Founding, Ralph Shikes & Tristram Coffin

The Public Concern Foundation was founded in 1977 by Ralph Shikes, a successful medical-sciences publisher whose interest in politics and art led to his stewardship of The Washington Spectator and the publication of The Indignant Eye (Beacon Press, 1969) and (with Paula Harper) Pissarro, His Life and Work (Horizon, 1980).

Shikes folded The Washington Spectator into the Public Concern Foundation and assumed the position of publisher, joining the newsletter’s editor Tristram Coffin, an Indiana-bred radio and print reporter who had worked for Drew Pearson and covered the White House and Capitol Hill for CBS and ABC. Editorial Board members included Gloria Emerson, a New York Times war correspondent and author of Winners and Losers, which earned the National Book Award for Nonfiction; author (and Hoosier) Kurt Vonnegut; and Alden Whitman, also a Timesreporter who was best known for making an art of obituary writing.

Over time, Shikes assembled a Board of Directors for the Foundation culled from his friends and political luminaries. These included his wife Ruth Shikes, who for many years served as an indispensable copy editor at the Spectator; William Winpisinger, President of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers; F. Palmer Weber, a member of FDR’s Brain Trust, a regional director of the Henry Wallace 1948 campaign, and the first white director to be elected to the National Board of the NAACP; Daniel Melcher, formerly the President of the R.R. Bowker publishing company, where he developed the essential book-trade reference tools Books in Print and the now-prevalent International Standard Book Number (ISBN); the legendary political consultant and liberal fundraiser Roger Craver, founder of Craver, Matthews and Smith; Leonard and Rhoda Dreyfus, independent investors and civil liberties activists; and Hamilton Fish, then Publisher of The Nation magazine and producer of the Academy Award–winning documentary Hotel Terminus.

Ham Fish & Ben A. Franklin

The final chapter of the Shikes era at PCF concluded with his death in 1992, and Ham Fish succeeded him as President of the Foundation. Fish appointed Phillip Frazer, a former editor of the Multinational Monitor and an experienced publishing entrepreneur, as the newsletter’s new publisher. The transitions of this period continued a year later with the retirement of longtime editor Tristram Coffin and the appointment of his successor, Ben A. Franklin.

Ben Franklin had worked as reporter at The New York Times for more than thirty years. He was the paper’s first mid-Atlantic correspondent, and brought national attention to the hardships and health hazards faced by mine workers through his coverage of Appalachia. He quietly assumed the reins of the newsletter, and gradually his sharp, deeply principled and unsentimental commentary on the Washington merry-go-round became the new voice of the Spectator.

Beginning in 1996, the Public Concern Foundation and the Nation Institute began jointly sponsoring a wide range of public programs on political and social themes. Several of these events were broadcast nationally on C-Span from the Ethical Culture Society’s auditorium in Manhattan, including memorable public conversations involving Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Seymour Hersh, Polk Award winner Jeremy Scahill, and Naomi Klein, author of the international bestseller Shock Doctrine.

Ralph Shikes Journalism Fellowships

PCF next added the administration of the Ralph Shikes Journalism Fellowships to its growing roster of projects. Over time, the roster of Fellows has included Robert Borosage, the founder and president of the Institute for America’s Future and co-director of its sister organization, the Campaign for America’s Future; William Grieder, the former Washington Post reporter and author of numerous books, including Secrets of the Temple, Fortress America, and the Soul of Capitalism; Ari Berman, contributing writer for The Nation and author of Herding Donkeys; and Sherle Schwenninger, director of the New America Foundation’s economic Growth and American Strategy programs.

In 2000, Philip Frazer left to become the Publisher and Co-Editor of the Hightower Lowdown, and was succeeded by then Associate Publisher Kevin Walter as the Spectator‘s new Publisher. Walter brought special expertise in circulation management and promotion to the position and enabled the print newsletter to prosper in the digital age.

