By: Joe Strupp
More than two weeks after being fired by the Associated Press, in a move that still surprises or outrages most of his fellow journalists and remains unexplained, former Vermont bureau chief Christopher Graff says he is finally beginning to look for a new job.
“I am starting to try and find other work,” Graff told E&P Thursday. “It took two weeks for us to catch our collective breath. I am trying to see what is out there that I can do. I need a job. I have no preference, I am open.”
Graff’s comments come amid continued speculation over why he was dismissed on March 20 after 28 years in AP’s Vermont bureau, including more than 25 as bureau chief. Most insiders believe it had something to do with a column by Sen. Patrick Leahy about press freedom that Graff distributed earlier this year during Sunshine Week. Neither Graff nor AP officials have commented on the reason for his firing, although it has been revealed that the column was withdrawn from circulation at the direction of AP officials.
“Because of some legal negotiations, it is an area that I cannot comment on directly,” Graff said. When asked if he was negotiating a severance agreement with AP, as has been rumored, or contemplating legal action against the news organization, Graff said “it could be any or all of the above.”
“It is discussions in the early stages,” he said without offering specifics. “I was caught completely by surprise by the action so I am just trying to figure out what to do next. It is still pretty raw and pretty new. I still don’t have a sense of where this is going yet. My lawyer says that is the extent of what I can say.”
Since Graff’s dismissal, journalists and politicians throughout Vermont have expressed their opposition to the move, which they contend has removed one of Vermont’s best news sources and most competent journalists. At least one newspaper, the St. Alban’s Messenger, has formally requested that it be removed as an AP member in protest.
Recently, the ACLU of Vermont sent a letter to John Mitchell, an AP board member and publisher of the Rutland Herald and Times-Argus of Montpelier. The letter criticized the firing of Graff and suggested that AP appoint an ombudsman to review his firing and also similar issues for the news cooperative.
“If the AP does not have an ombudsman, I would urge you as an AP board member to advocate for the creation of such a position,” Allen Gilbert, executive director of the ACLU of Vermont and a former Herald reporter and editor, wrote in the letter. “Duties of this job should include the authority to investigate personnel actions that could result in the chilling of employee’s free speech rights as these rights relate to journalists’ professional ability to write and edit the news.”
AP spokesman Jack Stokes confirmed that the news organization does not have an ombudsman, but declined further comment on the letter. AP executive editor Kathleen Carroll could not immediately be reached for comment Thursday. Mitchell did not return calls seeking comment.
Graff said he had never considered the idea of an AP ombudsman, but said he could see why the ACLU and others in Vermont might push for one in the wake of his dismissal. “It is an interesting idea,” he told E&P. “When people wanted to register a complaint, they were sent to [AP] corporate communications. It was frustrating for people in Vermont that they don’t know how to reach the Associated Press. If something happened involving a local news organization, they might be able to send a letter to the editor.”
Although Graff acknowledges getting many inquires about potential jobs, he said no permanent opening has been forthcoming. “Just people saying, ‘give me a call’,” he told E&P. “So I am starting to give people calls. I view this as an opportunity. It is not an easy process. It is not easy to change.”
Aside from hosting his weekly Friday evening public television show, Graff said he has kept busy with attorney meetings and connections with colleagues, as well as a little skiing. “Trying to come to grips with what happened and the physical and emotional strain that follows that,” he said about why the past two weeks have been difficult. “It is hard to lose your job, especially at this age, and have the future be so uncertain.”
Still, he said the support from colleagues, residents and even politicians has made it less-difficult. He cited the joint letter to AP protesting his departure from Leahy, Sen. Jim Jeffords, Gov. Jim Douglas and Rep. Bernie Sanders, as among the most heart-warming responses. “If I could bring together a Democrat, an Independent, a Republican and a Socialist, maybe this is all for the good.”