Watchdog Sues Tribune: accuses Courant of violating its written News Mission, by pressure to be nice to major advertisers

As promised, New Haven attorney Joseph Garrison has filed my wrongful termination lawsuit against The Courant, accusing the country’s oldest continuously published newspaper of violating its written News Mission, or what I call its ethics policy, when it fired me last month for refusing to “be nice” to major advertisers.

The suit was filed in Hartford Superior Court under the Connecticut free speech statute that protects workers from retribution for exercising their First Amendment rights in the workplace. It is the strongest free speech statute in the country.

This is the first time that the statute has been used to challenge a media company’s attempt to protect its advertisers from adverse publicity.

“This lawsuit is not only important to my client, it is vital to the people of Connecticut,” attorney Garrison said in a prepared statement.

The free speech statute, Garrison said, “is the very essence of being an American, having the right to speak out in the workplace, especially on issues vital to the public.”

“While the statute has been used by other workers who were punished for speaking out in the workplace, this is the first time a journalist has used it in Connecticut to contest his firing for acting on behalf of the public to protect the consumer, and at the same time keeping his own newspaper trustworthy,” Garrison said.

The suit was filed as the result of my being fired effective Aug. 14 after a series of incidents in which the new Courant management attempted to pressure me from writing negative columns about key advertisers. As The Courant’s first investigative consumer columnist, my job was to expose wrongdoing by companies and governmental entities. I was appointed the Watchdog columnist three years ago after serving as the paper’s business editor for 12 years. I had been with The Courant for a total of 40 years.

My last Watchdog column, which disclosed that the Connecticut Attorney General was investigating Sleepy’s based on complaints his office received that it had sold used mattresses as new, was not published as scheduled on Aug. 2. I was told on Aug. 3 that my position would be eliminated.

I launched my website – – and on Aug. 14 published my column on Sleepy’s, a key Courant advertiser and the largest mattress retailer in the country. The firm has denied selling used mattresses as new – including the one a customer complained was filled with bedbugs – and has threatened to sue me for libel.

My suit – which seeks both compensatory and punitive damages from The Courant and its parent Tribune Co., notes that The Courant adopted its “News Mission,” which is still operational and is listed on its website. The mission statement says, in part, that The Courant will cover news “with respect for all and favor to none.”

Despite that mission statement, Jeffrey Levine, the editor of content for both The Courant and Fox 61 TV, ordered me to alert him to any columns I wrote that might negatively reflect on a key advertiser. I was also given a list of the key advertisers – which includes the state of Connecticut. Levine said that any column that falls into that category would be scrutinized by him. At one point he told me that it would be my fault if the newspaper had to lay off reporters because of columns that angered an advertiser enough to cancel ads. Other journalists at The Courant were given similar orders this past fall – orders that no previous editor or publisher had ever given.

The suit also accuses the Courant of giving numerous and false reasons for my departure.

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22 Comments on "Watchdog Sues Tribune: accuses Courant of violating its written News Mission, by pressure to be nice to major advertisers"

  1. Connie and Don Reder | September 29, 2009 at 1:27 pm |

    Go get ’em, George!

  2. Go get ’em George. Joe Garrison is a GREAT employment lawyer and your case is VERY clear. To all the nay sayers: sit back and enjoy the show. My only regret is that I can’t be in the room when Graziano and company are being deposed! I hope they wear loose collars that day!

  3. I think George has a heck of a case against the Courant. To tell one of your employees to be nice to a company who has wronged consumers is just plain WRONG.
    As other have said – Go get ’em, george. I hope you mop up the floor with them.

  4. George, You also received a cascade of support from folks responding to my FaceBook posting on this.
    Good job by you

  5. the Courant has been a sinking ship for a long time…
    each week the paper began covering less and less local news and more AP coverage…
    they let a lot of reporters and photographers go so no one was home to watch the barn…now it just stinks of cow poop!
    the only good articles came from articles like yours…
    Hope you win big …will be following your web site from now on…
    Too bad it once was a great paper before disinterested corporate heads took over

    • Read w/ interest your account of what has transpired between you and the Courant. What has become of the Courant is a tragedy. We have currently suspended our subscription, evaluating what better news sources are available. All the best in your new venture here, which we will be following w/ interest.

    • Good luck, George. You have helped so many people, including me with a faulty meter from C, L & P. I appreciate what you do and your honesty. That the Courant is associated with Fox News says ;it all.

  6. Betty Somers | October 4, 2009 at 7:10 pm |

    If only the Wall Street Journal would publish the comics, we wouldn’t have to get the Courant! My husband can’t do without the “funnies” in the morning. I read the WSJ. Good luck George, I know you will win this one!!

  7. Greg – what a cop out. I guess you chose the “shut up” option of the “put up or …. gambit”. Just goes to show that talk is cheap – even cheaper in this electronic age when anyone with a computer can get on the thread.

  8. George:

    I am glad to hear you are taking on the Courant and the Tribune folks for not allowing you to publish your article on Sleepys – the rip offs.

    Keep it up.

  9. I have been a columnist for more than 35 years. I wrote the Dear George column for the J.I.
    Some years back, in my TV show I interviewed a reporter abut his book “Spiked.”He said damaging things about the Courant.
    Dennis Shane(spelling) contacted my editor at the J.I.(had nothing to do with my TV show, and admantly said that I could not nterview this reporter because it would be damaging to the Courant.
    Of course, the J.I. did not have anything to do with my TV show. Shane then called my prgram managerat the TV station and he said,”We are using it and that is that.” We did but Dennis said that the Courant could sue us.
    Nothing happened. The Courant is very strong and has power to do what it wants. I don’t think you can win a case against the Courant.Cynthia Bercowetz.

