For those of you concerned about the increasing role of advertising in editorial decisions, especially in the wake of the Dallas Morning News placing content production under the direct control of advertising managers, comes this supposedly chilling little tale. Apparently, a writer, Bob Berwyn, for the Summit Daily News in Colorado had the audacity to suggest that the ski industry would exagerate snowfall amounts to benefit their business. Well, duh. That gets the “stating the obvious” award for the week. It’s like saying politicians lie; not exactly ground-breaking news and something that everyone already knows. Well, not surprisingly, some major ski resorts took issue with that and, predictably, threatened to pull a sizable amount of advertising from the paper. To the point, shortly thereafter, the writer was canned. That’s where things get interesting.
A writer for the Denver Post, Susan Greene, yesterday posted a story about the firing, characterizing it in pretty blunt terms that Berwyn was fired simply because he had criticized a major advertiser. It goes on to state that Summit Daily News publisher Jim Morgan told Berwyn that he had “a lot of groveling to do.” Then things erupted online. In numerous places, I saw vicious condemnations of the paper, and many more cries about the overboard control that advertising interests have over content within the industry. I’m in complete agreement with that, if that is indeed what happened here. But, as with most things, what seems obvious isn’t necessarily so.
Today, Morgan shot back with his own article in the Summit Daily News, responding to the criticism from Greene. In it, Morgan refutes the claim that Berwyn was fired for the article or the resulting flap, insisting that the dismissal was for a more ominous-sounding (and conveniently secret) pattern of activities documented over time in personnel reviews. Morgan’s point was essentially that Greene and Berwyn are full of it but he’s not allowed to tell you why. As unsatisfying as that is (and it is pretty unsatisfying) if, in fact, there are a pattern of issues that came to head, it’s also likely true that he can’t talk about it.
So what is the truth here? Who amongst these people are playing straight and who isn’t? I suspect no one involved is completely above reproach. There likely was a documented history of unnamed issues. But that can also be a cop out. Documented bad reviews is often the last refuge for paper pushers to get back at people they don’t like, for whatever reason. Over a number of years, it’s frighteningly easy for a manager to compile a list of “offenses” that can make virtually any employee appear a problem, and justify any firing or other discipline. And because of secrecy laws in HR issues, they are required by law to keep those issues private. There’s a lot of abuse in those procedures. But there’s also many cases where it’s completely justified. In this case, no one really knows but the principles involved within the company and none of them can talk specifics. To me, however, the fact that the article in question still appears on the Summit Daily News website supports Morgan’s claim that it wasn’t the reason for the firing.
I also suspect that a likely disgruntled Berwyn (and who wouldn’t be disgruntled after getting fired?) used Greene to take a parting shot at Morgan and his former employer. After all, he would know that the company couldn’t legally reveal any personnel issues, if any, that actually led to the firing. It’s very easy to make the claim that he was fired for the article, true or not, knowing that Morgan can’t legally set the record straight. I think it’s probably unlikely that the article itself was the grounds for dismissal. More likely, it was Berwyn’s unwillingness to “grovel” to the advertiser after the fact that was a contributor to his demise. The timing of this is simply too close for the issue to have not been a factor at all, as Morgan claims. But it could very well have been the proverbial last straw. That doesn’t make it right, just understandable.
Greene, on the other hand, may have been used by Berwyn, but she was more than willing to portray the issue in the best possible light to make a point about advertising intrusion on editorial autonomy. Why should the facts get in the way of a good story, after all? I’ve always taken the frustration of former employees with a grain of salt. They’re almost always slanted to make the fire-ee look like a victim and fire-er look like the villain, and frequently overlook issues that reflect poorly on their point of view. Greene has to know this, and , at the very least should have double- and triple checked Berwyn’s allegations before making the broad pronouncement that advertisers are setting the tone for the Summit Daily News.
It may be that Berwyn is completely upfront, and advertising pressure led directly to his getting the axe. It may also be that Morgan is completely correct that the issue played no role in the firing and that a previous pattern of conduct was responsible. We’ll never really know for certain. But I can say this; if the press can’t even cover itself with more professionalism than this, why is it that we should expect journalism to be beyond reproach when dealing with more serious issues?