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My first inkling that strong convictions were not necessarily conducive to longevity in the newspaper business came in 1979, working for a chain of Brooklyn weeklies known as Courier-Life.
I had arrived there a year earlier after finally concluding that the city's daily newspapers weren't exactly salivating over the prospect of my being their newest rising star, and that freelance pieces supplemented by 20 hours a week as a night cashier in the Hole in the Wall delicatessen on the Upper East Side at $3.50 an hour weren't paying my rent.
I did a bunch of sports pieces for the chain, whose offices were on Sheepshead Bay Road, and when the paper's editor lamented that I wasn't around to cover stories at night and I told him to put me on staff and I'd leave the deli and its free corned-beef behind, he eventually did.
It became obvious to him that I could write about pretty much any subject he threw my way, although he complained that unlike a predecessor who had gone on to become a Daily News columnist, I wasn't able to, at a moment's notice, hit the streets and come back in half an hour with a good story in hand. I was at a disadvantage because my predecessor, while a demon if a live subject was available, when it wasn't used his imagination to concoct pieces that could fill a news hole.
A Prediction Outlasted
There was a four-reporter staff, but 10 months after I first showed up in July 1978, the editor told me he was leaving and would recommend that I be chosen as his replacement. He said the publisher hated making decisions, "so you can probably have the job for as long as you want it. But knowing you, you'll be gone in three weeks."
I was amused by that assessment, since I didn't think of myself as disputatious, just someone who if backed into a corner wouldn't necessarily choose diplomacy over honesty.
Early on, it seemed I might confound my predecessor: the publisher liked that I wrote editorials on local issues rather than ruminating on the world at large as my predecessor had. But he came to me one evening to complain that our police reporter had included in her rundown of crimes in our coverage area an attempted sexual assault on a small boy whose father let him enter the bathroom at the Burger King in the Kings Plaza mall unaccompanied.
When I told him that this was precisely the kind of crime news our readers would want to know about, the publisher responded, "Yeah, but Burger King's a Triple A advertiser for us."
I thought I was giving him a standard journalistic chestnut when I replied, "Editorial and advertising are two separate entities."
"Nobody ever tried that particular cliche on him before," Courier-Life's political columnist told me the following morning after the publisher shared with him his unhappiness over my response.
That was not, however, the reason that my tenure as editor ended after five weeks and I was fired a week after that. Those developments had their origin in a meeting three months earlier among the police reporter, the political columnist and myself at which they broached the idea of approaching the Newspaper Guild about unionizing.
An unpleasant surprise
At that point, I was doing some freelance sports-writing for both The Times and the Boston Globe, and I cautioned my two colleagues that if either paper offered me a job, I'd be gone no matter what stage the organizing effort had reached. It turned out that the Guild notified the publisher shortly after the Burger King dust-up, and a week or so after that I came into the office on a Monday to find my replacement sitting at my desk. When other members of the staff asked him where he stood on the editorial-vs.-advertising issue, he said he intended to be "flexible."
The following Monday, when I arrived at Courier-Life, the publisher immediately summoned me to his office, told me this would be my last day on the job but that he would pay me for the full week "so we stay friends," a relationship I hadn't realized existed.
His one explanation was, "We're going in a new direction," one I presumed didn't have a union along the way. Over the next six weeks I heard from the political columnist, as well as another staffer who was an old friend, that the publisher was doing everything possible to make the lives of my two co-organizers miserable.
When he fired them, a former reporter for Courier-Life who had moved to the Staten Island Advance decided she would try to interest the Village Voice in an article about the union-busting. She interviewed the publisher, and asked him why he thought the three of us had looked to bring in the Guild.
She told me he responded that the police reporter and the political columnist liked to "play their little games. Steier probably did it on principle."
She asked him, "So if Steier was the only one you thought did it on principle, why was he the first one you fired?"
She told me he responded, "You know, I never did like Steier."
Honor without profit
As flattered as that made me feel, I was also unemployed. Late that year, I was given a job interview and a writing test at the Bergen Record, and did well enough on the test that one of the editors who spoke to me acted as if my hiring was a done deal. But my last task before leaving the building was to fill out an employment form, with the final line stating "Reason for Leaving Last Job."
I wrote that my former publisher had said he was moving in a different direction, and after a moment of debating myself added that the situation was currently before the National Labor Relations Board. When friends asked why I'd included that, I told them it seemed better to be honest about it up front than to have the Record—which was nonunion and proud of it—find out by calling my former employer.
So I scuffled around freelancing some more. In June 1980, I spent an enjoyable couple of weeks as a bike messenger, riding from my Carroll Gardens apartment over the Brooklyn Bridge and up to 59th Street, then racing through Manhattan and maneuvering between cars in Midtown going east and west, while deducing that except for the cabbies, the motorists would do their best not to hit me.
