By: Allan Wolper
Sports copy editor’s firing was based on anonymous accusation
that he made a racist remark about a minority hire, but
black employees contend the sports department environment
has long been uncomfortable for minorities and women sp.
THE NEWSDAY SPORTS copy editors stood around their computer terminals gossiping about a minority trainee who was about to join the department.
Eric Compton and a colleague, Norman Cohen, wondered how sensitive the new hire, a Native American, would be to the raucous atmosphere of the copy desk.
One thing was certain. Cohen wouldn’t be wearing his Chicago Blackhawks jersey to the office anymore.
Afterward, someone who overheard them talking wrote an unsigned letter to sports editor Steve Ruinsky, accusing Compton of making “disparaging, racist remarks” about the new hire.
The anonymous letter writer said Compton had told Cohen to wear his Chicago Blackhawks hockey jersey, as a way of taunting the trainee.
Compton insisted it was the other way around, saying he cautioned Cohen against wearing his Blackhawks outfit because the intern might be
offended by it.
The unidentified witness also alleged that Compton had predicted the trainee would probably be “some 19-year-old Chaka Khan” before learning he was a Native American.
Compton, who said he had never heard of the African-American rock star, denied making the comment.
A month later, Newsday fired Compton. The newspaper told him he would not get the estimated $27,000 in severance pay he had expected because he was fired for cause.
Compton, 44, demanded to know the name of the person making the charges against him, but Newsday refused to tell him, saying its policy was to protect employees who reported alleged misconduct.
The dispute then moved to the New York State Unemployment Insurance Appeal Board offices in Hauppauge, N.Y., where Compton had filed a claim as a first step to win back the job he had held for 11 years.
Newsday pointed out that Compton had been suspended once before for using racially offensive language and it asked the unemployment board to deny his claim.
But Cohen supported Compton’s account of the Blackhawks incident, as did other copy desk editors.
Newsday offered the anonymous letter as evidence of Compton’s alleged misconduct, but never identified the writer or asked that person to testify at the hearing.
On April 7, the state board ruled Compton was entitled to unemployment benefits and criticized Newsday for firing him.
“The credible evidence establishes that the claimant has not made the utterances attributed to him by the employer,” ruled Administrative Law Judge Eugene Goldfarb.
Compton should not have been fired in any case, Goldfarb said.
“In the employer’s pursuit of its noble goal of social diversity and harmony, it has allowed no room whatsoever for people who might from time to time suffer lapses from perfect social awareness in a culturally evolving workplace,” Goldfarb said.
Robert Keane, assistant managing editor for administration for Newsday, refused to discuss the decision.
“We will appeal,” Keane said in a telephone interview.
Compton was surprised by Newsday’s reaction.
“I never said what they said I said,” he complained. “I’d take a lie detector test to show it. This has been hell for me. I loved working at Newsday.”
Sports desk reaction
The sports staffers were taken aback by Compton’s dismissal, noting he was one of the best copy editors in the department.
Mike Lupica, Newsday’s $675,000-a-year sports columnist, was one of those who tried to get the newspaper to reverse its decision.
“I told them that he was a terrific editor, and I hated to lose him,” Lupica recalled. “He’s got a sensibility about sports that I thought was pretty smart.”
White staffers said the Compton case was a prime example of someone being punished for what they said instead of what they did.
“Newsday was his life,” said one staffer, who asked not to be identified for fear of being fired. “They had him working six days a week. If he was creating such a hostile environment, why did they have him work so much?
“Even if he had said what they said he said, firing him was extreme. I’ve heard a lot worse during the time I’ve been here.”
But editors in charge of Newsday’s Minority Editorial Training Program, known as METPRO, refused until last fall to assign any of the trainees to the sports department.
“John McGinn was the first one they had ever sent to us,” said Gregory D. Clay, an African-American sports copy editor, referring to the intern Compton was accused of maligning. “Why? Because sports had such a hostile reputation.”
Management sources confirmed that the Newsday METPRO editors, who ran the six-year-old program, would not allow any women or minorities to work in the sports department.
