Arthur Browne’s the tortured heart and soul of the ‘Daily News’; will he ever be its head?

arthur-brownes-tortured-heart-and-soul-daily-news-will-he-ever-be-its-
Arthur Browne, right, receives his Pulitzer in 2007. ()
Tweet Share on Facebook Share on Tumblr Print

On Nov. 16, journalists at the Daily News opened the paper and found an editorial congratulating the New York Police Department for its execution of an early-morning raid on Zuccotti Park the day before.

The editorial called the early a.m. raid, which media outlets were restricted from observing, "precise, restrained and professional." It also described how the police cleared the park of hundreds of Occupy Wall Street protesters who'd been camped out there for two months.

"They deployed in a bracing and appropriate show of force that made clear nonsense would not be tolerated, and then they applied their interpersonal skills with muscular gentility," the editorial said. "Nonetheless, the pretty-pleasers and mother-may-I’s judged the police to have been overly aggressive. No news there. They get the vapors when cops turn on their lights and sirens."

But further down, there was a reference to something that happened after the protesters had regrouped:

MORE ON CAPITAL

ADVERTISEMENT

"Yes, some journalists, including a Daily Newser, were taken in for being in the wrong place at the wrong time."

That particular story was not one that Daily News reporter Matthew Lysiak got to tell his readers. He was the "Newser" who, along with a group of credentialed reporters standing with notebooks and cameras at the ready, had documented in straightforward prose throughout the night of the raid what was happening on a Daily News liveblog.

Several hours later, he ended up getting cuffed, arrested and removed by police from a scene of protests at Sixth Avenue and Canal Street. He was reportedly put in a holding cell for four hours, and spent two of them with his hands bound behind his back in zip cuffs, before returning to the newsroom and, ultimately, to the streets to continue reporting on the altercations between protesters and police.

"Prompt release was had," the editorial crowed. "Chalk it up to all in a day’s work and getting a tale to tell the grandkids."

On the day of the raid, one man was in charge of both the News' editorial page and the paper's reporting staff: Arthur Browne.

Browne is himself in lots of ways the confused and tortured soul of the paper. His institutional memory stretches back nearly four decades, a long time for anyone so prominently at the top of the News masthead, including the tabloid's current proprietor, real-estate and media magnate and frequent news-roundtable guest Mortimer Zuckerman.

Jennifer Mauer, a spokeswoman for the News, confirmed that Browne has been "supervising" the editorial pages while also running the news department under Convey, traditionally a big no-no at a quality newspaper. (The paper declined to make Browne available for an interview.)

The firewall between the editorial page and the news report is meant to convey the paper's neutrality, or objectivity, about news topics; it allows the paper to speak to power-centers in the city without upsetting the sense that its reporters are only valiant seekers after truth.

So it's certainly not unheard of for an editorial board to take a stance that might seem abhorrent to its own journalists; in fact it seems healthy.

But when the person running both sides of that firewall produces through the editorial board a piece that seems to brush aside the First Amendment rights of journalists who work for the same person, the result is confusion and anger. According to several insiders who spoke to Capital, the editorial about the clearing of Zuccotti Park angered some members of the editorial staff, who took it as a rebuke to their journalistic mission. And there have been whispers in the newsroom about the appropriateness of Browne having a hand in both departments.

The day after the editorial, News columnist Joanna Molloy in her column accused the city of giving "lip service to freedom of the press, meanwhile arresting the News' Matt Lysiak" and other reporters.

"Seriously, where are we? Syria?" she wrote.

BROWNE HAS REMAINED HIS PAPER'S CHAMPION THROUGH several publishers, a bankruptcy, and several of his own exits and reentries, never admitting to any ill will or dissatisfaction with his position at the paper. He's been the sometimes-harsh master of the newsroom, a defender of its middle-class readership and an unapologetic enemy of slick magazine style, favoring investigation and crusades over celebrity coverage. As steward of the editorial pages he was the voice of the paper that in 2007 won a Pulitzer for editorial writing for its advocacy on behalf of workers at Ground Zero seeking help for health problems associated with their work on the pile.

Throughout the present ownership, he's been a loyal servant to his publisher, both in the newsroom and to the public.