Ben Franklin stepped down from the editor’s job in 2005 for health reasons and passed away a year later. In his farewell published in the Spectator on January 1, 2006, Fish recalled Franklin’s appearance before the Spectator‘s editorial search committee in 1993:

Our committee had interviewed half a dozen talented D.C. journalists, and we were parsing the slight variations in each of the candidates. Ben was a late entry referred to one of our committee by an outside friend, and we met with him last. Then in his mid-sixties, Ben was tall and strong with an avuncular presence. I don’t recall if he smoked his pipe or a cigarette on that occasion; if not, it was the only time in the subsequent dozen years of our acquaintance that he didn’t. His answers to our well-worn questions were unhurried. He gave little sense of his aspiration, and offered modest observations on the issues of the day and the potential of the newsletter. I cannot recall a less self-aggrandizing performance from a job applicant, and after he left, everyone in the room knew we had met our next editor.

Lou Dubose

Seeking to appoint Franklin’s successor, Fish approached the legendary Texas journalist and author Lou Dubose to sound out his possible interest in the Spectator position. Dubose was based in Austin, and the parade of Texas politicians that made the leap to the national stage from 1999 forward had provided Lou with a journalistic bonanza. He and Molly Ivins profiled the short but happy political life of George Bush in the bestselling Shrub: The Short but Happy Political Life of George W. Bush, the book they did together for Random House. They teamed up again to produce another bestseller with Bushwhacked: Life in George W. Bush’s America. Thankfully, he agreed to become only the third editor in the Spectator‘s history.

Dubose had covered the excesses of House Speaker Tom DeLay for many years, and the downfall of the heavy-handed Texas congressman and former pest-control entrepreneur is widely attributed to Lou’s reporting. In 2004, he published The Hammer: Tom DeLay, God, Money and the Rise of the Republican Congress. Dubose covered DeLay’s felony trial for the Spectator in the fall of 2011, and no one in that Texas courtroom the day DeLay was convicted could better testify to the value of dogged investigative reporting in the fight against political cronyism and corruption.

The PCF Board

The board evolved during this period with the additions of Pamela Newkirk, the NYU Journalism professor and author of Within the Veil: Black Journalists, White Media, the seminal study of race in the American newsroom; Jonathan Schell, author of numerous books, columns and articles, most notably The Fate of the Earth, which raised public awareness about the dangers of the nuclear arms race, and more than a dozen other titles including The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence and the Will of the People, and The Seventh Decade: The New Shape of Nuclear Danger; and Cynthia Brown, a journalist who covered Central and Latin America early in the Reagan years, and for many years the principal editor of reports from the field published by Human Rights Watch.

Also during this period, Rhoda and Leonard Dreyfus, and Ruth Shikes—three stalwart directors who had served the Foundation for decades, who helped shape its political independence and provided leadership and continuity in good times and bad—gradually withdrew from active membership and became emeritus members of the Board.

After nine years skillfully piloting the Spectator, Kevin Walter left in 2009 to establish a specialized circulation bureau at Mother Jones magazine. In the wake of Walter’s departure, Hamilton Fish took the Publisher’s reins and seasoned circulation expert Betty Russell signed on as Associate Publisher.

The Public Trust Project & new initiatives

In 2010, PCF undertook to help develop the Public Trust Project (PTP), led by Executive Director Alison Fairbrother. Based in Washington, D.C., PTP promotes the findings of independent scientists and advocates on behalf of public health, occupational safety, and environmental protection.

With funding from the Fertel Foundation and PCF, Fairbrother began publishing articles and op-ed pieces about the fragility of the menhaden population, a forage fish crucial to the ecological balance in the oceans. Her reporting on the issue and her coverage of the regulatory process led to increased scrutiny of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, the agency responsible for setting annual catch limits. In a resounding victory for environmental activists and the public, in the fall of 2011 the agency voted for the first time to cut the menhaden harvest—by 37 percent by 2013, compared with 2010 levels.

With the backing of the Board, Fish commissioned a relaunch of both the print version of the Spectator and washingtonspectator.org. To help envision the Spectator‘s new look on both fronts, Fish hired the firm Point Five Design, which specializes in coupling print and digital projects. In fall 2011, with both redesigns and new digital platforms beckoning, Emily Gordon, a longtime magazine and online editor, was hired to the new position of Digital Editor. The print redesign, unveiled with the December 1, 2011 issue, featured an inaugural drawing by the award-winning illustrator Edel Rodriguez; the website relaunch is planned for early 2012.