“We had been pleading with them for years to send us someone,” said a white editor. “Their refusal to do so just compounded the tension here.”
Clay said that McGinn, who is half Native American and half Irish, was chosen because he was big and strong and would not be intimidated by the copy desk razzing.
“He was under intense pressure,” Clay continued. “When Compton was fired, they held up his appointment for three weeks.”
McGinn, who resigned in early May, a month before his nine-month training program was scheduled to end, politely refused to discuss his tenure at Newsday.
“I don’t think I should say anything until I talk to my bosses,” he said before he left.
Pam Robinson, director of the METPRO/Editing program, said she was “sorry that John had left.”
The National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) applauded Compton’s firing, saying it was an important step to ensure a positive work situation for journalists of color.
“We are satisfied that he was fired,” said Dorothy Gilliam, president of NABJ. “We are monitoring the situation to see what will happen if the case goes to arbitration. We want to see whether they will give him his job back.”
Gilliam, a journalist with the Washington Post, said an NABJ survey last year indicated that racial remarks were often cited as reasons for an unhealthy work environment.
African-American writers and white editors generally agreed the Newsday sports department had long been a stage for ethnic, racial, religious and sexist jokes.
“We made fun of everyone, and it was taken that way,” said one editor. “No one was spared, including Russian hockey players.”
But many of those jokes apparently offended the African-American writers who worked there, even though they did not say anything when they occurred.
“It was just a very uncomfortable atmosphere for the few blacks and women at the desk,” said David Steele, the New York Knicks beat writer who once worked at the copy desk. “People would get on the black writers, but no one would say anything about the white writers.”
Steele said Compton was one of the editors who was excessively critical of the black journalists.
“A lot of the times I would be rolling my eyes and gritting my teeth,” Steele said. “Is this the way it’s going to be here? I couldn’t wait until the last edition. I wish I had said some of these things before. Now the guy is fighting for his job.”
Steele and other blacks who have worked at Newsday are now concerned that the internal racial bickering might affect the newspaper’s sterling sports journalism reputation.
“We have the best sportswriters in the country,” Steele said. “I hope it’s not hurt by all this.”
Tense sports department
The Compton firing has roiled a sports department with a testy history of racism charges and counterclaims of black and gender favoritism in hiring.
African-American journalists complain that Newsday’s national reputation for attracting and retaining black sports journalists has been overrated.
“There are two perceptions of Newsday,” said Steele. “People see Newsday’s name at minority job fairs and minority conferences, and they say, they really are into diversity.
“But they also see the small number of us at the paper and they know,” Steele continued. “The reason a lot of this is taking place is because some black people are refusing to come to work here. So they are taking a close look at the desk.”
Steele said that at the beginning of the year, just five of the 65 sports staffers were African-American.
Les Payne, an assistant managing editor and the highest-ranking African American on the paper, said he has long complained about the sports department’s hiring practices.
“I raised that issue with Newsday sports editors on numerous occasions,” Payne said. “They would say they couldn’t find people. I would say they weren’t trying hard enough. At one point in the ’80s, we had about two blacks out of a staff of 60 in the department.”
Ruinsky, assistant managing editor in charge of sports, said Newsday was committed to diversifying its sports department.
“The perception that we are not is wrong,” said Ruinsky, who spent a week at the NABJ’s convention recruiting African Americans. “There are people out there who say, ‘don’t work at Newsday,’ but we have not had any problem recruiting good writers.”
Newsday hired two African Americans for its sports department after Compton was fired ? Rob Parker, a columnist from the Detroit Free Press, and Sylvia King, a former copy editor from the Atlanta Journal and Constitution.
Thomas Torrence, another copy editor from the Charlotte Observer, turned down a job at Newsday after a two-week tryout.
“He said he couldn’t deal with the racial climate here,” said a source.
Newsday sports staffers say the newspaper’s preoccupation with hiring and promoting women and blacks has affected the upward mobility of white male writers and editors.
