George Gombossy, Hartford Courant Consumer Columnist, Cries Foul Over Departure

09/19/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

HARTFORD, Conn. — Less than a year after Tribune Co. launched an innovative plan to combine the newsrooms of The Hartford Courant and a local TV station, a columnist is alleging that the new management forced him out because he wrote unflattering news about a Courant advertiser.

George Gombossy created his own Web site, , where he published the column critical of the advertiser, mattress vendor Sleepy's Inc. He also blasted the Courant for holding the column and forcing his departure. http://www.ctwatchdog.com

Gombossy, a former Courant business editor who worked for the newspaper for 40 years, said in an interview that the Courant's senior vice president, Jeff Levine, and Publisher Richard Graziano are "destroying the Courant instead of saving it."

Graziano had been general manager of Tribune's WTIC-TV and WTXX-TV in Connecticut when he was given the additional role of Courant publisher in March. He hired Levine, a former marketing executive, to oversee news operations for the Courant and WTIC-TV.

"If I'm the only person in a position to stop them, I'm going to try to stop them and return the Courant to its position for the readers," Gombossy said.

Graziano did not return calls seeking comment. Levine said in an interview that advertisers have no effect on what the newspaper and WTIC report. He said he could not comment about the Sleepy's story or any conversations he had with Gombossy, citing possible litigation by the former reporter.

In a written statement, the company said Gombossy's job was eliminated and that he didn't apply for a new position as a consumer columnist who would work for the Courant, WTIC and the company's Web sites. The Courant said Gombossy's column on Sleepy's could still run in the newspaper but is receiving "additional checking and verification."

"The overriding consideration on stories reported by The Hartford Courant is making sure the facts are thoroughly checked out and correct. Our advertisers have no influence on what we report, including stories that may include them," the company said in the statement.

Gombossy's column reported that Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal is investigating as many as 10 complaints that Sleepy's sold mattresses that were used instead of new. It details one case of a Norwalk man who claimed his mattress was infested with bedbugs.

The column said Sleepy's offered to replace the mattress but did not agree that the mattress was infested. The company did not return calls from The Associated Press seeking comment.

Blumenthal confirmed that his office is conducting the investigation, but wouldn't say how many complaints have been received or verified by his office. He said Sleepy's has been cooperative in his investigation.

Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, said allegations about advertising influencing the news report strike a fundamental blow against a news organization's credibility.

"The franchise of a news organization is the trust that the citizens have that their interests are paramount," he said.

The Courant, which won Pulitzer Prizes in 1992 and 1999, predates the Revolutionary War. It was purchased by Chicago-based Tribune in 2000.

Like many other newspapers, the Courant has suffered during the recession and seen dwindling advertising revenue. On top of that, Tribune Co. filed for bankruptcy protection in December.

The Courant's financial limitations have forced the newspaper to cut its newsroom staff by nearly half in recent years. In March, Tribune replaced Courant Publisher Steve Carver with Graziano. The company announced bold plans to combine the newspaper and TV news operations by building a new studio in the Courant's newsroom. Tribune called it "the future of media."

The company heavily promoted Gombossy's Watchdog columns on TV, and he appeared regularly on WTIC's newscasts.

Gombossy said Levine first expressed displeasure in his Watchdog columns in May, when Gombossy wrote critically of a plumbing contractor. It's not clear whether the company had already advertised in the newspaper, but Gombossy said Levine told him the plumbing company's displeasure would be costly for the Courant.

"He said, `Do you want it on your head if we lose $200,000 in advertising and I have to lay off reporters at the Courant?' When someone makes a comment like that, it's pretty clear where we're going," Gombossy said.

He said Levine was particularly upset that Gombossy told a reader that the contractor needed to "take a hit" of bad publicity so it would learn to treat customers fairly.

Gombossy said that he refused Levine's order to visit the contractor's office and mend fences, and that Levine ordered the columnist to run any future columns about key advertisers past him in advance. Gombossy said he was later given a list of which WTIC and Courant advertisers to avoid.

In late July, Gombossy said, he told his editors, Levine, Graziano and the Courant's advertising director that he planned to write a column about Sleepy's. The column was to run Aug. 2, but Gombossy said he was told July 31 that it would be held.

The following Monday, Gombossy said was told that his job was being eliminated in favor of a consumer journalist who would work for the Courant, WTIC and the company's Web site. Levine said the consumer reporting is still important to the Courant and it would be handled by a team of people.

"The whole thing doesn't make any sense to me," he said. "You have to understand that to have a viable newspaper, you have to have credibility. No advertiser in his or her mind is going to advertise in a newspaper that doesn't trust it."

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