Monday, March 29, 2010

Gutless GateHouse puts bottom line ahead of public service

The main argument for having a Shield Law to protect reporters has always been to protect the free flow of information.

If reporters are subject to harassment from vindictive or lazy prosecutors attempting them to reveal their sources it lessens the probability that those sources will feel comfortable talking to reporters. All it takes is a handful of reporters who refuse to go to jail to protect their sources and no one will ever again come forward to provide information on corruption or ongoing crime investigations.

That makes for a compelling case for a Shield Law, but it is becoming more and more evident that the main reason such a law is vital is to protect reporters from those who may be their biggest enemies...the gutless penny-pinchers who pay their salaries.

Take the case of Claire O'Brien, who until earlier this month was a reporter for the Dodge City Daily Globe. Ms. O'Brien refused to give up her source and that eventually led to her firing by the Globe's owners, the good folks at GateHouse Media, who, of course, refuse to give a reason for the firing, saying only that it falls under that all-purpose escape valve- "it's a personnel matter."

According to The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press:

Reporter Claire O’Brien was terminated last week from her position at the Dodge City Daily Globe after a subpoena battle last month that ended when a criminal defendant accepted a plea deal. County prosecutors had been seeking testimony about O’Brien’s interview with the defendant and the identity of a source she quoted in her story about the case.

The company that owns the Globe, GateHouse Media, and O’Brien appealed the subpoena up to the Kansas Supreme Court and lost. After O’Brien was held in contempt for failing to appear in court, which she said today was “a stupid mistake,” the confidential source revealed his identity to the prosecutors, which allowed her to not testify about him in a private court proceeding known as an inquisition.

When Ms. O'Brien returned from a leave of absence necessitated by the ongoing legal battle, she found that all of the locks had been changed (and she was not given a key) and that the order had been given to arrest her if she showed up at the newspaper building over the weekend."

In its article, Reporters Committee Executive Director Lucy Dalglish commented that Ms. O'Brien's dismissal from the Globe was "unusual."

You would think that someone who is the head of such an organization would have a clue as to what is happening across the United States. When I heard about the way Ms. O'Brien was treated, it reminded me of my unexpected departure from the newspaper business in 1999. In the summer of 1998, Terry Reed, author of the anti-Clinton book Compromised: Clinton, Bush and the CIA,sued me for libel, asking for $750 million from me and $750 million from The Carthage Press. This was not even a case of protecting sources. On May 17, 1999, the day the judge dismissed the case against me, noting that my column was constitutionally protected opinion, I was fired.

The company that fired me was Liberty Group Publishing, the same company that now calls itself GateHouse Media.

I am curious as to how many GateHouse editorial department employees survived after they become involved in legal action.

Of course, my situation has nothing to do with the Shield Law and it would not have helped me. We still live in a society where anyone can sue over anything. But perhaps a Shield Law can protect reporters from bosses like those at GateHouse Media, who have no trouble putting the bottom line ahead of public service.

GateHouse Media is the largest owner of small community newspapers in the United States, publishing more than 300 of them. If reporters in 300+ communities know that their bosses are not going to back them all the way when they attempt to expose corruption and provide readers with information they need to know, then we eventually will no longer receive that kind of reporting.

In part because of the opinion column I wrote in 1998, plans to establish a survivalist compound three miles from Carthage were thwarted (that information was in the court records). I have absolutely no regrets about writing that column and would write it again in a heartbeat.

Would Claire O'Brien have taken the same stance if she knew she would lose her job over it? From what i have read, I have every reason to believe she would have.

Claire O'Brien has integrity, a quality sadly lacking in her former bosses at GateHouse Media.


Another note: a few days after Claire O'Brien was fired by GateHouse Media, she received four awards from the Kansas City Press Association, including a first place for best news story for the story that got her fired.


Art Morris said...

Sadly, this is what happens when lawyers and accountants run the world.

Anonymous said...

Another Gloria triumph! Someone needs to ask Gloria why one of her key players in Dodge City was released by Liberty and then rehired by her when she took over at Gatehouse?

Anonymous said...

The reporters in those 300+ community newspapers won't know their bosses are not going to back near as I can tell, the constant turnover will keep them from knowing. Of course, that constant turnover means the communities are not well informed, but what the hell, as long as they make a profit. Oops, it's beginning to look like the profits are drying up too as they start dropping publication days and the citizens of the communities continue become even less informed.
Jim F.

Anonymous said...

And they've already advertised to fill the position too -

This ad was published March 25.