'Was There UPI Hit List'

Here's a story by Andrew Radolf from the Jan. 10, 1987, edition of Editor & Publisher:

Mario Vazquez Rana, the principal owner of United Press International, ordered the firing of Ron Cohen as managing editor last September, according to a memo drawn up by Barry James, editor for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, and circulated by the Wire Service Guild.

The union charged that the memo showed that Vazquez, who owns 95 percent of UPI, was violating his contractual pledge not to interfere with editorial affairs.

In memo, James contends that Vazquez suggested to editor in-chief Malcolm R. "Mike" Hughes that he (James) be named to replace Cohen. James claims that he turned the offer down.

A spokesman for Vazquez said the UPI owner "really isn't interested in commenting on the memo."

UPI president and editor Milton Benjamin said releasing the memo was an attempt by the Wire Service Guild to discredit Vazquez now that the union contract is coming up for negotiation.

"The timing is not an accident," he said, and referring to the appointment of four top editors, added: "There appears to be some people who are trying to take the luster off the good news here."

The memo, dated Nov. 26 but not made public until Jan. 6, disputes Vazquez's continuing assertions that he was not involved in the decision to fire Cohen, who left UPI on Nov. 6.

Vazquez has maintained that Hughes fired Cohen as part of his plans to restructure editorial operations.

In a Dec. 19 letter to Benjamin, which was also made public by the Wire Service Guild, James wrote: "I realize it is my word against Mr. Vazquez Rana's. Nevertheless, I would be prepared to testify under oath if necessary to the veracity of what I have said."

Benjamin, in a telephone interview, said he had asked Vazquez about James' memo and was told by the owner it was "totally without basis in truth."

Benjamin added that Vazquez "is not involved in any manner" in news personnel and news coverage decisions at UPI.

The memo said that James and Hughes met with the new owner on Sept. 23 and at that time "Vazquez Rana ordered Mike Hughes to fire Ron Cohen and put me in his place. I refused."

The memo said UPI's owner was displeased with the way Cohen had directed the news service's coverage of its Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings which led to Vazquez's purchase.

UPI had vigorously covered the Chapter 11 process and Cohen and the staff drew wide praise within the newspaper industry for following a policy of full disclosure.

James also said in his memo that Cohen's name was "first" on a seven-person "hit list" of UPI employees Vazquez told Hughes to fire.

The memo said that the new owner wanted to save money by eliminating their salaries. In an interview last October, Vazquez said UPI's annual losses were running $12 million higher than he expected when he took over the wire service last June.

Other former UPI officials, who asked for anonymity, confirmed James' account of the existence of a hit list drawn up by Vazquez.

James' memo related that on Sept. 26, Hughes had a "furious row" with Vazquez after telling him he would not carry out any of the dismissals. Three days later, on Sept. 29, Hughes offered Vazquez his resignation, James stated, but was persuaded to remain. Hughes ultimately did resign on Nov. 24.

James related that "one of the conditions" for Hughes' remaining on the job was "the removal of the hit list, but Vazquez Rana continued to insist that Cohen be fired."

The next day, Sept. 30, Cohen was told he would be dismissed when his work contract expired on Dec. 4, although he actually left nearly a month sooner.

In a telephone interview from UPI's London bureau, James again said he was willing to "swear by" his memo.

"Mike stood up to Vazquez Rana and said 'No.' He wouldn't fire those people. He saved the other people on the list," James said.

Hughes "was desperately trying to find a way for Cohen to stay" with UPI as well, James remarked, and arranged for Cohen to remain with the wire service until after supervising coverage of the November elections.

James said that although he and Hughes are both British and long-time UPI veterans, "we are not old cronies." He said he issued his memo because "blaming Mike for the whole debacle over Cohen is wrong. The whole impulse came from Vazquez Rana."

However, a UPI news staffer said James and Hughes were "long-time friends."

Hughes publicly took responsibility for Cohen's dismissal at the time it occurred, saying the two disagreed over UPI's editorial direction and citing the need to revamp the news operation.

However, soon after his Nov. 24 resignation, Hughes told E&P that he had "no conflict with Cohen" and indicated that the popular managing editor's firing had been ordered from above.

"I was the messenger. You can read whatever you want into that," Hughes stated.

Hughes, a 30-year UPI veteran, said at the time that he resigned after Benjamin told him he wanted to replace him as editor-in-chief with a "name" editor. Benjamin denied he wanted to replace Hughes, and other UPI executives said Hughes resigned after his demand for a guaranteed contract was rejected.

Hughes, contacted at home this week, declined to comment on the memo.

James told E&P that Hughes is contemplating suing UPI because he was "treated extraordinarily badly when he left. I don't think he got a red cent."

Hughes said, "I'm talking with counsel," but would not say if he were going to sue.

James also told E&P that Maxwell McCrohol, who resigned as UPI's president on Nov. 6, also had strenuously objected to the proposed dismissals. James said the drawing up of a hit list was a major reason for McCrohon's resignation, but added that McCrohon and Vazquez had had several other "acrimonious rows."

Benjamin, who had been acting as a consultant to Vazquez since April 1986, replaced McCrohon as president.

James said Benjamin was not present at the Sept. 23 meeting. Benjamin has stated in the past that he was "stunned" when he learned of Cohen's dismissal and he repeated that assertion when asked about James' memo.

"He (Benjamin) was advising the company since April 1. I do find it impossible to believe he did not know what was going on," James said.

Benjamin met with Cohen on Nov. 26, coincidentally the same day as the date on James' memo, to discuss his returning to UPI. A second meeting was proposed for after the Thanksgiving holiday, but Benjamin never contacted him to set one up, according to Cohen, who now works for Gannett News Service.