The managers at the nation’s oldest newspaper of continuing circulation and its sister television station in Hartford are being accused by me and a television personality of trading in journalistic ethics in the past year for more revenue to counter the recession.
In my case I was fired Aug. 3 – after a 40-year stellar career at The Courant – as the newspaper’s first investigative consumer columnist, for refusing to “be nice” to its key advertisers.
In the case of Fox 61/WTIC-TV reporter and personality Shelly Sindland, she filed formal complaints in July with the state accusing the station of – among other things – selling news.
In this column I will disclose for the first time the complete list of key advertisers I was to be nice with. I was directed by The Courant’s top management to write nothing negative about them in my columns or blogs, nor approve of any reader negative comment, without first giving top management a chance to censor and potentially kill the offending item. The list – which includes state agencies – applies to all Courant reporters and columnists.
My Aug. 2 column disclosing a state investigation into allegations that the nation’s largest mattress retailer was selling used mattresses as new, one filled with bedbugs, was killed without explanation. I was fired the day after.
Sindland has received wide media attention for her very specific allegations of sex and age discrimination as well as specifics about how her TV station – where she still works – had a locker room atmosphere that was approved at the top. She claimed that young sexy reporters and anchors were showcased instead of “older” women like herself.
However, her written claims to the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities about selling news have been overlooked by most mainstream media, which focused on the more titillating aspects. In this column I will detail all the facts that are on the record.
Tribune officials have denied Sindland’s and my overall allegations, but have so far declined to discuss specific issues.
Courant/Fox 61 Publisher Rich Graziano was quoted in the New York Times as dismissing my complaints as those of a disgruntled employee. I guess he had not had a chance to see my personnel file, where there is not one negative word about me or my attitude and which shows that every year I received top raises. One year I was given a special raise to stay at the paper and turn down inquiries from a headhunter.
Since the New York Times article appeared on Aug. 18, top managers at Tribune and The Courant have apparently been told by their lawyers to stop making comments, especially ones that are false.
Underneath it all, there areÂ far more serious allegations that everyone in Connecticut, and throughout the country, needs to be concerned about.
As the recession is hitting media revenues hard, marketing and salespeople are taking over the leadership of many newspapers and television stations. In some cases they have little appreciation of the constitutional role the media have to keep the public informed. Journalistic ethics come second to revenues.
It is especially troubling in central Connecticut where The Courant, with 130 outstanding news employees still left, is the main collector of news that the rest of the state’s newspapers, radio stations and television stations depend on.
In our case, Tribune decided this year to combine the operations of the newspaper and its sister station, Fox 61/WTIC, under one manager, Graziano, who then hired Jeff Levine, a marketing executive, to run the news operations of both. A television station is now being built inside The Courant, where at the end of the year the two entities will become one.
If Graziano and Levine were ethical journalists, this would not be a problem in my opinion. Combining the two would create great synergies that could save both from extinction.
Courts and public opinion will get a chance to decide who is telling the truth, but I will present all the facts I have available – including the list of prime advertisers The Courant gave me so that I would know to ring the alarm bell at Levine’s office in case I even considered writingÂ one negative word about them. Other Courant reporters and columnists have received similar orders recently.
At the television station, 40-year-oldÂ veteran journalist Sindland filed her written complaint in early July. She made repeated references in her complaint to “ethical violations related to receiving payment for news stories.”
Her complaint states that as early as February she told management of her concerns that the station was improperly getting paid for airing news stories.
She said that in mid-May she went to her company’s personnel department “regarding my concerns that the respondent (Fox 61) was committing ethical violations related to receiving payment for news stories.”
She said she was told that if her allegations were investigated by the company it would “only make matters worse” and could lead to Sindland’s losing her job.
Her complaint does not provide any further details about her allegations.
However, I believe that some television newscasters were given special instructions on how to interview key advertisers and how to present their stories.
