While complaints about the press are nothing new, it's unusual for a newspaper editorial to be blamed for someone's death. But in the small town of Winnsboro, Texas, friends of innkeeper Paul Bear blame the Winnsboro Newsfor Bear's suicide.
Bear and his partner, Tim Carmichael, ran a bed-and-breakfast inn, the Hubbell House, and worked to build Winnsboro's image as a quaint weekend get-away destination for city dwellers. Among their promotional efforts was a Web site for their inn.
Given the rock-ribbed conservatism of Winnsboro, population 3,500, Bear and Carmichael kept their sexuality to themselves, friends said, but in August 2003, a scathing editorial in the local weekly paper brought it into the open.
Condemning the men's lifestyle as "despicable" and "disgusting," the editorial accused the two of "promoting the gay lifestyle in Winnsboro, Texas." The paper's editor, Tom Pendergast, said that he had seen with his own eyes an "almost bestial" online ad inviting gay men to come to Winnsboro for sex and good times.
Pendergast said he feels no responsibility for Bear's death and noted that the suicide occurred more than two years after the editorial appeared.
The ad appeared on Glimpse.com, a gay dating site, although Carmichael and Bear insisted they had not placed the advertisement and speculated it had been a prank perpetrated by their enemies, according to the Dallas Observer.
Pendergast's editorial condemned the two for promoting "a despicable lifestyle that is antithetical to the values of most Winnsboro residents."
After the editorial ran, Carmichael said he and Bear began receiving threatening phone calls at all hours. Dead animals were thrown into their yard and stuffed into their mailbox, driving away their guests.
Bothered by the reaction to the news, Bear, who suffered from bipolar disorder, took off on a cross-country gambling spree. In early June 2005, a truck driver spotted a car off the road near a rest stop on Highway 80 near Winnsboro.
A note taped to the car's window said: "Do not walk down by the railroad track, for I am hanging from a tree." Police recovered Bear's body and found a two-page farewell letter to Carmichael.
Pendergast said the Dallas Observer story has had little impact in Winnsboro, just as the 2003 editorial provoked little reaction from his readers. He said his editorial resulted from a letter Bear had written to him criticizing the newspaper.
"I printed his letter, then I got a call from a friend of mine telling me I ought to take a look at the Website," Pendergast told ConsumerAffairs.com. "I did and it was just awful, just salacious, as I said in my editorial."
Pendergast said Bear appeared in his office and angrily denounced him the day after the editorial appeared.
"He came in here and called me a homophobe and everything else, and I said the editorial speaks for itself," Pendergast said. "I didn't have any further contact with him. He went to Las Vegas or somewhere and spent a lot of their joint money, then came back here and hanged himself."
Townspeople quoted by the Dallas Observer say Pendergast's newspaper bullies and picks on those who incur Pendergast's wrath. Pendergast says his brand of journalism is tough but fair and said he has no regrets about his handling of the Hubbell House story.
In the 20 years he has been running the paper, it has won the Headliner Foundation Award three times and has been cited for community service by the North & East Texas Press Association more than any similar-sized publication, Pendergast said.
It's hardly the first time Pendergast, 73, a former Associated Press executive, has been at the center of a controversy. An AP reporter, editor and bureau chief in New Orleans, St. Louis and Los Angeles, Pendergast fought his way to one of the AP's top jobs -- Vice President and Director of Personnel -- in the 1970s.
In the rough-and-tumble politics of a heavily-unionized worldwide news operation, Pendergast was never seen as timid, former AP executives recalled. "You did not want to have Pendergast mad at you," said one.
Pendergast retired from the AP in 1985 and bought the Winnsboro newspaper a short time later.
Editor's note: James R. Hood was an AP editor and executive in New York and Washington, D.C., during the 1970s and '80s and worked with Pendergast during that period.