Editor's Private Life Made Public p. 9

By: Mark Fitzgerald Des Moines Register story reveals some personal details
about the life of its former editor Geneva Overholser;
Register news execs defend the story; Overholser wonders why sp.

TURNS OUT, THERE was more to the sudden departure last February of the Des Moines Register's editor and managing editor ? or was there?
The Register let readers decide with a Sept. 26 story that may have left them more confused than ever about the resignations seven months ago of editor Geneva Overholser and managing editor David Westphal.
In a story tucked in the back page of the paper's Metro section, the Register reported that "newly filed" real estate records in Washington, D.C., show that Overholser and Westphal had bought a house together in the northwest section of the city. The paper had previously reported in June that both were going through divorce proceedings with their spouses.
What does this have to do with anything? More specifically, why is this important to readers in the greater Des Moines metropolitan area?
Well, the paper explained, at the time the two resigned, Overholser ? a locally and nationally prominent editor whose opinions on newspapering were eagerly sought and forcefully given ? cited an increasing frustration with the business pressures she said was sapping newsroom coverage and enthusiasm. And, the story by staff writer Thomas A. Fogarty said, in an editorial at the time "the newspaper deflected suggestions by outsiders that published stories were somehow misleading or incomplete."
The story quoted Register president and publisher Charles C. Edwards Jr. as having "acknowledged that subsequent developments" ? presumably the divorce proceedings and real estate purchase ? "make it appear now that the newspaper offered its readers an incomplete account of the reasons for their departure."
If that account back in February was "incomplete," then what is the complete account? The Register story does not say exactly.
"One can certainly draw strong inferences that something was going on beyond what was said publicly," the story quotes Edwards as saying. "If the personal side played a major role in the resignations, I think [Overholser and Westphal] had an obligation to our customers to be up front about it."
The paper also quotes from an interview of Overholser in the current American Journalism Review, in which she says "powerful personal reasons" played a role in her departure from the Register ? a bland disclosure that may not have fascinated AJR's readers as much as Overholser's revelation that the Register paid her $230,000 in 1994.
In a telephone interview, the current Register editor, Dennis Ryerson, acknowledged that the paper does not know precisely what role those "powerful personal reasons" played in Overholser's departure.
"We just printed what we knew: That there were powerful personal reasons for their departure and . . . records became available that showed they had purchased a house together in northwest Washington," Ryerson said.
"You have to see this in the context of the incredible story it was for this newspaper, given their prominence in Des Moines and Iowa," Ryerson added. "If there was more information, we think it is important to let readers know.
"This is not a major story to us," Ryerson said, adding that he was surprised by the national coverage of the story. "We ran this, again, to follow up, just as you would with any story. "One of our reporters joked that it should be run in the 'Corrections' column," Ryerson said.
But if ? somehow ? more information about the Feb. 13 resignations of Geneva Overholser and David Westphal should emerge, Ryerson concedes the Register is unlikely to pass it on to readers.
"At this point, I don't see us following up anymore," Ryerson said.
If, as Register publisher Edwards said, readers could draw "strong inferences" from the personal relationship between Overholser and Westphal, readers of the Register story could draw equally forceful inferences that the newspaper is still smarting from the resignations ? and the nationwide news media reaction.
"Other newspapers, in stories and columns, portrayed Overholser's departure from the Register as a journalistic morality play, pitting the interests of aggressive newsroom managers against corporate owners intent on only maximizing profits," reporter Fogarty wrote.
Indeed, when she resigned, Overholser in interviews cited numerous business pressures ? among them, the Register's several years ago decision to pull back its coverage area from all 99 counties in Iowa to central Iowa, and what she said was a decision to reduce a news hole to compensate for soaring newsprint prices.
However, Overholser was quick to add that her frustration was not specifically with either the Register or its corporate owner, Gannett Co., but the business in general.
"This is not a fight with Gannett. I want to make that clear," she said in an interview with E&P at the time. Indeed, Gannett had twice named her the chain's "Editor of the Year."
But whether she intended it or not, Overholser's resignation prompted journalists and media critics around the country to ruminate in print on just how financial pressures from newspaper owners ? especially chain owners ? were driving the best journalists from their job.
Executives from Gannett and the Register took exception to much of that coverage, especially an assertion ? published by E&P among others ? that the paper's news hole had decreased 4% in response to newsprint prices.
In a memo soon after the resignations, Gannett chairman John Curley said the news hole and newsroom staffing and budget had actually increased during Overholser's six and a half year editorship, despite the fact that profits "declined from a modest base."
In the AJR interview, Overholser said that was true.
Overholser left with no job lined up and in June was hired by the Washington Post as its ombudsman for the normal two-year term. Westphal also has a job in Washington, as deputy D.C. bureau chief for McClatchy Newspapers.
In a brief conversation, Overholser begged off an interview with E&P, asking that her weekly ombudsman column published Oct. 1 suffice as her "last word" on the contretemps.
"I would tell you," she wrote, "that what happened is that I left the paper after a good full run as editor [61/2 years] feeling grateful to have had the opportunity, but also feeling some frustrations with the news business, frustrations I had long talked about and have talked about since.
"At the time, my personal life was unsettled and unclear. I wouldn't know for more than two months that my husband and I would be divorcing. I wouldn't know for longer than that how this next part of my life would take shape.
"The main lesson for me is that such subtleties don't do well in the news process," Overholser wrote. "I can repeat and repeat that I genuinely left the job for professional reasons. I can say that I couldn't have added then the truth about the course my personal life would take, because I didn't know. None of that holds the kind of power for people that this one fact holds: Eight months later, the two of us are together here in Washington."
Overholser is perhaps best know nationally for a 1989 column arguing that newspapers compound the trauma of rape when they withhold victims' name ? a column that inspired Grinnell, Iowa child-care worker Nancy Ziegenmeyer to tell openly the story of her own rape.
That touched off a series of mostly laudatory portraits of the editor as a fearless young woman ? commentary that Overholser now says made her uncomfortable.
"Over the course of my career," she wrote in her ombudsman column, "I've been uncomfortable with how glowingly some stories have portrayed me. Just as I'm uncomfortable now with how critically these do.
"But however faulty the specific pieces, I think news coverage about me over the years pretty much adds up to a comprehensive truth. And I think that's pretty true of news coverage, generally."
Overlooked in the current controversy ? which the Register says was initiated when it spotted the AJR comment about the "powerful personal reasons" that played a role in her departure ? is an earlier comment Overholser made to AJR, then the Washington Journalism Review in 1990 at the peak of interest in the Ziegenmeyer rape series.
"Newspapers," Overholser said then, "aren't worth a damn if they don't invade people's privacy."
?("Over the course of my career, I've been uncomfortable with how glowingly some stories have portrayed me. Just as I'm uncomfortable now with how critically these do.") [Caption]
?(Geneva Overholser, former Des Moines Register editor who is now ombudsman at the Washington Post.) [Photo & Caption]


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