That perception was so strong that Jim Toedtman, then the sports editor, called a meeting in the summer of 1993 to clear the air.
“It was a meeting for white men,” said one staffer sarcastically. “Toedtman read something about how Newsday hired and promoted people without regard to race or gender. It was pure bullshit.”
But another person who attended said that anyone was allowed to sit in.
“Jim said that anyone could attend,” said a staffer. “There was one woman there. And about 15 white males.”
Toedtman, now the Newsday Washington bureau chief, said he called the meeting to set the record straight on the paper’s recruiting goals.
“I wanted to discuss professional conduct,” he said. “I wanted them to know we wanted to bring in women and minorities.”
Toedtman said Newsday did not hire any black journalists between 1990 and 1993. “This meeting was held as a consequence of that,” he said. “Was it spirited? Yes.”
Sources say Toedtman was concerned because black sports journalists had told their colleagues not to work at Newsday. “Jim wanted to do something to end that boycott,” the source said.
Still, staffers said it has since become dangerous to complain about alleged affirmative action promotions or appointments.
Gerry Monigan, a copy editor who covered sports at United Press International before being hired at Newsday, was transferred to the news copy desk after protesting about the paper’s promotion policy.
“Gerry kept asking why jobs were not being posted, and why woman with less experience than he had were getting the sports beat jobs,” a member of the sports staff complained.
Ruinsky said Monigan’s transfer had nothing to do with any complaints that he had made.
“We transfer people all the time,” he said.
The Parker flap
Compton’s firing last Jan. 18 was followed two months later by the hiring of Parker as Newsday’s first African-American general sports columnist.
Parker, 31, is a native New Yorker who had covered professional basketball for the New York Daily News before getting his own sports column at the Detroit Free Press.
His appointment, under normal conditions, would not have received any negative reaction.
Parker started at Newsday on April 10, one month after he was suspended for a day for making a joke on a radio program he co-hosted with Mike Stone, on WDFN-AM, the Detroit all-sports radio station.
“We were going on about people who talked to each other on a cyberspace page they had in the Free Press,” Stone recalled. “People were pretending to be cats. They were saying things like, ‘Change my litter.’ I told them to get a life.
“Then Rob said, ‘Everyone needs a little pussy once in a while.’ As soon as he said it, he explained, ‘I’m talking about cats.’ But it was too late.”
The Free Press ran a short story on March 20 about Parker’s suspension, including his apology: “I was trying to be funny and said something stupid. I’m sorry.”
Parker said in an interview that his failed attempt at humor in Detroit should not be compared to what Compton had said.
“I can’t see how the two are related,” Parker said. “I can’t see how what I said in Detroit has anything do with Compton’s behavior.”
White sports staffers said Newsday was practicing a double standard by hiring Parker after firing Compton.
Ruinsky, the Newsday sports editor, said the Compton case and the Parker appointment were two separate incidents.
“There was no double standard there,” said Ruinsky. “If it had happened on Newsday’s watch, it would have been dealt with comparable to any other employee. But it did not.”
Keane, the Newsday assistant managing editor, agreed. “Rob made an isolated remark for which he has apologized, while Compton was someone with a pattern of unacceptable behavior,” he said.
Keane was referring to the fact that Compton was suspended in December 1993 for three days after he showed a woman colleague a trading card of a black wrestler with Les Payne’s name on it.
Carol Hutchinson, the woman to whom Compton gave the card, said she was offended as soon as she saw it.
“Eric said something like ‘Les Payne’s job was open,’ and he pulled out a card showing someone with an African spear,” said Hutchinson, now a copy editor with the Washington Post. “He said, ‘You’re not laughing,’ and then put it away.”
Hutchinson said she told the story to some other Newsday editors who suggested that she file a complaint, which she did. “I didn’t go back to sports after that,” she said.
Payne said he learned of the incident after Compton was suspended.
“I didn’t take personal offense at the time,” he recalled. “But I thought he was stereotyping an editor at Newsday to others in the sports department.”
