Gannett Chief Criticized for Membership in Private Golf Club

July 7, 2008 - 8:04 PM

(CNSNews.com) - A year after a USA Today column inspired criticism of the Augusta National Golf Club, the head of the newspaper's parent company has come under fire for his membership in another high-profile private golf club with a male-only membership policy.

Douglas H. McCorkindale, chief executive officer of Gannett Co., which owns 100 newspapers including USA Today, belongs to the exclusive Pine Valley Golf Club in New Jersey, a course consistently ranked among the best in the country by Golf Digest magazine.

Pine Valley, in fact, slightly edged out the embattled Augusta National for this year's top ranking, which the magazine released Friday. Like Augusta National, it maintains a male-only membership policy, but Pine Valley is even more restrictive, preventing women from playing at the course.

USA Today sports columnist Christine Brennan was largely responsible for the pressure Augusta National has faced for its refusal to admit women members. It was her column last April that caught the attention of Martha Burk, chairwoman of the National Council of Women's Organizations.

Brennan didn't go as far as Burk to criticize McCorkindale's membership at Pine Valley, but she said it was an appropriate issue to debate. As a columnist and not a regular staff member, she did not know he belonged to the club.

"In this climate and at this time in our sports history, I do believe that is a worthy topic for discussion," she said. "I haven't specifically thought about my column ideas for [this week] at the Masters, but that is an interesting piece of information."

Burk, who has criticized the whole idea of gender-specific clubs, last week asked Congress to adopt a resolution that would urge its members, along with federal judges and presidential appointees, not to belong to such organizations.

In the case of McCorkindale, Burk said he was just as guilty as other corporate executives who belong to Augusta National. She has created a website, AugustaDiscriminates.org, which specifically targets these memberships.

"I think it's the wrong statement for him to give to his employees and the customers of his newspapers," Burk said. "I don't think he ought to be a member. It's the wrong statement for a CEO to make, whether it's Augusta or it's Pine Valley."

McCorkindale was not available for comment Friday, but a Gannett spokeswoman said his membership at Pine Valley was a private matter and is not paid for or endorsed by the company.

"Doug has made a private, personal decision that has nothing to do with the company at all," spokeswoman Tara Connell said. "The company has no position, whatsoever, on Augusta National."

Connell also said Pine Valley and Augusta National couldn't be compared because the latter hosts one of the world's most famous golf tournaments, the Masters, each year. The event is carried on television, and spectators are invited on the course, which is entirely different from the situation at Pine Valley, she said.

Brennan acknowledged that Augusta National should be held to a higher standard, but she said that does not excuse private clubs from excluding women members. She said she hopes to talk to McCorkindale about his membership.

"If I were a member of a discriminatory, private club, I would expect that that would be scrutinized by any and all journalists," Brennan said. "I would expect it, and I would be disappointed if journalists didn't because this is where we are today in our culture."

Not all those involved in the Augusta National debate were critical of McCorkindale's membership at Pine Valley. TheBurkStopsHere.com creator Todd Manzi, who has been following the controversy at Augusta National since it began, defends the private club's right to determine its membership policies.

Last week, Manzi launched a boycott of USA Today for its coverage of the Augusta National story. He said Brennan and staff writer Michael McCarthy gave the story life when it was dead. Now, he hopes McCorkindale gets involved.

"Douglas McCorkindale probably didn't have any idea that the staff under him stepped over the line of journalism into activism, but I'm sure if it is brought to his attention, he would do whatever he needed to do to correct the situation in the future," Manzi said. "In the meantime, I hope a lot of people who are upset with what USA Today has done will voice their opinion."

But Julie Ward, USA Today's deputy managing editor for sports, defended the paper's coverage of the Augusta National story. Three weeks ago, McCarthy wrote a story about Manzi's activities and those being planned by other counter-protesters.

As for McCorkindale's membership, Ward said, "We're aware of it." She said the business operations of Gannett and the editorial functions at USA Today are definitely separate, though. That doesn't mean she would shy away from the topic.

"If there was a news reason to address it, certainly," she said.

Connell also made clear the distinction between editorial and business operations at the company.

"We don't require our executives to make personal decisions based on what some reporters or editors feel is right or wrong," she said. "We ask them to do things legally, we ask them to do things ethically, we ask them to do all sorts of things, but we don't ask them to do what a group of people who works with them thinks is right or wrong."

As for the paper's coverage of Augusta National, USA Today spokesman Steven Anderson said it wouldn't be the first time someone has threatened a boycott. He said he wasn't particularly worried. Neither was Brennan.

"One of the job descriptions of a columnist is to stir the pot and make people think," she said. "I guess in this case I've been successful, and if that includes someone threatening a boycott of USA Today, I guess that's the ultimate sign of the success of my column and the wonderful reporting of my colleagues at USA Today."

But did the paper inflame the situation, like Manzi suggested? He insists that until USA Today printed a list of Augusta National members in October, the issue was going away by itself. Connell had a different take on the situation.

"That's what newspapers do," she said. "That's what they're supposed to be doing."

See Earlier Story:
Burk Scolds Gumbel For Membership In All-Male Golf Club (12/17/02)
Feminist Fury Over Augusta Still Hot Topic in NY Times (11/21/02)


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