End of Witcover column lamented

Last Sun piece ran Friday

deal is not renewed

August 23, 2005|By Nick Madigan | Nick Madigan,SUN STAFF

There was a clear trace of disappointment in Jules Witcover's voice yesterday as he described the end of his 24 years as a columnist for The Sun.

Witcover, 78, a historian and the author of 15 books who has covered every presidential campaign and national political convention since the early 1960s, said he had learned that his contract would not be renewed in a letter delivered to his home in Washington.

But in his final column, which ran Friday, Witcover made no mention of the slight, saying only that his "principal regret in leaving this space in The Sun is that my readers in Baltimore will no longer read my views on what I consider the most critical crisis facing this country for the foreseeable future."

Witcover's column, which continues to be syndicated by Tribune Media Services, could be picked up and published by The Sun, although no decision to do so has been made, said Dianne Donovan, the paper's editorial page editor.

"We change our columnists around," Donovan said. "We look for an ideological mix, a racial mix. We look at content. Am I prepared to say at this moment that we'll pick him up? No, I can't do that."

In the past few days, Donovan and The Sun's public editor, Paul Moore, have received dozens of e-mails and messages protesting Witcover's departure. "This is disgraceful," wrote reader Amelie Zappacosta. "The Sun should be ashamed. My sense is it's because of his views on the war in Iraq."

Donovan said Witcover's opposition to the invasion of Iraq had nothing to do with his departure, which resulted from financial considerations, she said.

"Editorially, as an institution, The Sun has opposed the war in Iraq, so it would make no sense to banish Jules from the op-ed page because of his opposition to the war," Donovan said.

A year ago, Witcover, along with 16 other Sun staff members, accepted a buyout offer from the paper, which formally ended his status as a full-time member of its Washington bureau. But he then signed a one-year contract with The Sun to continue writing a column, for significantly less money - he made about $30,000, Witcover said - than the almost $88,000 he had been receiving while on staff. Donovan said she was unable to sign Witcover to the same deal again this year. "I don't have it in my budget to make an offer equivalent to the contract that he had," she said.

Sun editor Timothy A. Franklin said he had learned Witcover was leaving only by reading his column last week. "He's a Washington institution, and he's extraordinarily knowledgeable about politics and elections," Franklin said yesterday. "But in terms of content and the mix on the editorial page, that's up to the op-ed editor and the editorial-page editor."

Witcover, speaking yesterday from his beach house in Delaware, said he and Franklin had haggled over the terms of his contract last year. The money on the table, he said, was "not satisfactory." He said he accepted the contract anyway, to avoid losing medical benefits. "I was not thinking about retirement then, and I'm not now."

Witcover said he had asked for a four-year contract and was told it was "not company policy to offer more than a one-year contract." But, he said, Franklin told him it would be "no problem" to extend it when the time came. Franklin said it was made clear that the contract would be reviewed after a year.

The contract stipulated that it would automatically be renewed unless either side decided to terminate it 60 days or more from its conclusion, Witcover said.

A few days before the 60-day period was to commence, in June, Witcover received a letter from Dale Cohen, a vice president of human resources at The Sun, informing him that the contract would not be renewed.

"It said they appreciated my long service and wished me well," Witcover said. "To this moment, I haven't heard by phone from the editors."

Asked how he felt about the end of his years at The Sun, he said, "I'd rather the facts speak for themselves."

Witcover covered Washington as a reporter and columnist for more than 40 years, and, for the most part, aimed his thoroughly researched conclusions equally across the political spectrum.

In a March 1998 column in the Columbia Journalism Review, Witcover remarked that in the fallout from President Bill Clinton's sex scandal, the president was not "the only loser."

"The explosive nature of the story, and the speed with which it burst on the consciousness of the nation, triggered in the early stages a piranha-like frenzy in pursuit of the relatively few tidbits tossed into the journalistic waters," he wrote. "Into the vacuum created by a scarcity of clear and credible attribution raced all manner of rumor, gossip, and, especially, hollow sourcing, making the reports of some mainstream outlets scarcely distinguishable from supermarket tabloids."

On July 27, in his Sun column, he wrote about President Bush: "Much is made, and not always in derogation, of this president's machismo, reassuring Americans shaken by the horrible experience and memories of the terrorist attacks of 2001 that they have a tough guy at the helm bent on vengeance and retribution.

"A good part of this exercise has been his ability to convince a pliant public of the false view that the enemy he attacked in Iraq more than two years ago was the same one that caused the unforgettable havoc of 9/11."

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