In June 1972, three Newsday reporters were sent to Turkey’s poppy fields to investigate the inner workings of the international heroin trade, which was ruining the lives of scores of Long Islanders and thousands more in the five boroughs.
Armed with shotguns, rifles, secret recording devices and rice paper for taking notes—so they could eat the evidence if they were in trouble—senior editor Bob Greene, Les Payne and Knut Royce lived among the farmers of Afyon province, traced the drug from the opium fields of Anatolia through France, Italy, Bulgaria and other countries, and with another Newsday team of reporters based back home, documented its delivery to the suburbs.
The Heroin Trail series consisted of hundreds of interviews with sources spanning 13 countries on three continents. The investigation cost more than $100,000, consisted of 14 reporters and spanned a full year—with the “Greene Team” as they were known in the newsroom spending six months overseas. It’s the stuff of legend. Before the series appeared in print, a CIA operative warned Newsday’s then-publisher Bill Attwood, top editor David Laventhol and Greene that if they ran it, they might cause the collapse of the French government, then Italy, Germany, and eventually hand all of Western Europe over to the communists. But they didn’t buckle and the series was published in 32 consecutive installments in 1973. A year later it won the Pulitzer Gold Medal Prize for Public Service Journalism, the second Pulitzer in four years under Greene’s direction.
Two weeks after Greene’s death in April 2008, the newsman’s groundbreaking contributions to investigative journalism were the topic of a speech given by Payne at the Fair Media Council’s annual Folio Awards presentation—a group that renamed its Investigative Reporting prize in Greene’s honor; the Long Island chapter of the Society for Professional Journalists did the same with its annual Public Service Award. Payne described his late friend and colleague’s relentless pursuit of the truth this way:
“Greene was not a scavenger,” he said. “Bob loved Long Island and he proved it by serving as a Rottweiler of a watchdog on government.”
Decades later the trailblazing, no-holds-barred spirit championed by Newsday’s most famous journalist is a fading legacy. It’s been reduced not by outside forces, such as pressure from the CIA, or even the White House—as another of Greene’s investigations attracted—but from the paper’s own top brass, say more than three dozen current and former Newsday employees contacted for this story by the Press.
Fearing retribution, they requested anonymity as they painted a portrait of a publication that has become a shell of its former self, where editors are all-too quick to remove or soften hard-hitting details of articles in exchange for a more palatable product that won’t offend or, as they quote their editors, result in “angry phone calls” from public officials. Newsday reporters express their dismay at the direction the LI institution has taken—and how stories of substance and import have either been quashed, toned-down or held indefinitely. With no reason given.
The staff who spoke to the Press cast most of the blame on “the two Debbies,” as they call them: Newsday Editor In Chief Debbie Henley and parent company Cablevision Systems Corp.’s senior vice president, Deborah Krenek, who is in charge of its digital group, local media and also serves as the paper’s editorial director. Henley took over the reins from Krenek in November, when the latter was promoted. The duo is responsible for the newspaper’s deliberate shift toward local coverage—addressing a longstanding gripe that even some critics of the pair interviewed for this story admire: “The complaint about Newsday 20 years ago, let’s say, was that you could read about Beirut but you couldn’t read about Babylon,” says one.
That Newsday’s reporters have an uneasy relationship with the paper’s corporate owners—father and son team Charles and James Dolan, who also own the New York Knicks and New York Rangers, among other holdings—is no secret.
Battles between reporters and editors have been waged in just about every news organization that cares about quality. One could argue that this give-and-take is the sign of a healthy newsroom—good writers should believe in their stories enough to fight for them. Sometimes it’s like the War of the Roses, only under one roof, as loyalties shift when one editor replaces another—or is rumored to be next in the line of succession.
As the newspaper industry continues to shed payroll and editorial staffers due to a precipitous decline in advertising revenue and the encroachment of the Internet, the brand of journalism Greene innovated—investigative and enterprising—has been typecast as an endangered species.
Yet the struggle taking place inside LI’s lone daily newspaper is so important beyond its walls because it’s not just a clash of in-house personalities with egos at stake. Since Cablevision also owns News12, which Newsday shares content with, the Bethpage-based cable distributor has a near-monopoly on the information that LI’s nearly 4 million residents get to read, hear and view. What’s truly at stake, therefore, encompasses everything from, say, how a person will vote in the next election to how they view a new member of their favorite sports team. But more importantly, it’s about what they don’t know—and never will.
Cablevision’s $650 million takeover of Newsday from Tribune Co. in 2008 has already resulted in substantial belt-tightening, union givebacks, pay and job cuts from the storied paper’s ranks. These measures came despite the cable company’s ever-increasing annual profit revenues and bonuses for top executives. Some veteran journalists left because of Cablevision’s meddling in editorial content. Others were forced out.
One former Newsday staffer describes the situation this way:
“Stories are held for months at a time, killed or watered down because the leaders cannot make a decision or are scared of aggressive reporting. They talk about watchdog reporting but they suppress such stories because of fear about getting complaints. And the subjects of those stories can call and get a piece held or killed.”
“There is a lot of frustration at Newsday now,” says another. “Talk to any Newsday reporter and they’re concerned about the paper forgetting its mission and being a little bit adrift and not having the courage to take on some of the power players on Long Island. People sort of mark that change to Debbie Henley taking over.”
In response to a list of questions for this story regarding these allegations and other issues raised by unhappy staffers, Newsday’s Vice President of Public Affairs Paul Fleishman said this:
“We are declining to comment on these groundless assertions that appear to originate from a small number of disgruntled employees. Newsday has long been respected for its straightforward, independent reporting on behalf of the people of Long Island. It is a responsibility that we take very seriously and approach with the utmost care, integrity and commitment to accuracy. We stand firmly behind our reporting, editing and coverage. Two out of three Long Island adults read Newsday each week and many of them also see Newsday content online. We remain committed to connecting our readers to the news and information that matters most to them.”