As Columnist Departs, Little Warmth From the Sun

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 23, 2005

When Jules Witcover wrote his final column for the Baltimore Sun last week, after 24 years at the paper, it was not by choice.

The Sun dismissed Witcover, a Washington fixture for half a century who launched the column with his longtime pal Jack Germond, after cutting his salary by more than two-thirds and publishing him less often.

"The coldness of it was what irritated me the most," Witcover said yesterday, describing a termination notice sent to him by overnight mail that he says included one sentence of thanks for his service. The 78-year-old political reporter plans to continue writing the column for the Tribune Media syndicate, but is looking for a new home paper because the income from syndication -- fewer than 30 papers carry Witcover -- is minuscule.

Two of the Sun's top editors each said that the other was responsible. Editor Tim Franklin, who does not oversee the editorial pages, said he did not know of the dismissal until reading Witcover's final column Friday. "I think it's their call," he said of the editorial page editors, adding: "We probably should have handled this better than we handled it."

But Editorial Page Editor Dianne Donovan said the decision was made by Franklin's newsroom, which paid Witcover's salary under an arrangement dating to the years when he doubled as a political reporter. She did not, however, make a plea to keep him on.

Franklin said he has "tremendous respect for Jules, and as a political junkie myself have always enjoyed reading his column." Donovan declined to describe Witcover's departure as a loss for the paper but said she would consider buying the column from the syndicate.

"I'm going to look at the mix on our op-ed page and see if he fits or if he doesn't fit," she said. Asked about Witcover's status as a journalistic institution, she said: "An institution doesn't necessarily mean we don't change things around a little bit."

Witcover closed his farewell column with a shot at "this unnecessary and calamitous war" in Iraq, saying: "My 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."

He said he was not accusing the Sun of dropping him because he has been a vehement opponent of the war since before the U.S.-led invasion, but that some of the nearly 200 readers who have written to him in protest clearly believe that.

Donovan, who joined the Sun from the Chicago Tribune three years ago, called suggestions of political retaliation "outrageous," noting that "we are one of the few papers in this country that categorically from the beginning opposed the war. Why would we want to do something to him because he was agreeing with that stance?"

Roger Simon, a Baltimore Sun alumnus who is now chief political correspondent of U.S. News & World Report, said: "It is in a sense the passing of an era. It's a great loss. Jules did actual reporting."

Simon, who lost his Sun column in 1996 when the Evening Sun folded and Germond and Witcover were switched to the morning paper where he worked, said the duo were constantly on the road. "Even when they were in the office they'd be working the phones. They'd do what's not done anymore, making calls to county chairmen all over the United States."

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