America loses Watchdog columnist

One of my comrades on the journalism battlefield has fallen, and anyone who cares about fighting the bad guys should take note.

George Gombossy of

George Gombossy of

George Gombossy, the hard-charging Watchdog columnist for the Hartford Courant, was fired last week because, he says, of a dispute with his editors about covering negative stories about top advertisers. His career at the paper had lasted 40 years.

“We’re on the precipice of real danger in society here,” Gombossy told me Sunday night. “This is not about me. I’m fine. I’m going to be 62 in less than a month. I can retire. That’s why I’m in a position to raise this issue.

“We’re in a very dangerous situation where most media companies including the Hartford Courant are run by marketing people now instead of journalists, and they do not understand why we have the ethics that we do.”

Gombossy’s former paper is owned by the Tribune Co., led by Sam Zell. The company is now in bankruptcy reorganization.

Gombossy and I do – or, in his case, did – the same job, although at different newspapers. There’s less than a half dozen real consumer investigative columnists left in America. Yet these kinds of columns are widely popular with readers, especially these days.

The column that got him fired was about Sleepy’s, the largest mattress chain in the United States. Gombossy caught the company selling used beds as new. State Attorney General Richard Blumenthal told him he was investigating.

But The Courant killed the column. You can still read it here on Gombossy’s new Web site.

After he was fired last week, Gombossy wasted no time. By midnight of his last day at work, Aug. 14, Gombossy had quickly launched an online version of his life’s work at – now only a few days old. He says he will soldier on for the cause.

Gombossy informed readers of his departure in his final column that appeared on Sunday, Aug. 16. The real reason is not mentioned. Some may learn of it by reading this post.

There are two versions of that final column: Read the one the paper ran that didn’t mention his firing here. Read the unedited version on his Web site here.

Gombossy says he has hired one of his state’s top employment lawyers and “we’re committed to going all the way.”

Executives who made the decision to end his career at the paper are not bad people, he says. “They are very creative and trying to save newspapers from extinction, but they don’t understand the basic foundation of journalism which means that you don’t protect anybody.”

At his paper, he says, any stories about any of the top 100 advertisers have to be approved by top editors before publication. This extends to the public’s blog postings, too.

But Gombossy discards the argument that advertisers will cancel if they get angry and that could cost the paper money – and jobs. In his four decades at the paper, he says, advertisers may go away for a little bit in anger but they come back. “They advertise at the paper because they need to,” he says.

Gombossy’s Watchdog column was one of the paper’s most popular features. He estimates the newspaper and its sister TV station spent close to half a million dollars in the past two years promoting his place in the paper and his Friday TV piece on Fox61‘s Friday morning news. Gombossy lost his TV gig, too.

“My picture was on every bus in Hartford over the last two years,” he says. “TV ads of me and a dog that looked like me with my glasses were running until last week.”

Yet he says he doesn’t even feel like he was fired personally.

“It wasn’t the George Gombossy column. It was led by readers. It was readers that pointed out every single major column I ever wrote.

“It was the people’s Watchdog column. It wasn’t George Gombossy that got fired. It was the readers that got fired.”

Gombossy was told the paper will replace his feature with a milder, less investigative, help-you kind of column.

Now Connecticut consumers will have to develop a new news habit – Gombossy’s

Our ranks are growing thinner. I tip my soldier’s cap to you, George. Guys like us don’t give up the fight so easily.

Final note: Sunday night, as I prepared to post Gombossy’s side, I called the newspaper, but couldn’t get through its crummy voice mail system. If an editor or spokesman reads this and wishes to tell the other side, please contact me here.

Dave Lieber is The Watchdog investigative columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, a century-old newspaper which still believes strongly in watchdog journalism.

UPDATE: Thanks to journalist Gary Weiss for alerting me that The Courant has released a statement. Gary first posted it on his site here.

MORE: Here is the statement in full from Courant spokeswoman Andrea Savastra:

“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. This is a long time Courant policy.

“Our readers and advertisers do and should expect us to report stories we know are accurate and fully reported.  George Gombossys story needs and is receiving additional checking and verification. This is a common practice required by our editors with all Courant news stories, including columns by Mr. Gombossy, and while employed with the Courant, he was well aware of this and accepted and followed this policy over the years.

“While Mr. Gombossy’s position was eliminated, he was made aware of the newly-defined consumer reporter position that will be combined with our newspaper, television station and Web site.  He did not express interest.”