The knee jerk reaction of many journalists, when they hear a colleague was fired in an editorial dispute with management, is to defend one of their own. But Matthew Felling, who writes about the media on his CBSNews.com blog “Public Eye,” says that in the case of fired Benicia Herald editor Les Mahler, maybe his boss had a point. (For background, here are our previous posts on the case, Nov. 1, Nov. 3 and another one on Nov. 3.)
Mahler quoted an anonymous letter in his column that was critical of a City Council candidate. The candidate demanded a meeting with the paper’s ad director. After that meeting, a retraction was printed and Mahler was reprimanded for violating the paper’s policy on printing anonymous letters. Mahler says the reprimand was an infringement on his freedom of speech. Mahler was later fired and the paper is now seeking a new editor.
CBSNews.com’s Felling writes:
- First, if the newspaper has a policy of not using unsigned letters, then that’s something you need to stick to. Second, it would be a lesser sin if committed by a younger staffer unfamiliar with the rules, but Mahler is/was the editor and should have known better.
Why the policy against using unsigned letters? Accountability. The motiviation for the rule being: What’s to stop a reporter from sending himself – or having a friend send him – an e-mail that reinforces his point, creating some faux consensus?
This writer is all for strong views and critical words that advance the debate, but it seems to me that Mahler could have made his point just fine on his own, or even used the tried-and-true “… and some pointed e-mails have come into this newsroom that said …” Or even gotten in touch with the writer to get clearance to run his text. Any of these would have been within the newspaper’s guidelines.
Felling quotes Jim Ewert, a lawyer for the California Newspaper Publishers Association, who says, “Employees don’t have absolute First Amendment rights in any workplace.”