Monday, January 9, 2012

The Sarasota Story: Outrage Heaped Upon Insult

Lives there a newsman who has never encountered pressure from the business side to "go easy" on an advertiser which becomes the subject of an unflattering news story?

In the old days, on the good newspapers and magazines, there were strong editors who stood between their reporters and the business side, maintaining a holy "separation of church and state" as one such editor memorably put it.

Now, employees of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Sarasota Herald Tribune are being ordered to sign a vile and insidious "non-solicitation, non-compete and confidentiality agreement" that not only signals the end of the superb enterprise reporting for which the paper was esteemed far beyond its geographic boundaries, but also deprives its editors and reporters of their professional personhood.

The New York Times Company recently sold the Herald Tribune, and its other regional newspapers, to an outfit called Halifax Media Group, which previously had only dabbled in media proprietorship. Presumably, Times not only knew what was coming, but assented to it, agreeing, for example, not to hire any Herald Trib reporters or editors in the lifeboat.

The "agreement" being imposed on the Sarasota employees makes all their notes, memos, and related intellectual assets the sole property of Halifax.  Consider:

The Herald Trib last year published a series of articles exposing criminality and fraud in the Florida insurance industry.  It won the paper and its reporter, Paige St. John*, the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting.  Now, suppose that project were still a work in progress.  And suppose one or more of the insurers involved were Herald Trib advertisers.  And suppose Halifax -- as one can perceive it would -- ordered the expose not to be printed.  If Ms. St. John and her editors were signatories to the Halifax document, they should, and probably would, resign in protest, but would have to leave behind, in Halifax's basement limbo, their mountains of material for the stories, which of course would never see the light of day.

Under terms of the Halifax "agreement," none of them could work for two years in any media that sell advertising or distribute information in places where Halifax has business interests.  Some of them might find journalism jobs in Latvia or Bangladesh, but even there they couldn't publish what they knew about a story that won America's highest journalism award for serving the public interest.

A majority of Americans, according to Gallup, already distrusts media "strongly" or totally.   With outfits like Halifax taking over one of the dwindling number of exceptions to the taint that leads to such distrust, those poll numbers can only continue to rise rapidly. The likelihood that Times executives knew damned well what was in store for the regionals they sold down the river only compounds the shame.

In addition to the odious "non-solicitation &c." document, Halifax has established draconian new work rules including a reduction in vacation time, on the 16 regional newspapers formerly owned by the Times.

The violation of the personal dignity of a few outstanding journalists is in my opinion criminal; even though the Herald Trib isn't a union shop, its workers are still covered by certain labor laws and regulations.  Fighting to defend themselves will require the Herald Trib employees to organize, hire a good lawyer and resist.  Risky business, and very expensive, especially in these harsh economic times for all Americans except plutocrats like the Halifax ownership.  (The company's foundation is in hedge fund management!) As someone who once sought to litigate against corporate newspaper ownership, I know the odds of taking on their batteries of lawyers with their encyclopedic arsenal of diversions, delays and fancy footwork that militate against individuals or small groups in courts of law. An expert in labor law called the Halifax actions "outrageous" and "offensive" -- but probably "enforceable" in anti-labor Florida.

For me and many others who served much of their working lifetime in the cause of good journalism, this latest example of corporatocratic villainy is especially painful.  That it's a relatively small part of the strangulation of democracy for the sake of profit in all of the United States doesn't mitigate the pain.

Like the public employees of Wisconsin, and the union workers of Indiana, the journalists of Sarasota need allies.  The war Reagan launched against the American worker has gone too far.

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(*) Paige St. John is my daughter-in-law.

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