Gerald and Me

"You know, I ought to beat the shit out of you!"
Houston Post editor Gerald Garcia had left his car across the lot behind the KPRC/Channel 2 studios and had come strutting back to my jeep after we'd exchanged a not-so-cordial farewell. Garcia had suggested there were some former journalistic associates in the world who still liked him. I had jokingly replied that perhaps he had captured their souls. Garcia growled his threat, lunged forward and slammed his flattened palms against my shoulders. The momentum knocked me backward. Garcia briefly glared, then spun around and headed back to his car.

The Editor of the Dead, a man with the mannerisms of a street thug rather than those of a major metropolitan newspaper editor, earlier had been issuing not-so-subtle physical warnings after we were seated for Channel 2's half-hour wrap-up on the Post's closing. At one point, Garcia hissed that I'd be eating a right cross if I accused him on the air of participating in the tanking of the paper. Garcia intimated it would be fine to slag his former boss, Dean Singleton, but leave him out of it. "After all Tim, I'm a victim just like all the others." I whispered back that if Garcia would only please punch me on camera, it would make front-page news.

And for the most part in our on-air pairing mediated by anchor Bill Balleza, Garcia stayed out of the line of fire. In fact, when I speculated that the employees of the paper had been the victims of a financial play that had let Post owner Singleton skip out of town with a nest egg from the announced $120 million sale (which many people doubt is an accurate figure) while they would be skipping to the unemployment line, Garcia pointedly did not jump to Singleton's defense. But when I noted that Garcia has a history as a journalistic hit man hired by owners to do the dirty work of cutting staff and employee benefits as long as the paper lingered with a profit, our newfound conviviality came to an abrupt end.

We have a history, you see. When Singleton hired Garcia in 1992 to replace Charles Cooper, I welcomed him to town with a Press profile headlined, "Angel of Death" and "Is he Satan or just Attila the Hun?"

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"Angel of Death" is a sobriquet Garcia himself flaunted as a badge of pride, according to a former subordinate at the Knoxville Journal, Betty Bean. Before the Channel 2 broadcast I asked Garcia if he really liked the nickname. He didn't answer directly, but said, "I lay off people, I fire people, I'm good at my job."

And consistent, too. Garcia may be the only editor/publisher in America with his own dedicated "truth squad," a cabal of Tucson, Arizona, journalists who faxed an attack newsletter to the Press when he came to Houston. It was peppered with lines such as "Why Gerald Garcia is the worst publisher in America." And it accused Garcia of driving the once prestigious Tucson Citizen into second-class status during his five-year tenure there, all the while generating fat profits for owner Gannett.

Prior to landing at the Houston Post, Garcia was editor/publisher of the Knoxville Journal in Tennessee, where he led that 153-year-old paper into the netherworld and 69 employees to the unemployment line.

With the exception of an update on last week's Post fatality, recent developments haven't dated the lead on that 1992 Press profile much: "In new editor Gerald Garcia, the struggling Houston Post has reeled in a controversial executive with a national reputation for cutting staffs and running newspapers into the ground while extracting maximum profit, one who has left scores of enemies behind after relatively brief stays at papers in Kansas City, Tucson, Bryan-College Station and Knoxville. Despite Houston Post hype about his achievements, Garcia's publications have tended to sicken or totally expire during his tenure."

Add another dark feather to the Angel's wings.
But last Tuesday was a bad day for Garcia, if you take him at his word. Not only did he insist had he been left out of the loop on management's decision to pull the plug on the Post, but he says he was also hung out to dry by Singleton, just like the other approximately 1,900 Post employees who had been terminated without notice. Singleton did not offer to take him to one of his remaining papers. With his current track record, can you imagine the reaction of any newsroom in America to Garcia's arrival? Pass the Guyana Punch, please.

Of course, another former Post staffer says Garcia told her he has already been hired by Knight-Ridder for a temporary assignment. In our off-camera conversation, Garcia said he didn't need a job right away, liked Houston and might hang around.

Earlier this year he confided to a Post employee that he'd considered lending his talents to one of the two papers being struck by unions in San Francisco, a strike that at that time was teetering on the edge of violence. "He was talking very matter of factly how the people of San Francisco had a labor problem, and they were wanting him to come there and 'take care of their labor problem,'" according to the now-former Post staffer. Garcia explained that although he'd been offered a princely sum, he didn't know if he wanted "to be the hatchet man again."

But old habits do die hard. A source at the Hearst-owned Chronicle, the new master of the former Post redoubt on the Southwest Freeway, says Garcia approached the paper months back with a pitch worthy of Gallery Furniture's Mattress Mac: "He said if we hired him, he could save us money."

For once, Hearst wasn't buying.

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