By: M.L. Stein
Lesbian Journalist Sues Over Transfer p.
Case pits newspaper’s objectivity against reporter’s free speech can reporters be watchdogs and players?
A REPORTER WHO was transferred to the copy desk because of her political activism has accused her paper in a wrongful discharge suit of violating Washington State’s constitution and breaching her employment contract.
Sandra S. Nelson , 36, who works on the night copy desk of the Morning News Tribune in Tacoma, alleges that the transfer has damaged her career. She seeks her old job back and special damages for emotional distress and lost wages, although she is getting the same salary she did as a reporter.
Nelson’s complaint, filed with the assistance of the state office of the American Civil Liberties Union, says Washington state’s constitution protects free speech and the right to participate in ballot initiatives.
The suit in Superior Court names the paper’s parent company, McClatchy Newspapers Inc., as a co-defendant.
Managing editor Janet Brandt disputed the allegations and said the reporter’s activism went beyond simple participation. She said Nelson violated the paper’s ethics standard by becoming a “”highly visible coordinator”” of an open-housing initiative backed by a gay-rights organization and has acted as a media liaison for political and social causes.
“This is not about the lifestyle of an individual or being a political activist,”” Brandt stated. “”It’s abut journalistic ethics.””
Nelson, a prize-winning reporter with 12 years of experience, concedes that she took part in “”numerous”” political campaigns, including the defense of abortion clinics, gay and lesbian rights,”” socialist feminist activities”” and civil rights.
However, she denied having been a press spokeswoman for those movements said her role as “”communications coordinator”” involved contracting community organizations.
Nelson said she received “”excellent”” performance evaluations and regular raises until she was moved to the copy desk in September 1990. She also said she was hired under an employment contract that allowed her to be discharged or disciplined only for “”just cause,”” which was lacking in her case.
Nelson’s suit alleges that the News Tribune had no code of ethics in place at the time she was transferred and that other MNT employees have been politically involved without being disciplined.
Nobody at the paper accused her of slanting a story to conform to her personal beliefs, nelson said in an interview. As a reporter, she covered the education beat, which did not include abortion or gay rights, she stated.
“I consider this punitive,”” she said of the transfer. “”I wrote stories that were fair and balanced and, because of my activities and contracts, I brought a lot of dimension and perspective into pieces. Many reporters write one-source stories.””
Nelson said the “”lost wages”” section of the complaint refers to pay increases that she would have received has she remained a reporter.
“That’s debatable,”” Brandt reported.
The managing editor contended that a newspaper can have ethical standards without a written code, although such a code has been drafted by management and staff and will be submitted soon for the publisher’s approval.
Brandt said Nelson was among staff members who accepted the invitation to submit suggestions for the code.
With or without a code, Brandt maintained, “”It is the right of an editor to assign or reassign a reporter to protect the credibility of the newspaper.””
She said that after Nelson’s involvement in the housing measure, the issue had been discussed with her.
“Sandy had a choice,”” Brandt recalled. “”We asked her to choose between giving up her high-profile visibility as an activity or being reassigned…She chose the copy desk.””
As early as 1986, the editor said, Nelson was asked to refrain from political activities.
“This is a matter of public perception, “”Brandt declared. “”The public knows who you are and where you work. An activist reporter brings into question the newspaper’s ability to deliver a fair and unbiased report.
“The bottom line is that a reporter’s job is to write the news, not make it.””
Nelson was supported by Seattle Times editorial columnist Terry Tang, who wrote in the July 16 issue: “”I hope she wins. It takes people like her to build communities worth living. And it takes people like her t make newspapers re-examine their roles in those communities…Shirking civic duty in the name of professional virtue is an easy cop-out. The starchiest defenders of ‘ethics’ are usually the least able to explain what purpose is being served.
“No intelligent reader believes reporters as human beings stand for nothing; it simply isn’t possible.””
Backing also came from Juan R. Palomo, who claimed he was fired as a columnist at the Houston Post for revealing his homosexuality in a column. He was reinstated days later after protests by readers and staff members.
“Sandy was removed from her reporter’s job because of her involvement in the effort to pass a gay-rights ordinance…even though her beat was education,”” Palomo said in a statement. “”The news Tribune never explained how her coverage of education issue was affected by her involvement in the gay-rights ordinance effort.””