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Two reporters suspended for attending "Vote for Change" concert
by free speech? Not if your boss can help it
Tuesday Oct 19th, 2004 3:59 PM
ST. PAUL, Minn. Two Minnesota newspaper reporters who went to a high profile rock-n-roll concert are finding themselves temporarily out of work because of the show.
The St. Paul Pioneer Press has suspended two investigative reporters who attended a "Vote for Change" concert featuring Bruce Springsteen, R-E-M and others two weeks ago.

Reporters Suspended for Going to See the Boss

Two reporters who went to see the Boss perform at a political fund-raising concert have been suspended by their newspaper.

The St Paul Pioneer Press suspended investigative reporters Chuck Laszewski and Rick Linsk for three days each after they attended the Vote for Change concert by Bruce Springsteen, R.E.M. and other artists in the Minnesota city.

Editor Vicki Gowler wrote in a September memo to staff that the paper’s ethics policy bars them from activities that would conflict with their employment, including “concerts that are held as political fundraisers.”

Laszewski said he figured he was in the clear because he’s on the investigative team.

“It was fabulous,” Laszewski said of the concert. “It’s getting to be exorbitantly expensive for me, but it was terrific.”

ST. PAUL — In a case already garnering national attention, the Minnesota Newspaper Guild/Typographical Union is defending two members suspended by the St. Paul Pioneer Press newspaper because they attended a “Vote for Change” concert.

On their own time, investigative reporters Chuck Laszewski and Rick Linsk attended the Oct. 5 concert at Xcel Energy Center featuring Bruce Springsteen and R.E.M. On Sept. 7, Pioneer Press management suspended them for three days, saying the newspaper had asked all newsroom staffers not to attend any of the “Vote for Change” concerts because they were sponsored by a political group,

“We had a grievance meeting yesterday” with the company, Guild Executive Officer Mike Sweeney said Tuesday. “We asked them to remove the suspensions, restore their pay and remove the information from their files. The company refused, and now we’ll move it to arbitration.

“We will fight it very, very vigorously.”

Management’s actions appear to be based on a newsroom Code of Ethics that was adopted by the company and union during contract bargaining in 2000, Sweeney said. The code was designed to address situations that would compromise a reporter’s objectivity, such as a reporter who covers politics appearing on a list of contributors to a political candidate.

“Both these guys are investigative reporters. Their normal assignment is not politics or elections,” Sweeney said. “It’s a stretch to say that going to a concert sponsored by a 527, which is technically not a political contribution, is an ethical breech.”

“If this is let go, they can come up with just about anything as a conflict.”

Ironically, Laszewski, a Pioneer Press reporter for more than 20 years, was among the Guild members involved in crafting the Code of Ethics. Both he and Linsk, employed for about 10 years, are among the newspaper’s best reporters, Sweeney said.

According to the website, the “Vote for Change” tour is sponsored by the MoveOn political action committee to benefit America Coming Together, a tax exempt group organized under Section 527 of the Internal Revenue Service code that is working to register voters.

The StarTribune reported Tuesday that it also had asked newsroom staffers not to attend “Vote for Change” concerts. Sweeney said newspapers and media outlets across the country are taking different positions, with some banning reporters from attending and others taking no action. Where newsroom staffs lack union representation, they have little recourse for fighting such policies.

Since the news broke about the Pioneer Press suspensions, Sweeney said he has been interviewed by media from across the country, including the trade journal, Editor & Publisher. The company could have settled the issue, but refused to do so, he said, and now will gain a lot of negative publicity.

The suspensions add to already low morale at the Pioneer Press, which has lost staff members in droves in recent months.

“You take two of the top reporters and come down on them like a ton of bricks like this – it’s gotta be pretty damn chilling,” Sweeney noted.

Paul Pioneer Press, who suspended two reporters for attending one of the recent pro-Kerry "Vote for Change" concerts that raised money for political causes, said she would have compensated the reporters for the money they'd spent on tickets if they'd approached her about the issue.

"I encouraged people to talk to me or the managing editor if they had any concerns," Gowler said, citing a memo she issued Sept. 27 warning staffers not to attend the concerts headlined by Bruce Springsteen and others if their beats suggested a potential conflict. "If they came to me, they might have brought up issues that I didn’t know."

Gowler said she found out that the reporters had attended the concert when a senior editor overheard someone talking about it.

Gowler said reporters Chuck Laszewski and Rick Linsk, who are part of the paper's investigative team, were suspended for three days for attending the concert on Oct. 5. Because their assignments span such a broad spectrum, Gowler considered them to be in conflict. "They get involved in covering things that relate to politics and elections," Gowler said.

In fact, the editor said she had been planning to assign one of the reporters to follow a developing story on issues surrounding a new computer voting system for Minnesota, which involves Republican Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer.

"I don't know how I would explain to readers if they challenged why one of these reporters was covering a Republican state officeholder on a controversial state issue," Gowler said. "We had to assign someone out of the political reporting team."

Union officials filed a grievance Oct. 13 against the paper on the reporters' behalf, which prompted a hearing Monday. Gowler attended the hearing, but would not discuss what occurred.

Minnesota Newspaper Guild Typographical Union executive officer Mike Sweeney said the guild asked for the suspensions, which were served earlier this month, to be rescinded, but the paper declined. He said the case would go to arbitration, but not until 2005.

"They went way overboard with this," Sweeney said about the suspensions. "The newsroom ethics policy was bargained with the union and this (memo) does not meet the standard of that. The issuance of the memo violated the contact."

There is some dispute over whether the Sept. 27 memo was approved by an official from the guild. Gowler said a union steward approved the memo, but Sweeney said no formal OK was ever given.

Gowler said several Pioneer Press editorial staffers had asked if they would be allowed to attend the concerts, but she believes only one of those -- a librarian -- actually went. She said the librarian was found not to be in conflict.

The concerts, which raised money for a number of progressive political causes, have sparked ethics discussions in several newsrooms. Editors have taken different approaches to the situation, ranging from The Plain Dealer in Cleveland not barring anyone from attending to The Washington Post forbidding every reporter from attending, even if they do not cover politics.

The issue sparked some controversy at the Star Tribune, where reporters were originally told not to attend at all, then asked to avoid the concerts if they believed it posed a conflict.