Did Charlie Gasparino get Teri Buhl fired?

By Felix Salmon
March 20, 2010

It’s well known that Charlie Gasparino likes getting into mini-feuds with reporters who write about him, myself included. It’s part of what makes him Charlie, and he’s welcome to call me a twerpy nutjob as much as he likes. But he and former Trader Monthly publisher Randall Lane now seem to have gone far beyond name-calling on blogs: it looks as though they have gone so far as to get a full-time reporter fired from her job, in retaliation for her writing about them.

What’s worse, the reporter in question, Teri Buhl, hasn’t just been fired from her job at Greenwich Time, a Hearst newspaper in Connecticut; her entire archive of blog entries there has disappeared, leaving only a message saying “This blog has been archived or suspended”. It’s as though Hearst wanted not only to fire her, but to make it seem as though they’d never hired her — although there is still an archive of stories she wrote for the newspaper itself.

What caused this vindictive and aggressive behavior towards a reporter who is, after all, now going to be looking for freelance work based on the quality of her clips? To erase all of those clips is harsh punishment indeed, which would only be conceivably justifiable if there were very serious questions indeed over the accuracy of lots of her work.

But in fact, according to Buhl, when she was fired on Thursday by David McCumber, the editor in chief, the reasons he gave for firing her were mainly about the rough quality of her writing, and the fact that it needed a lot of editing. (He also, she says, told her that he didn’t know what was going to happen to her blog archive, or why it was taken down.)

The complaint about writing quality, says Buhl, was very odd indeed, since neither her editor nor McCumber had ever complained to her about such things in the past, let alone indicated that they might be a fireable offense.

I talked briefly today to Buhl’s editor, Jim Zebora, and to McCumber; both of them politely declined to comment, so the only source I have to go on here is Buhl herself. But I’ve been following her stuff for some time, and I consider her to be a very good, very dogged financial reporter, with an intuitive understanding of the blog medium. Nothing I’ve ever seen from her would seem to merit this kind of punishment.

So what happened here? Buhl wrote about Gasparino a couple of times on the blog she was hired to write at the beginning of this year — the blog entries are now down, of course, but for the time being the Google cache can be seen here and here. They weren’t particularly nice about Charlie, and they called him “Gas-bag”, a common nickname which he doesn’t like. Angered, Charlie called up Zebora, Teri’s editor, and accused her of “stalking” him; Zebora, like any good editor, had her back.

But it didn’t end there: Charlie then called Zebora’s boss, McCumber, and made the same complaint. Once again, he didn’t get very far. And then Charlie went further still, calling Steven Swartz, the president of Hearst newspapers, again with the same complaint. (Again, I only know about these calls because their substance was conveyed to Teri, who told me about them, but I do believe her when she says they happened.)

Meanwhile, another media bigwig was getting annoyed by Buhl. Buhl had written a story about Randall Lane for Dealbreaker in July 2009, saying that he would find it difficult to sell the assets of his bankrupt company, Doubledown Media, and that he’d given his cousin access to Doubledown’s subscriber list after promising his subscribers that he would never do such a thing.

Teri wrote about Lane on her Greenwich Time blog in February (Google cache here), and immediately Lane, too, started calling her superiors, complaining that she was “stalking” him.

It’s worth noting here that Buhl used to fact-check Gasparino’s column at Trader Monthly, which Gasparino wrote for Lane: all these people know each other. And if Gasparino was complaining about Buhl being a stalker to various Hearst executives, it’s easy to imagine him telling Lane the whole story after Buhl’s story on Lane came out.

In the wake of writing the story about Lane, Buhl says that she started fielding some very weird accusations from higher ups, saying that she was stalking Lane, or that she had written things in her blog entry which simply weren’t there. Shortly thereafter, she was fired, and although the stalking accusations were brought up, they weren’t cited as the main grounds for dismissal. Needless to say, a single blog entry on a person hardly constitutes stalking, and nobody ever came up with any evidence to support the stalking accusations. And it’s also worth noting that all of Buhl’s blog entries were edited by Zebora before they went up on the site, and that he was happy with everything that was published.

Back in February, the Greenwich Roundup blog published this letter:

Teri Buhl is probably the best thing that has happened in a long time at the Greenwich Time.

Dear Greenwich Roundup,

I hope she doesn’t get fired for stepping on too many toes or copying too much from others!!

Well, she certainly didn’t get fired for copying too much from others — that’s one accusation no one has made. But getting fired for stepping on too many toes? That seems to be exactly what has happened.

Update: I’ve now spoken to another source — someone familiar with the situation who said that Gasparino only complained to Swartz once, when she published a Mapquest link to his house on her blog, which was then taken down. The source says that there were no complaints when Buhl wrote about Gasparino subsequently, and that Gasparino never talked about Buhl to Lane.

Update 2: Buhl has left a pair of comments below, saying that Gasparino made multiple complaints and that my anonymous source is “either unfamilar or not telling the whole truth“. I put the update up just because it moved the story along and made clear that there is a fundamental disagreement here, but I am not saying I believe my anonymous source on this one. Without saying anything about this one in particular, I’m certainly comfortable saying that anonymous sources in general are dangerous and unreliable things, and deserve to be treated with skepticism.

Update 3: Buhl takes to Twitter to add a bit more detail:

I’d like to make a point re publishing Gasbag’s weekend address. My editor had to approve that and it was never mentioned as a reason to fire me. Gasparino had just been bragging about having a second home in Rowyaton, CT at a New Canaan book talk. I actually didn’t think he’d mind. When Gasparino got verbally abusive about the mapquest link to his street-I agreed with my editor it should be taken down. But when he kept calling up the editoral food chain that I was stalking him- I thought that was really odd- besides being untrue. I remember my editor Zebora saying well if Gasparino can get Head of Hearst news ear you will have to be careful what you write about him. Lincoln Millstein, vp of interactive, asked what did you do to Gasparino-what’s between u two-just make sure u dont just write negative abt him. It was just really odd to see how some Hearst ppl were afraid of Gas-Bag. At least both my editors admitted he’s a ‘professional asshole’.

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