I called Sindland Friday and asked her to provide the public with more specifics of her claims. She declined, citing her attorney’s instructions.
Thankfully, my lawyer is more flexible and has no trouble with my laying out my case.
I don’t need to repeat all the allegations – they are available here.
So that people can better understand the issues, I am making public the list of key advertisers The Courant management gave me with instructions that before I wrote any negative column or blog item or approved a reader comment about one of these companies or entities, it would have to be approved by the highest editor. Prior to that order, my columns were read by one editor and went in the paper pretty much as I wrote them, and none of my blogs or reader comments needed censoring from anyone.
You will notice that the state of Connecticut – the government of Connecticut – as well as other public institutions are included in this list. Following the list I will add a couple of pertinent internal e-mails that shed light on this issue.
TOP MAJORS/CLASSIFIED ADVERTISERS
CURRENT YEAR FROM 01/01/09 – 06/30/09
STOP & SHOP
PRICE CHOPPER FOODS
RITE AID PHARMACY
SEARS ROEBUCK & CO
KOHL’S DEPARTMENT ST
C V S
OCEAN STATE JOB LOT
WAKEFERN FOOD CORP
WALGREENS CO VENDOR
ST FRANCIS HOSPITAL
Dicks Sporting Goods
MICHAEL’S ARTS CRAFT
T J X CORPORATION
BUSHNELL MEMORIAL HA
STATE OF CONNECTICUT
NASSAU CARRIAGE HOUS
JO ANN STORES
MOHEGAN SUN RESORT
RAYMOUR & FLANIGAN
ST OF CT UCONN HLTH
TOWN FAIR TIRE CENTE
CABELA’S MARKETING &
HARTFORD STAGE CO
LA Z BOY RETAIL
TOYS R US INC
A T & T
PEOPLES’S UNITED BAN
NEW ALLIANCE BANK
HARTE NISSAN INC
STEPHEN AUTOMALL CEN
VALENTI AUTO GROUP
GROSSMAN CHEV. NISSAN, GEO
BILL SELIG FORD
PRUDENTIAL CT REALTY
METRO REALTY GROUP
TOLL BROTHERS INC
PULTE HOME CORP.
CAMBRIDGE MGMT CO.
ASPEN WOODS/HAMDENDE/GARDEN HOMES
WHITE OAK DEVELOPMENT, LLC
STEPHEN AUTOMALL CEN
ARG RE/DEVELOPMENT LLC
MILLER REAL ESTATE
PARK PLACE TOWERS
SENTRY REAL ESTATE
PRUDENTIAL CT REALTY
WILLIAMS REALTY SERVICES
GINSBURG DEVELOPMENT COMPANY L
From: Gombossy, George
Sent: Friday, July 10, 2009 3:32 PM
To: Hazell, Naedine
Cc: Delucia, Lynne; Haar, Dan
Subject: Re: TOP ADVERTISERS JAN-JUN 2009.xls
This of course will present challenges since even the state of ct is a top advertiser
Sent from my iPhone
From: Hazell, Naedine
Sent: Sunday, July 12, 2009 11:28 AM
To: Gombossy, George
Cc: Levine, Jeffrey S; Delucia, Lynne
Obviously, weâ€™re treating this blog differently than others in that it seems many of the posts will need to be reviewed by an editor first, including reader commentsâ€¦We donâ€™t currently have a procedure for this.
Itâ€™s worth holding off on posts until we can talk and clarify the blogâ€™s roll going forward or if we want to try a different format.
<TOP MAJORS-CLASSIFIED ADVERTISERS JAN-JUN 2009.xls>
Sent: Sunday, August 02, 2009 11:42 AM
To:Â Hazell, Naedine
Subject: RE: 100 comments waiting for publishing on CTWachdog
After spending several days reflecting on both my memory of the last
meeting between yourself, Lynne, Jeff, and me, conversations prior and
after that meeting, as well as checking notes I took during the meeting,
and immediately after, I agree that we have much different takes on what
was said as well as what was agreed on during that 40 minute session.