At the end of the month, I got a call from the former political columnist at Courier-Life, who was working in the media office of the city Health Department. One of his co-workers was dating The Chief's editor, Frank Prial III, and when she mentioned there was an opening there, he thought of me.
I knew very little about the paper, and took the job figuring I'd stay for a year and then move on to a daily. But I liked the work better than I expected, and Frank was looking to move the paper beyond the compilations of civil-service lists and job openings for which it was known. He gave me the freedom to wander City Hall digging up stories of interest to workers beyond the next promotion test for Police Sergeant or the piling up of provisional employees by Mayor Ed Koch over the protests of the Civil Service Merit Council.
It also wasn't as easy to move to a daily as I'd thought. In 1987, I spent Sundays working at The Post as a kind of tryout. While the variety of assignments was a welcome change, the paper's editors made clear that it was a political sausage factory and you could either enjoy the smell or let it make you cynical.
One of my editors, who showed up for work regularly in week-old jeans with the Racing Form stuffed in a back pocket, assigned me to a story concerning a gypsy marriage gone sour in which the bride's family kidnaped the husband and said he would not be freed and granted a divorce until his family produced a sum equal to her dowry.
A few minutes after I transmitted the story, using a computer system that remained a foreign object at The Chief for years afterward, the editor called me over and said, "Mr. Steier, this lead sleeps."
"I thought I gave you a good, lively lead," I told him.
"Oh?" he said. "So explain to me why you didn't mention until the third graph that they're gypsies."
"Well," I replied, "I figured if I put it in the first graph, it would look like we were gypsy-bashing."
"Mr. Steier," he said, disbelief in his voice, "Why do you think we're doing this story?"
A temporary detour
At the end of the year, when Rupert Murdoch had to sell The Post in order to take over the local TV station from which he would later launch Fox News, I was among the per-diem workers who were cut loose to reduce the payroll, and I wasn't exactly broken up about it. By the summer of 1989, The Post—now under the ownership of Peter Kalikow—and New York Newsday both seemed interested in hiring me, but Newsday had a corporate culture where the bureaucracy slowed decisions. The Post was a seat-of-the-pants operation where resumes were optional, and that's where I landed.
The paper's editor, Jerry Nachman, talked up my hiring to New York Magazine as a coup because of my knowledge of unions and the city bureaucracy. A friend of mine told me a short time later that Teamsters Local 237 President Barry Feinstein was bragging that he had brokered the job during a conversation with Nachman and Kalikow at the bar mitzvah of the publisher's son.
Whatever the circumstances, I came with the expectation that I would soon be writing a labor column, which Nachman believed would boost The Post's circulation. But it didn't happen right away, and my second week on staff, a piece I wrote about a hospital-workers' contract settlement with the League of Voluntary Hospitals that suggested a labor star had been born in Local 1199's Dennis Rivera was transformed by one of the editors to focus on whether the terms were so generous that a state bailout of the hospitals would be needed.
I thought seriously about quitting. Deciding for once not to short-circuit my career from a sense of outrage, I pitched another editor on the idea of Rivera being worthy of a feature article. He suggested I discuss it with the paper's business editor, who said he wasn't about to give "that Commie bastard" positive coverage.
But a year later, after the Post's unions gave Kalikow $17 million of the $20 million in labor savings he said he'd need to keep the paper afloat, the labor column was launched, with a luncheon at which the speaker of honor was the paper's gossip diva, Cindy Adams. I looked on with amusement.
Any hope that it would boost circulation as labor leaders urged their members to buy the Post probably faded when I began writing columns critical of union presidents who were tethered to organized crime, and took aim at Central Labor Council President Tom Van Arsdale, who also headed Local 3 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, after he defended his members who crossed a picket line at NBC's headquarters set up by striking workers at the Rainbow Room who made a pittance of what those electricians did.
One Van Arsdale crony, during a meeting with Kalikow's top assistant, said the problem with me was I "didn't like unions." To which I replied I liked unions plenty, as long as they were honestly run and properly represented their members.
After a while, the column was consigned to the business pages, where I joked that the only way my friends would find it was if they overshot The Post's racing section. It was placed on hiatus each summer, but I still got some worthwhile pieces in there, and discovered I'd made a fan of the business editor who wanted nothing to do with Dennis Rivera, because he liked that it dealt with both the good and bad of the city's union movement.
