December 11, 1995

Hagedorn Takes No Prisoners In Co-op City War of Words

City News publisher relishes a good fight. But targets of his barbed criticism say he's biased.

by Michael Prince

"Give me the highlights," Christopher Hagedorn says to the reporter on the telephone. Hagedorn is sitting on the edge of his paper-strewn, white Formica desk, a half-filled glass of warm soda at his side. He is talking to a rookie reporter who is covering a meeting on the latest scandal at Co-op City in the Bronx.

"What did he say?" he asks.

He listens for a moment, taking a drag on his cigarette, while pulling together some words of wisdom from his 26 years in the newspaper business.

"You have to have in your head what he's saying, what's important, so we can make some judgments," he quietly tells the reporter.

Hagedorn and the reporter are working on this week's top story for the City News, involving charges of hiring discrimination at Co-op City. Based on confidential memos obtained from an unnamed source, the story is the type of aggressive, pull-no-punches journalism he has been producing at City News since its founding in January 1969, and which has placed him and his paper in the middle of one controversy after another.

The biggest controversy this year is the fight between two rival factions on the 16-member board of directors of Co-op City. The present leadership of president Gretchen Hazell and former president Iris Baez is under attack for firing six managers of the housing complex earlier this year without the consent of the full board. An investigation is underway by the State Division of Housing and Community Renewal to determine if Hazell should be ousted for her power grab.

A recent edition of City News featured front-page stories of a suicide, a strike of Co-op City power station workers and flooded apartments from a broken water pipe. Six of the 28 pages contained news, and the rest was filled with ads and announcements ranging from flu shots for the elderly to a Jewish center's bus trip to Atlantic City.

Operating out of a converted public library in New Rochelle, Hagedorn, the founder, president and owner of Hagedorn Communications, is both editor and publisher of six weekly newspapers covering the Bronx, Manhattan, Rockland and Westchester Counties. His favorite is the 16,000-circulation City News which dishes up to readers the happenings of Co-op City.

His office is jammed with memorabilia from his life as a journalist. The mustard-yellow walls are plastered with large photographs of fires and murder victims. In a corner sits an old Underwood manual typewriter and a camera from the 1940s.

A framed front page of the New York Times hangs on the wall featuring a photograph taken by Hagedorn of a man jumping to his death from a building. Next to it are two pages of the City News featuring photographs from the same event.

"We love that kind of stuff," he says with a smile as he relates the story of the 1975 murder-suicide.

The newspaper business is in Hagedorn's blood. Born in 1944 in Atlanta, where his father was stationed as an Army public information officer, Hagedorn was raised in Manhattan. In 1947, his father, Charles, started Town and Village, a weekly newspaper covering the Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village communities in Manhattan.

Hagedorn attended Brown University, where he was editor of the student newspaper. Following his 1967 graduation, Hagedorn resisted a notion to become a lawyer and enrolled in the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. After his first marriage ended in divorce in 1987, Hagedorn remarried in 1992. He has two sons with his second wife, the publisher of one of his papers, the Rockland Review.

By his appearance, however, one would think that he pursued a career in law. His middle-aged spread is neatly clothed in a dark blue suit, tie, blue-and-white striped shirt with gold cuff links. With his balding head, round glasses and boyish smile, he can pass for the tax attorney Stuart Markowitz, from television's "L.A. Law."

The first editor of the City News, Henry Hurt, said that the aggressive nature of the paper is an outgrowth of its founding philosophy, which was to tell "the readers what the Co-op City management did not want the people to know."

"We yearned to give a voice to people living in the housing project against a management that pretended to be the people," Hurt said. Although Hurt left City News in 1971 to become an editor at The Reader's Digest, he has remained friends with Hagedorn.

"I never knew anybody who has a greater respect for good journalism than Christopher Hagedorn," Hurt said.

Jim Willse, editor of the Newark Star-Ledger, a Hagedorn friend since both attended Columbia, called him a serious journalist who is a "straight shooter."

Although toiling in the shadow of the more prestigious daily newspapers, Hagedorn has had a fling as a big-time publisher. During the three-month newspaper strike in 1978, the City News expanded to a daily paper with a circulation of over 300,000, the largest interim paper in New York.

