By: ALLAN WOLPER
ERIC COMPTON, A former Newsday assistant sports editor, has received a cash settlement and withdrew his state discrimination suit against the newspaper.
Compton had rejected a series of cash offers early last June that were at least three times the $27,000 severance to which he was originally entitled.
The agreement between Compton and Newsday was finalized last month just before the two sides were starting a messy arbitration hearing involving alleged racism, sexism, and alleged corporate-inspired employee eavesdropping.
“I’m very happy it’s over,” said Compton, now a sports copy editor with the New York Post. “I want to put it all behind me.”
Elizabeth Drewry, vice president of employee, labor and public affairs for Newsday, read a statement on behalf of the newsaper:
“The parties have reached an amicable resolution of their differences and have agreed to make no further comment.”
The agreement ended 18 months of internal chaos that roiled the Newsday sports department, and generated debates in sports newsrooms around New York City.
But the emotional debate that at one point flared into a 15-person panel discussion at a National Association of Black Journalists convention last year has yet to receive any significant press coverage in New York City.
The only mention of the dispute was a brief item in the Village Voice, the city’s major alternative weekly newspaper.
How it began
Compton was fired in February 1995 after a Newsday sports copy editor wrote an anonymous note to Steve Ruinsky, the sports editor, alleging that Compton had taunted an American-Indian student intern.
The note writer said Compton had suggested that one of his colleagues, Norm Cohen, wear his Chicago Black Hawks jersey to the office to ridicule the young journalist.
Newsday fired Compton, told him he would not receive any severance money and tried to prevent him from receiving unemployment benefits.
The newspaper offered as evidence at the New York State Unemployment Insurance Appeal Board hearing the anonymous note written to Ruinsky, but refused to identify the author of the note or call that person as a witness.
Several Newsday sports editors, including Cohen, testified against the newspaper, saying that Compton never made the remarks attributed to him.
Afterwards, the state board judge ruled Newsday had not offered any “credible evidence” to support its charges and awarded Compton his unemployment benefits.
The case dragged on for more than a year as Newsday sports employees tried to learn who had written the anonymous note that got Compton fired.
“The people in sports figured that if it happened to me, it could happen to anyone,” Compton said in several interviews prior to the settlement.
Newsday officials at one point acknowledged to E&P that the note had been written by one of two women who worked in sports, Jill Agostino, or Nancy Anderson.
Anderson acknowledged her authorship late last spring when it became apparent that Compton’s lawyers were planning to call her to testify at the arbitration hearing.
Agostino, who now is a sports copy editor at the New York Times, and Anderson, who was transferred to the national desk of Newsday, declined to be interviewed for this article.
Newsday officials said they kept Anderson’s identity a secret to protect her from repercussions, a contention that has drawn derisive laughter from observers of the newspaper’s sports section.
“Those guys are some of the smartest people in the business,” said a source. “They weren’t going to hurt anyone. Besides, they’re just a bunch of overweight couch potatoes.”
The Compton firing renewed a long, smoldering racial dispute that has bedeviled the Newsday sports department for more than a decade.
African-American and white writers say the sports department has long been a haven for off-color, ethnic, religious and sexist jokes.
But many of those jokes offended the African Americans and women who worked there, even though the disputes were kept under wraps.
“It was just an uncomfortable atmosphere for the few blacks and women,” said David Steele, a New York professional basketball writer who left Newsday last year for a job on the West Coast. “People would get on black writers, but no one would say anything about white writers.”
But white newsroom staffers insisted that the Newsday sports department was insensitive indiscriminately. “We made fun of everyone,” said one editor. “No one was spared, including Russian hockey players.”
Still, the editors in charge of the Newsday Minority Training Program, known as METRO, refused for six years to assign any women or minorities to the sports department.
John McKinn, the American Indian that Anderson said was the alleged butt of several insensitive sports department jokes, was the first minority trainee in the sports department.
But some sports staffers said Newsday was concerned with the sports department’s negative racial and sexual image that it passed over qualified white writers to hire blacks and women.
That perception was so strong that Jim Toedtman, the sports editor in 1993, had to call a meeting to mollify the white male editors and writers.
Newsday officials say that Compton was at the center of some of that raucous behavior.
They said he had been suspended in December 1993 after he showed a woman news writer a
trading card of a black wrestler who he identified
as Les Payne, an assistant managing editor and
the highest-ranking African American on the newspaper.
“I didn’t take personal offense at the time,” Payne said in an interview. “But I thought that he was stereotyping an editor at Newsday to others in the sports department.”
But sports department colleagues of Compton pointed out that Compton had made up phony wrestling cards that also mocked two other white sports editors, neither of whom were offended by the cards.
“It was a typical Eric joke,” said one, noting that his humor had been honed by a column at the Daily News in which he was identified as “the Nose.”
?(Wolper, professor of journalism at the Newark campus of Rutgers University, reported on the Compton controversy in the May 20, 1995 and
June 10, 1995 editions of E&P) [Caption]
?(Eric Compton) [Photo]