There is no question in my mind that Jeff raised the issues of whether
my column/blog will continue and whether I would be the one doing them.
Also there was no discussion about me writing â€œgotchaâ€ columns or
stories, nor was there any agreement or directive on which comments
would be allowed to be posted.
The conversation began with Jeff telling me that I made a mistake in the
handling of the Price Chopper blog item and that Price Chopper said that
as the result it was cancelling a proposed $100,000 ad campaign with us.
My credibility with the publisher is now in serious doubt, Jeff said.
After further discussion about the issue of my credibility with the
publisher, the Price Chopper blog, and my instructions from my previous
managers on how I should conduct myself, I raised the question of what
Jeff wanted to do about comments readers want posted in response to blog
Neither Jeff nor Lynne were clear on the process by which comments were
posted on blogs. After you and I explained that with blogs, unlike
columns and stories that appear on our Internet site, all comments must
be approved by the blogger before they can post.
Jeff abruptly ended the meeting at 2:40 by stating that he would
consider what was said and would decide whether to continue the column
and the blog, what form they would take, and who would write them.
I then asked whether he wanted me to continue blogging until he made
those decisions. He said yes as long as I followed the same rules on my
blog items as he set for my column. To further clarify, I asked if that
could include press releases from governmental agencies involved in
consumer protection issues (since they only reflect the view of the
agency), and I was told I could.
The meeting ended then, with Lynne and I leaving and you staying behind.
Just like it is very easy for me to remember that my employment is
threatened, I certainly would remember if I were told that my work was
shoddy journalism by the top editor of the newspaper/TV.
I can assure you I would have had a lot to say if I were told of writing
unethical or cheap shot stories/columns.
You can look at 40 years of my personal file (including my last
evaluation just a few weeks ago) and you will not find one word on this
or any related subjects. In fact you will have to look long and hard to
find any criticism of my work despite the fact that I have been a
journalist at The Courant longer than anyone else in the newsroom.
I have received more national and state journalist awards than any other
Courant staffer in the paperâ€™s history â€“ including the George Polk Award
for local reporting, American Bar Association Silver Gavel, SABEW Best
in Business columnist, several SABEWâ€™s Best Business business sections;
twice the Ted Driscoll investigative award, Aviation/Space Writers
Association Award for Excellence, and was part of the team that won The
Courant its first Pulitzer.
Nor has there been a conversation about changing the tone of my column
from an investigative consumer column: Not with you, not with Kevin, not
with Jeff and not with Lynne. If there had been, I am sure there would
have been follow up sessions and clear specific written instructions
would have been given to me. Neither Jeff, Lynne, or Kevin have
communicated any new instructions or information that conflicts with my
recollection of the meeting.
I understand clearly your present views on how comments on my blog
should be treated. If Jeff has made up his mind on this issue and agrees
with you, it has not been communicated to me directly or indirectly.
If that decision has been made, I think itâ€™s important for the editors
to tell readers what the new standards are for CtWatchdog blog comments
so they donâ€™t waste their time writing comments which will not be
published or keep looking on my blog and wondering why their comments
were not posted.
As far as the issue you raised about preferential treatment of prime
advertisers, I will probably have more to say on that topic after I
learn why my column on the Attorney General investigating Sleepyâ€™s was
not published, as scheduled, today. Never before had a Watchdog column
been held by an editor â€“ especially on a topic of great consumer
interest and importance.
After receiving this email, according to aÂ source, Courant and Tribune officials decided that they had to get rid of me and on Aug. 3 I was fired.
- Courant trying to salvage reputation by publishing Sleepy's investigation column
- NYTimes: Watchdog fired by Courant
- Courant Spin on Watchdog departure
- Courant finally publishes short story on Sleepy's, but leaves out damaging facts about its key advertiser
- Courant reader tells top brass to stop spinning
- Former Courant Watchdog details what led to his dismissal