found my calling. And I would have followed Chuck Bailey anywhere. It wasn’t perfect; I got on his wrong side sometimes and he could cut you off abruptly when he had heard enough of a complaint, but Bailey went out on top, presiding over the chaos and anxiety of the merger of the company’s afternoon and morning newspapers, struggling with the initial rounds of lay-offs, buy-outs, re-hiring of many of the original laid-off workers and trying, all the while, to run a newspaper that was curious, courageous and had a sense of mission involving the telling of truths, even ones that pissed off the powerful and the connected.

Looking back, the Minneapolis Tribune was a very good newspaper. It had tough political reporters and hard-nosed investigators like Bernie Shellum and Joe Rigert, who weren’t afraid of anyone; brilliant, humane story tellers like Larry Batson and Jim Parsons, savvy beat reporters like Dean Rebuffoni and Dennis Cassano. If anyone would have suggested that we were living in what would turn out to be the Golden Age of Twin Cities journalism, those journalists would have ridiculed the idea. We were very aware of our limitations and imperfections, and of how much better we should be. But in the rear-view mirror, it is possible to argue, I think, that the 1970′s and ’80′s were as good as it ever was going to get. And the editors then were the best we would have. Some of them, who seemed run-of-the-mill to me then positively look like goddam Ben Bradlee in retrospect. And Chuck Bailey was the best. His departure marked the beginning of the end, the start of the remarkable degradation that has continued since.

When Bailey handed in his resignation, telling Dwight that he refused to preside over more newsroom cuts, he looked obviously relieved. He had done the right thing, and you could tell by the look on his face. I have never seen an editor look like he or she has done the right thing since. Most of them can’t look you in the eye. The staff hosted a farewell dinner for Bailey in a church basement, hot dish and spaghetti and open affection.

I knew it was the end of an era, and an old saying I had heard in Ireland came to mind: We’ll never see his likes again.

I did see him again, only twice. The first was in the mid-1980s when he was working for National Public Radio as a national news editor in Washington. The job was beneath him, but he was happy: He showed me his desk and demonstrated his work. He was still in it, still trying to figure out what stories were worth telling, and back in his briar patch, among the thickets of politics and journalism in Washington. The last time I saw him was in 1999. His mind was a bit fogged by then from the effects of the Parkinson’s disease that would take his life. But he smiled at me and asked me if I’d ever learned to file a damn expense report.

No, Chuck, I said.

I won’t lie to you.

Read Bailey’s swansong, his 1982 speech about what editors should — and should not — do. Few modern-day editors can speak with such clarity and courage. Bailey’s talk reads like an indictment of today’s news “managers.”