But even with the labor savings, by late 1992 Kalikow had lurched into bankruptcy, and Gov. Mario Cuomo—who had often been a target of the paper in the past—tried to keep it alive by finding a buyer, a shady debt-collector named Steve Hoffenberg. At a certain point Hoffenberg bowed out and Abe Hirschfeld, a daffy parking-lot mogul and real-estate developer, stepped in and quickly tried to fire much of the staff, including editor Pete Hamill.
Staffers responded with a front-page featuring Alexander Hamilton—the paper's founder in 1801—with a tear rolling down his cheek, and stories inside with headlines like "Who is This Nut?"
The return of Rupert
Hirschfeld soon yielded, and Times columnist Abe Rosenthal compared us to the striking workers in Poland. The truth was, nobody took Hirschfeld seriously; his name and our previous publisher-temp got mashed together into "Hindenburg."
But that brought Murdoch back into the picture, retaking control of the paper he had run for 11 years while transforming it from politically liberal to brashly conservative. Murray Kempton, who'd made his name as a Post columnist during the 1950s eviscerating Joe McCarthy and returned for the early days of the first Rupert regime, later wrote that it was like a soothing trip on the Staten Island Ferry and discovering your captain for the day was Long John Silver.
Since returning, Not-So-Jolly Rupert had pushed the Guild's members to the brink of a strike.
He demanded that the Guild allow him a four-month period to fire editorial, advertising and circulation employees without regard to seniority and with no right for those employees to seek arbitration. He also offered the Guild $1.5 million in payments for those he fired. If there were 100 people he got rid of, that would amount to $15,000 per person, a fraction of what more-senior workers would have received in severance pay except that Kalikow's filing for bankruptcy had lifted the requirement that the severance provision of the Guild contract be honored by Murdoch.
So on Sept. 27, 1993, Newspaper Guild employees walked off the job late in the afternoon. The most-stunning aspect of coming to the picket line from my job in the City Hall pressroom was the anger on the faces of some of my older co-workers. A mild-mannered reporter who covered the court system and had started at the Post as a copyboy alongside my father more than 40 years earlier said to me, "You know the joke about the two Jews in the concentration camp? They're brought before a firing squad, and one of them asks if he can have a blindfold. The other one pokes him in the ribs and tells him, 'Don't make trouble.' "
Outside world silent
It was hyperbole, sure, but that was the level of frustration because, after Mort Zuckerman bought the Daily News early that year and fired 182 Guild members, he paid their full severance (which served as their pensions) even though that wasn't contractually required because it, too, had been in bankruptcy. The older workers had been with Murdoch for more than a decade during his first go-round at the paper, and he couldn't have cared less.
And Abe Rosenthal—or anyone else in New York's journalistic community, for that matter—wasn't calling out Murdoch, because he wasn't an eccentric-but-ineffectual oddball like Hirschfeld. Criticizing him in print would be like crossing Ming the Merciless: sooner or later, he would use the paper to wreak vengeance.
But walking home from the subway late that night after we had succeeded in persuading the drivers to honor the picket line and not deliver the paper, I found myself formulating an impressionistic piece about what had happened. I wrote it late that morning and took it over to New York Newsday's midtown offices before heading downtown to the picket line. When I called the editor of its op-ed page later that afternoon, he asked whether I could put a sharper edge on the piece, give it more of a point of view.
What I had handed in was soft-focus enough that I hadn't viewed it as a sure thing to get me fired, although I had included my co-worker's concentration-camp joke that might have stiffened Murdoch's spine a bit. Giving it more of an edge would virtually guarantee I wouldn't be coming back once the strike ended—probably badly. On the other hand, I wasn't sure I wanted to come back, given the circumstances that put us on the picket line.
So I reworked the piece, it ran two days later in Newsday, and that night the strike collapsed and the personnel carnage began.
I wasn't surprised that I wasn't among those who were invited back, after appropriate time off for bad behavior. What I hadn't expected was that I could no longer get the metro editor of the Times—who had been encouraging in talking to me about a job as a labor reporter there the morning after we walked out—on the phone.
Friends told me the op-ed piece marked me as a potential troublemaker.
After four months of being unemployed and scraping by freelancing, Frank Prial III called and asked whether I'd like to return to The Chief. I came back, but told him I wasn't willing to make a two-year commitment, convinced something would open up with one of the dailies. Nine months later, he found someone willing to make that commitment, and I was back scuffling until I was asked in April 1995 to work for Channel 2's news division during sweeps month.
I spent 20 months there, underpaid and underutilized, but met a lot of good people, foremost among them my future wife. Midway through that period, Frank Prial asked if I could do a series on the history of The Chief as it marked its centennial, and so once a month I headed down to Nassau St. on my way back to Brooklyn, going through the paper's bound volumes 10 years at a time. The pages of the oldest volumes sometimes crumpled just from being turned.
