THE NEWSPAPER GUILD has filed a grievance with the Los Angeles Daily News over a management decision to drop Ron Rapoport's sports column and assign him to the night copy desk.
Rapoport, whose four-day-a-week column has been syndicated by the New York Times News Service and Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, claims the move was aimed at getting him to resign because the paper feels he was making too much money.
In fact, Rapoport told E&P, when the column was pulled, he was asked by managing editor Ron Kaye to sign a severance agreement for "an amount of money that was so small that I'm too embarrassed to mention it."
In the six months previous to this incident, Rapoport said he was taken off of out-of-town assignments "and there was a continuing pattern of remarks about my salary."
Kaye disputed allegations by Rapoport and the Guild, which submitted the issue to arbitration after the Daily News rejected the grievance. The Guild is demanding that Rapoport's column be restored and that the company "quit harassing" him, according to union representative Matt Berkelhammer. The Guild is further charging age discrimination.
Rapoport, 55, an award-winning columnist and author of four sports books, said he was hired away from the Chicago Sun-Times in 1988 by Daily News owner Jack Kent Cooke and given a signing bonus. He also has worked for the Los Angeles Times and currently is a sports commentator on National Public Radio.
In late July, Rapoport recalled, he was called in by Kaye, who said he was recommending to editor Bob Lund and News president Larry Beasley that the column be discontinued. Three days later, the columnist said, Kaye told him his recommendation had been approved and he handed him the severance package. Rapoport said he called his lawyer, who viewed the severance offer as a firing.
"Then," said Rapoport, "they changed their tune, saying there was a misunderstanding, that I was not fired but I wouldn't have a column anymore."
Later that day, he recounted, a messenger showed up at his home with a letter assigning him to the copy desk.
"The last time I was on the copy desk, I used a number two pencil and half sheets," Rapoport said. "I wasn't trained for this and I don't think I'm very good at it. It was an underhanded way to get me to quit."
Rapoport conceded his salary is well above that of most Daily News staffers, but contended it is below what he considers the six-figure average of sports columnists in major markets.
Rapoport said that before his meeting with Kaye, he heard that the M.E. had complained to Lund about the content of his column.
Face to face, he continued, Kaye voiced an objection to one column involving an interview with the widow of the late black baseball star, Jackie Robinson, about his impact on affirmative action.
Kaye reacted angrily.
"I don't want to play a game of responding to false statements, but his column on affirmative action had nothing to do with his reassignment," he asserted. "Nor did money. He's making the same salary on the copy desk as he did before."
Kaye insisted the shift was "in the best interests of the company." He declined questions on the specifics of his objections to the column.
"This is a challenging environment for everyone who works here," he continued. "Every person is asked to make Herculean efforts. That's who we are."
Lund and Beasley did not return phone calls.
Union rep Berkelhammer scoffed at Kaye's explanation that Rapoport's switch to the copy desk was for the good of the paper.
"They could have hired three experienced copy editors for the money they're paying Ron," he commented.
"We believe the intent was to force him out," Berkelhammer went on. "We value all our members, but in the culture of the newsroom, going from writing a column to the copy desk is a demotion ? and, in this case, a form of punishment."
Rapoport challenged Kaye's insistence that the Robinson column played no part in his recommendations to kill it.
"He talked about that column for 10 minutes and made it pretty clear he didn't like it," he said.
Another perspective on the controversy was offered by Tod Leonard, who recently left as sports editor of the Daily News to become executive sports editor of the Contra Costa Times in Northern California.
He downplayed the effect of the affirmative action aspect on the News' resolve to lift the column. The problem, he speculated, has more to do with the divergent personalities of Rapoport and Kaye.
"They're very different people with a different view on life," he elaborated. "Ron Kaye has a grittier view of the world."
He suggested that Rapoport's occasional linking of sports to social or political issues did not go over well with Kaye."
Another ex-staffer, who requested anonymity, said Kaye "wanted the column to be more down and dirty."
"Sometimes," Rapoport responded, "you have to a make a connection between sports and what's going on in the outside world."
Leonard lauded Rapoport's writing, saying, "Ron always did his absolute best. His work was as professional as that of anyone I have ever worked with. But I also can't say that management is entirely wrong in its assessment since I did not get a read on his audience. Nevertheless, I hate to see a good journalist and nice guy like Ron get hurt so badly."
Rapoport summed his feelings this way: "If they wanted me gone, they had a moral responsibility to ease me out in a fair and rational way. I have done, by their standards, an excellent job and have consistently received outstanding performance reviews under three different sports editors. But I also know that downsizing is the word of the day in this industry, and I'm one of the victims."
By: M.L. Stein Los Angeles Daily News sports columnist battles management move to reassign him to the night copy desk sp.