  10. When George wins this one (we all win). I am just a consumer like anyone else and in my humble opinion I find it very entertaining that the statement issued by the Courant was not even signed by a person!!
    Hiding behind the newspapers name is to me like an admission of guilt.
    I understand that if it were me, I wouldn’t sign my name to such a stupid statement either.I wish there was a donate now button for the lawyer fees. I know in my heart of hearts The Courant has already lost this one. As a consumer, reader, advertiser I am happy to move on. The Courant just lost the best anchor they had, that ship has not sailed, that ship sank!
    You getem George! I’m just happy Hartford has kept its watchdog.
    People that make statements like (Greg) always end up in the doghouse, wheres his following?

    • George Gombossy | October 5, 2009 at 7:32 am |

      We actually have a donate button on the top of the site. And all donations are appreciated. The Dog.

  11. M. Mirabella | October 4, 2009 at 11:33 pm |

    George, I miss the Watchdog column big time! But, I had a feeling you had not left the Courant voluntarily when you mentioned in the column that you were leaving the Courant.

    All I recall is how supportive you were when I wrote to you about a large utility company. There’s no one now at the Courant fighting for the “little guy.” Where’s Michael Moore when you need him?!

    I am pleased you are suing the Courant for wrongful termination and wish you every success with the outcome. Despite what Greg said, I believe you have a good chance of winning, as a lawyer would not have bothered taking your case. I will be keeping an eye on the news, as I am sure the Courant will not report one “peep” about the progress of your legal action. And, Connie, you are SO right – the Courant is nothing like the paper it once was. (Sigh.)

    All my best to you, George. I would luv, luv, luv to see you get your column back! Maybe you can take it to another news outlet or how about doing the same gig on TV rather than print media?

  12. margaret brantley | October 5, 2009 at 8:58 am |

    George, George,George,
    I missed this whole thing.(Been working 2 F/T jobs:() The proverbial shoe is on the other foot. I’m sitting here thinking what can we do for George??
    The Courant was a fair paper, “back in the day” but damn, who’s running that place? They are part of the problem, you had to go. You worked for people that we complained about, to you. As you live, so shall you die($).
    They ran a contest the day I e-mailed you, a CONTEST. When they rejected my caption, they said I had “complained enough that day”. What the HELL was that about!!!! Complained??? It was a contest!!!
    Anyway George, KICK THEIR BUTT’S, for all of US!

    P.S. WHO’S GONNA SAVE US NOW??????????:(

  13. Joanne Temple | October 5, 2009 at 11:19 am |

    You were the only part of the Courant woth reading – and you’ve helped countless people – I hope you win big enough and make the Courant suffer at the same time!

  14. Judy Thompson | October 5, 2009 at 11:40 am |

    Big companies are like politicians, They think they are exempt form laws that the “common” people must live by. Morals is the big thing they both lack, how sad is our world getting.

  15. Sheri Martinez | October 6, 2009 at 7:27 pm |

    Good Luck George!!

    You were there to help me when the credit card companies weren’t playing nice with deployed soldiers. Your voice was the only thing that made them behave. The Courant is making a horrible mistake and I hope that the Readers realize this and punish accordingly. Who will the Advertisers market to if there are no readers??


  16. Just one more great reason to cancel my Hartford Courant subscription. I thought the news was supposed to be non-biased and truthful. The Hartford Courant once again is showing its true colors. Good luck to you George on the suit and I am looking forward to following your ongoing endeavors on protecting us consumers.

  17. Susan Schaeffer | October 13, 2009 at 9:51 am |

    Good for you George! Nice to see that there are still a few good people out there who can’t be bought! Contrary to the way so many people operate it isn’t, and shouldn’t, always be about the money. You are my new hero!….and I only have a couple. Good luck. (I gave up on the Hartford Courant when they were the absolute last newapaper to finally, and obviously reluctantly, report on Governor Rowland’s reprehensible behavior. Even tiny college newspapers had long exposes but not a peep from the Courant. Talk about useless!…and cowardly! The Courant is a joke of a newspaper and I have refused to buy it ever since. Many thanks for being a warrior!

  18. I found your blog on google and read a few of your other posts. I just added you to my Google News Reader. Keep up the good work. Look forward to reading more from you in the future.

  19. George–

    Back in he early 90s when I was in J-school, I learned all about the long and proud history of The Hartford Courant. In 1997, when we first moved to this fair state, I was excited to be able to read this paper on a daily basis. What a thrill!

    Fast forward to today. I am a working journalist, News Editor at a large not-for-profit member-driven national association. I have seen the Courant slide downhill fast. Your story concerning this once-venerable institution’s actions (and I say this without knowing both sides, just what you have presented here) leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

    From working at local papers in Connecticut to where I am today, I have *always* stressed — to myself, to my co-workers, to my management, to my readers — the line that separates editorial and advertising. In my not-so-humble opinion, these are two fields that never should meet — my integrity, as well as my publication’s, is at stake. On local papers, I have refused to write “advertorials,” as seeing them mesh these two together. Have I been chastened for it? Yes. Was I fired for not doing them? No (I was fired for being a Republican, but that’s a different story).

    Good luck to you in your suit. I will be watching this closely (and purchasing my new mattress set somewhere other than Sleepy’s).

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