THE GOOD FIGHT ‌ Covering the Coverage 

What happens if newspapers don't tell the story?

When I was a journalism undergraduate a few decades ago, there was serious talk in the newspaper industry of "beat swapping" -- that is, every couple of years, the cop reporter would be switched to the city hall beat and the city hall reporter would be sent to the education beat and the education reporter would go to cover cops.

The idea was that after a while, a reporter gets too comfortable with his beat. The people he's covering -- cops or councilmen or school district officials -- tend to become cozy with a reporter, making it difficult for him to do the sometimes dirty job of investigating and exposing corruption and incompetence.

Beat-swapping never took off in the industry, probably because the advantage of having a reporter thoroughly familiar with a beat seems to outweigh the disadvantage of having a reporter too familiar with a beat. But that doesn't mean the principle is without merit. That's why I am here to recommend a brilliant new policy in newspaper coverage that could revolutionize the industry -- city swapping.

Starting next year, I propose that The Post and Courier should cover Columbia. The State should cover Greenville and The Greenville News should cover Charleston. And the reasons are obvious. A newspaper's management can get too chummy with the movers and shakers of their town and decide they do not want to embarrass their friends.

I suspect something like that is what happened on December 17, 2006, when the Columbia-based State ran a major story on the ugly divorce of attorney Gedney Howe III and his old feud with fellow attorney Larry Richter. These two high-profile Charleston litigators are former friends who had a notorious falling out in the 1980s.

As to the cause of this alienation, sources disagree, but in 1988 Richter was up for reelection as circuit judge by the state Senate. When he came before the judiciary committee for screening, he was brought down by a firestorm of charges including cocaine use, abusive courtroom behavior, and improper real estate transactions with a convicted drug dealer. Howe denies it, but Richter claims to this day that his former friend orchestrated the attacks that derailed his career.

Richter resigned from the bench, opened a Charleston firm, and has earned a reputation as one of the meanest attorneys in the business. Maybe that's why Celeste Howe chose him to represent her in her divorce proceedings against Gedney. Or maybe it was more personal. Whatever the reason, tongues have been clucking and fingers wagging on Broad Street for months. At stake in the ugly proceedings is Gedney Howe's fortune, estimated at $34 million in homes, real estate, and cash -- and the couple's three children.

The question in my mind is, why did this story break in The State and not in The Post and Courier? Did the powers that be at the P&C not want to embarrass either of the socially and politically connected principals in this story? Did they consider the nasty charges between the estranged couple to be too unseemly for their noble journal?

Whatever the reasons, the management and editors overcame their qualms on Jan. 6, when they ran their own story about the Howe v. Howe divorce and the connection to Larry Richter. One suspects that the P&C story had as much to do with saving face as it did with informing the citizens of Charleston about the behavior of some of its leading figures.

It was a nice piece of work by The State, but that venerable old newspaper has its own history of cover-ups. I was working at The State in the late 1980s when the James Holderman story broke.

Holderman was the president of the University of South Carolina when stories began to appear in the Charlotte Observer and The Greenville News about Holderman's strange habits of giving lavish gifts to celebrities and keeping an entourage of young men -- all at public expense. For years the stories came out of Greenville and Charlotte, but the management of The State refused to touch the sleazy USC president.

Finally, the pressure built until Holderman was forced to resign. At about the same time, the managing editor of The State was removed from the newsroom and kicked upstairs to the editorial suite. It turned out that he was a close personal friend of Holderman, and his son had been part of the Holderman entourage as an undergraduate.

As long as there are newspapers, there will be cover-ups, because newspaper people are only human and subject to the same follies and temptations as any mortal. That's why the more newspapers the better -- so that rivals can keep an eye on each other. It's easier than swapping cities.


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