His nickname, "Chucky," is said to have been applied to Browne because, like the evil horror-movie doll of '90s fame, he's unkillable. That's not easy in an organization owned by the famously mercurial Zuckerman, of whom a reporter told The New York Observer during one of the paper's many masthead shakeups back in 2000, "Mort is a compulsive-obsessive about changing his senior executives."

Browne started at the paper as a copyboy in 1973, earned a law degree, and over the next 20 years held positions including reporter, chief investigative reporter, City Hall bureau chief, city editor, metropolitan editor, assistant managing editor for politics, managing editor for news and senior managing editor.

When, in the middle of all that in 1993, Zuckerman fired him, Browne turned up the next day with a new job: Head of the editorial page.

In 2000, after another shakeup that put Sunday editor Ed Kosner, a former editor of Newsweek and Esquire, at the top of the masthead, Browne left for Bloomberg News.

Responding to a New York Times reporter sniffing for the angle most of New York society thought it knew about—that Browne was too middle-class in his sensibilities and that Zuckerman was looking to turn his paper into a calling card for his rich friends—Browne jumped at the opportunity to make a statement: "It is at its heart aimed at the middle-class New York reader, and no smart editor would try to mess around with [that] too much."

He was back at the News by 2003.

In the most recent shakeup, Browne did better than survive. In a restructuring aimed at integrating the newsroom's digital assets with its print operation, Browne became the No. 2 editor of the paper as part of a privy council of editors of whom he is the only longtime employee.

According to a report from the Post's Keith Kelly, the daily news meetings under managing editor Stu Marques had become sparsely attended; after Marques' dismissal in mid-October, editor-in-chief Kevin Convey ran the meetings, but looked "bored."

Arthur Browne's first meeting was standing-room only.

But along with the management shakeup came a round of layoffs that claimed the jobs of nearly 20 newsroom employees, including veteran staffers like Frank Lombardi and Bob Kappstatter, a 68-year-old deputy police bureau chief who'd been with the paper for 43 years.

It's in that environment that the Nov. 16 NYPD editorial hit, and seemed to signify a level of contempt for the work of the paper's own reporters, who now were under the command of the same man who runs the editorial page that came across as dismissive of reporters' claims against the NYPD.

Mauer would not comment on how long Browne might remain in the dual role, or whether there was a formal transition underway.

"We don't comment on personnel matters," she said.

But she did respond to questions about the Nov. 16 editorial, which came to seem that much odder a week later, when a blistering letter co-signed by representatives of 13 news organizations, including Daily News vice president and deputy general counsel Anne B. Carroll, was sent to Deputy Police Commissioner Paul Browne. The letter condemned police not only for arresting working journalists during the demonstrations, but for alleged "abuses" against them, including violence.

"The police actions of last week have been more hostile to the press than any other event in recent memory," the letter read in part, demanding an "immediate meeting" with NYPD brass. "The credentialed press were targeted and subject to increased scrutiny and greater restrictions than members of the general public."

Mauer essentially admitted that the editorial board's love letter to the NYPD, at least with respect to the journalist arrests, may have been a bit premature.

"The editorial regarding the police handling of Occupy Wall Street protestors was written by the Daily News editorial board before the full extent of the NYPD’s actions regarding the press were known," she said in an email.

"Arthur Browne," Mauer continued, "joined the lawyers for the Daily News in a meeting [last] Wednesday that led to the reissuing of NYPD/media guidelines. Arthur was also instrumental in securing the original guidelines in 1999."

Once again, the man for all seasons, except, it seems, his own.

Now, once again, chatter places Browne at the top of the list of possible new editors for the paper. It's become a familiar trope over at least the last 15 years.

In one long-ago bout of speculation about Browne as a candidate to edit the paper, Zuckerman was said to have been talking with Dan Rather at a farewell party for yet another outgoing editor, Martin Dunn. He pointed to a table where Browne was sitting among other top editors including executive editor Debby Krenek. The item quoted one writer guessing that Browne and Krenek, precisely because they rose up through the ranks at the News, might lack the "cachet" Zuckerman was looking for.

Browne did not get the job.

Additional research by Tom McGeveran.