"I was a minor celebrity. I definitely had my 15 minutes of fame in my life," Hagedorn glowed. The experience stirred his dream of publishing a large daily newspaper which he said will never be attained, however, because of the huge costs involved.

City News was started in part to respond to the Co-op City Times, the official newspaper of Co-op City's management, that Hagedorn describes as "a foolish waste of money."

Hagedorn's sharp words permeate his paper. In a recent editorial he attacked the Times as "a memorial to the vaulted egos of directors who regularly call each other names." It should cease publication, he wrote, because it loses nearly $500,000 a year. Putting the final touches on the editorial in his office, Hagedorn smiled with pride over his work.

"More embarrassment the better," he said.

Derek Alger, the editor of the Co-op City Times, who worked under Hagedorn at the City News from 1987 until last year, brushed off the editorial and said he hadn't read it.

Many members of the board of directors at Co-op City, frequent targets of the paper's attacks, seethe at the mention of Hagedorn's name.

One board member, Othelia Jones, called the City News "a rag sheet, a scandal sheet," that only prints negative stories about Co-op City.

Clarence "Jake" Powell, another board member, said that the paper is partisan. "They won't put anything in the paper from those people who disagree with him," Powell said.

Hagedorn has a ready response to such criticism. He repeats a saying from Fred Friendly, former president of CBS News: "A good reporter reports both sides of the story and tells the reader which one is right."

Much of the criticism of the paper concerns board member Iris Baez. Powell, a rival of Baez, said that "Hagedorn will do whatever Baez tells him to do."

Baez disputes this assessment and said that Co-op City is lucky to have Hagedorn. "The Times is a house organ and it often prints what the board majority wants," Baez said. "Chris Hagedorn is controversial because he prints what people don't want to hear. He prints the truth."

Throughout the controversy City News has strongly supported Hazell and Baez, while the Co-op City Times has generally sided with the opposing board faction.

Hagedorn has aimed his most stinging barbs at U. S. Rep. Eliot Engel, a Democrat whose district includes Co-op City. Engel is a frequent target of the paper, which dubbed him "The Phantom Politician" in a series of front-page stories about Engel's 1995 move out of Co-op City to a $400,000 house in Maryland.

"He is easy to embarrass because he is a dope and shallow and does not represent his constituency," Hagedorn said in an interview.

Not to be left out of the mudslinging, Engel's director of communications, Greg Howard, retorted, "We don't consider Mr. Hagedorn a legitimate journalist. He uses the paper as his own personal platform for whatever agenda he has. He chooses the paper to malign people with whom he has philosophical differences."

Because of the criticism, Howard said, his office no longer responds to calls from Hagedorn's papers.

A further element of the bad blood is a failed 1987 attempt to evict the paper from its Co-op City offices, which Hagedorn believes was masterminded by Engel.

One observer of the feud, Bernard Stein, who covers Engel as the editor and co-publisher of The Riverdale Press, says that both sides have gone overboard in pursuing "a mutual vendetta."

Stein said that Hagedorn's papers "go out of their way to knock Engel in news stories."

Alger, the former managing editor, stands by the City News' coverage of Engel while he was with the paper. "The stories were based on fact and Engel was given a chance to respond," Alger said.

Despite the heated criticism, Hagedorn's neatly-starched shirt rarely gets ruffled. He accepts the criticism with pride, saying it's all part of the newspaper business, and disregards letters from readers who disagree with his style of journalism. One reader criticized a recent front-page story and photograph of a man who jumped 16 floors to his death in Co-op City, writing in a letter that the story was "inappropriate, distasteful, and disrespectful."

Hagedorn gets amused by such letters, saying he wouldn't be a journalist if he failed to cover that story.

Prominently displayed on the wall facing Hagedorn's desk is his credo, a saying by newspaper editor Herbert Bayard Swope of the long-defunct New York World: "I cannot give you the formula for success but I can give you the formula for failure, which is: Try to please everybody."

Hagedorn adds: "A newspaper that is doing its job is not going to be liked by everyone."

Copyright © 1995 Bronx Beat Online