And so when the station's news director fired me shortly before Thanksgiving 1996, and midway through the following year Frank Prial asked me to return as associate editor, I thought of the line about family being the people who take you back when no one else will.
My time at the Post had reminded me of how much corruption existed among some private-sector unions; my return to The Chief coincided with similar corruption exploding among municipal unions, among them the old Transit Police Benevolent Association and District Council 37. I realized that the work I was doing was more interesting than most of what I'd covered at the Post, even if my colleagues weren't nearly as colorful as the casts at The Post and at City Hall. And so when Frank Prial told me in late June 1998 that he would be resigning the next day and was recommending that his brother Jim, who had become the paper's publisher, appoint me as his replacement, it no longer felt like accepting long-term employment there was trapping myself.
2-year plan became 24
I asked Jim for a significant pay raise for taking on the editor's duties and reviving the labor column I had done at the Post, but with a name that dated back to my college paper, Razzle Dazzle.
My first column focused on how the willingness of top officials at the Police Department and the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association to indulge a troubled cop, Frank Livoti, had led to him wrapping an arm around a man, Anthony Baez, who had enraged Livoti when he protested his attempt to arrest a brother after a football they were tossing around inadvertently struck the patrol car in which the cop was sitting, doing not much except waiting for trouble to present itself.
Baez died, and there was an attempt to cover up what had happened that included three separate meetings among the cops involved—one at the PBA's offices—to get their stories straight. Livoti was acquitted in a bizarre decision by a Bronx judge, but later convicted in Federal Court in Manhattan of violating Baez's civil rights the same week I began as editor. He wound up serving more than six years in prison. The column was called "Enough Blame to Go Around" and was a jumping-off point for the kind of newspaper writing I'd always wanted to do.
The Prial family—Jim was succeeded as publisher by his brother Ed—largely gave me a free hand to chart the paper's course, trusting my judgment and the sense that I would give sympathy to those who deserved it even though they'd gotten in trouble, and not soften the blow for others who had few redeeming features.
Things began to change during Donald Trump's time in the White House, when The Chief was already caught in the same wave affecting newspapers throughout the nation as younger readers increasingly sought out news in places where they didn't have to pay for it. Trump was a divisive figure, and unlike other polarizing officials like Andrew Cuomo and Bill de Blasio, criticizing him, however justifiably, could cost us subscribers we couldn't afford to lose.
In early 2020, Ed Prial's brother Joe during an editorial meeting heatedly pointed to a letter from a reader who informed them he was canceling his subscription and sending the money to Trump's re-election campaign instead. Ed told me he didn't want columns about Trump, or letters criticizing him, to run in our pages.
Echo of the past
"That's censorship," I told him, and he disputed it. I repeated the phrase, and he again disputed it. It felt like I was back at Courier-Life more than 40 years earlier trying to explain to my publisher there why you couldn't ignore bad news just because it might scare away customers from an advertiser's place of business.
I had taken a pay cut a short time before that, for the second year in a row, as The Chief's finances grew increasingly tight. I could always find subjects other than the Dismal Donald to write about, although I didn't like being ordered to do so. But I took a vicarious pride in how lively the paper's letters column had become, bristling with opinions that were sharp but usually civil and well-expressed.
And so I was at a point where leaving the paper not only seemed possible but desirable, and I began exploring my options.
Then the pandemic hit, we were all working from home, and the tension subsided. After a few weeks of not running anti-Trump letters (and holding back a couple that praised him or criticized Democratic primary contenders), I began running them again, and resumed writing columns critical of the President when warranted. In late October, when I called Ed to ask if it would be okay for me to give The Chief's endorsement to Joe Biden, he expressed some ambivalence, but then said, "Yeah, I guess so."
I grew up in a neighborhood where the phrase "Freakin' Liberal" could be a term of derision or a point of pride, and I embraced that label when others shifted to referring to themselves as progressives. I've never been someone to toe the party line or be dogmatic in my politics, preferring to base my opinions on fairness and common sense.
In early February, I turned 68. The night before, my oldest son had called from Virginia to wish me a happy birthday, and the next evening, the younger one came by with his girlfriend for dinner. There was a brief break in the conversation just before they said goodnight, and the thought occurred to me that I was pretty lucky, all things considered.
So this is the last of more than 1,200 columns I'll have written for The Chief, as I make the unexpected but not unwelcome transition to working for a union rather than covering them.
Withdrawal may not come easily. I was struck, in my early 20s, upon learning what a veteran
Times political columnist, James Reston, said in explaining why, in the midst of a 114-day newspaper strike that began in 1963, he was reading an unpublished column on WNBC-TV: "How do I know what I think if I can't read what I write?"
With any luck, I'll figure out the answer soon enough.
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