Compton said he simply was matching editors to wrestlers and had also made up phony cards of Steve Matthews and Marshall Lubin, two white sports department employees.
“I showed the cards to about seven people,” Compton said. “I kept them in my drawer. They had been there for years. I tried to tell Barbara Sanchez, in Human Resources, that I had cards of white editors, but she didn’t want to know about it.”
Compton said he wrote a letter of apology to Sanchez and offered to write one to both Payne and Hutchinson, but was told it was unnecessary.
Sanchez’ office referred all calls to Chiara Coletti, Newsday vice president of public affairs. “I am sorry, but we cannot comment on a case that is being litigated,” Coletti said.
Compton’s colleagues say his comic wrestling cards were typical of his sense of humor. “It was just another Eric joke,” said one.
His penchant for parody was developed, they say, during a one-year stint writing a column for the New York Daily News in which he was identified only as “The Nose.”
The state unemployment board said in its decision to award Compton unemployment benefits that the wrestling-card incident “was an attempt to bring self-deprecating humor to the workplace.”
Present and former African-American staffers say the worst example of insensitivity occurred at Newsday nearly eight years ago at a Christmas party, after a black teenager had been fatally shot in a racial incident in Brooklyn.
“Richard Sandler, who was the sports editor at that time, went over to G.D. Clay and said, ‘We have plenty of chicken, but we’re sorry to say, we don’t have any watermelons for you.’ G.D. just walked right out of there,”said Leon Carter, a New York Daily News sports copy editor and a former Newsday copy desk staffer.
George D. Clay confirmed the incident, saying, “I was the only black. People don’t understand. If someone tells me that, it is tantamount to calling me a nigger. He would not have told a white person that. He didn’t offer me an apology right away. I had to go back and get one. Then he became remorseful.”
But Clay and Carter, national chair of the NABJ Sports Task Force, said the irony of the remark was Sandler’s excellent record in recruiting women and blacks to Newsday.
“He did a lot for diversity,” Carter said. “And he apologized. But the paper should have put people on notice then that comments of that nature would not be tolerated. It opened the door for people to say whatever they wanted and apologize afterward.”
Sandler was Newsday sports editor from 1973 until he died in 1989. He was posthumously named the winner of the 1995 Red Smith Award, which is given by the past presidents of the Associated Press Sports Editors.
The next stage of the dispute will be played out at a National Labor Relations Board arbitration hearing that will include some of the same people who testified for Compton at the unemployment hearing.
That group will include Norman Cohen and Kevin Mattimore, as well as three sports editors, Jeff Weinberg, Marty Houk and Alexander Kimball, all of whom were subpoenaed.
The anonymous letter that was used as evidence to fire Compton also resulted in the one-day suspension of Barry Hauptman, a paginator.
Hauptman was suspended after admitting that he jokingly told a colleague that the sports staff had a “powwow” about the new Native American trainee, John McGinn.
“The ironic thing about this whole thing is that everyone loves John,” said one staffer. “He’s a wonderful kid and is going to do real well here. He said that he’s half Indian and half Irish, and that none of the stuff bothers him.”
What does McGinn think about the commotion?
“I don’t think I can say anything until I talk to my boss,” he said.
Compton said he would prefer that his case not go to arbitration:
“We’re going to have a lot of friends testifying against each other,” he said. “It was one of the reasons I was willing to take my severance and leave. I didn’t want anyone to get hurt.”
?( Wolper, professor of journalism at Rutgers University, Newark, N.J. covers campus journalism for E&P) [Caption]
?(Eric Compton was fired from the Newsday sports copy desk on the basis of anonymous allegations about racial jokes. The charges were unsubstantiated in a state hearing) [Photo & Caption]
?(Les Payne, an assistant managing editor and the highest-ranking African American on the paper, said he has long complained about the sports department’s hiring practices) [Photo & Caption]
?( Gregory D. Clay, above, a Newsday sports copy editor, said McGinn, who is half Native American and half Irish, was chosen because he was big and strong and would not be intimidated by the copy desk razzing.)[Photo & Caption]