Newsroom big mouths strike again

By Jack Shafer
November 18, 2013

Bloomberg News suspended its Hong Kong reporter Michael Forsythe last week, according to a New York Times report published today. (The New York Post broke the story on Friday.) His suspension began with a request, apparently from superiors, that he go “to the floor where human resources offices are.” A summons to HR is never a good sign. Indeed, according to the Times Forsythe “did not return to the newsroom,” reinforcing the universal view that an unsolicited invitation to visit HR is as desirable as an unsolicited invitation to a gallows.

The Times doesn’t say why Bloomberg News suspended Forsythe, and neither party is talking about it. The Times arranges the dots in a constellation to spell out its belief that he was likely a confidential source for an earlier piece in the paper. That story detailed how Bloomberg News delayed the publication of stories potentially upsetting to the Chinese government and which if published could hurt sales of the company’s lucrative financial terminals.

Assuming Forsythe was the leaker, you can either regard him as a heroic whistleblower who exposed his employer’s editorial cowardice, or as an ungrateful malcontent and troublemaker who bit the hand that pays him. Suspension, a secular form of limbo, gives an employer like Bloomberg News the opportunity to display its anger at the employee and mollify others without going through the bloody mess of a firing. If Bloomberg News were to summarily dismiss Forsythe for leaking, it would be announcing to its thousands of employees that the punishment for speaking out of school is termination, which just isn’t a practical policy for a news organization: Journalists make a living out of encouraging other people — in industry, in government, in academia, on sports teams, inside organized religion — to speak critically and confidentially about their organization. Firing a journalist for leaking to the press or for complaining defines hypocrisy.

Journalists, I can tell you from experience, are difficult to manage. Trained from an early age to hold others to high moral standards and to pick nits like starving baboons, journalists never lack for grousable material about their own working conditions and the editorial choices of their bosses. Most journalists I know will talk trash about their bosses or news organizations — even those who are relatively happy with their jobs — or will leak damaging material about their newsroom if so invited. There is nothing as leaky or lippy as a newsroom. One time, 20 years ago when I was a boss, I happened to walk into the production area late one night as the most junior member of my editorial staff denounced me to a captive audience of paste-up artists. If I was going to fire her for badmouthing me behind my back, I would eventually have to fire everybody, so I pretended deafness to her condemnations as I walked behind her and toward my office.

Suspensions look like time-outs for naughty journalists, but they’re really time-outs for angry bosses, a face-saving interlude that allows bosses to maintain their pride when what they would really like to do is murder their misbehaving journalists. (My understanding is that it is both against the law and most union contracts to kill misbehaving journalists.) Suspension functions like a kind of student probation, giving the party in power a chance to express fury and punish while postponing a final resolution until tempers cool, and to deter latent reprobates from reprobating.

Suspensions, like probation, offer a future of forgiveness and rapprochement. Hence CNN and Time suspended Fareed Zakaria for plagiarism and then reinstated him. So did the Washington Post suspend and reinstate its recent plagiarists, as well as suspending and then reinstating a sports columnist who knowingly sent out a false tweet. MSNBC gave similar suspension and reinstatement treatment to host Keith Olbermann, who ruffled the bosses by making political donations, and to its contributor Mark Halperin, who called the president of the United States “kind of a dick” on the air. Likewise, CNN suspended and reinstated Roland S. Martin after he published his retrograde tweets. You could describe their suspensions and reinstatements as short visits to the halfway house, except it was preordained that they would all return to their respective outlets (as long as they didn’t make a further public fuss). So they were actually visiting the one-quarter house.

Not all suspensions are benign. Some can be read as preludes to firings, as was the case recently when the Associated Press suspended and then reportedly fired a reporter, or can be interpreted as a signal to a journalist to quit, as may have been the intention of the Hollywood Reporterdecade ago when it suspended a columnist. In all of these incidents, bosses make it hard for outsiders to discern why exactly a journalist has been suspended, fired, or reinstated by dodging the questions: We never discuss personnel-related matters, they say.

I leave it to you to predict the ultimate outcome of MSNBC’s Alec Baldwin suspension last week. His serial offenses and rotten ratings make him expendable, and he can’t possibly need the job enough to justify a fight. But with the past as our guide, Bloomberg News reporter Forsythe can ride out his suspension and return to his job as long as he doesn’t publicly challenge his bosses or leak dirt about them. Bosses will tolerate covert criticism, even if it wounds them, if the critics adopt a submissive pose when caught. They’ll tolerate overt criticism, too, if it’s dressed in respectful, constructive clothing. Some editors will allow their newsroom princes and princesses to trash them out loud for a while. But editors come and go, and incoming editors rarely recognize the royal bloodlines of the previous regime. Go ahead and trash the new boss, too, princes and princesses, but make sure to circulate your resume as you do it.

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PHOTO: A student shouts into a megaphone in front of a tear gas truck to protest against a petrol bomb blast that damaged a memorial statue at the Sri Jayawardenapura University in Colombo January 5, 2012. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

2 comments

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Ssh! You are giving away the secret nature of all journalists. :) And our bosses’…

Well said.

Posted by Foremski | Report as abusive

The first two sentences of paragraph four have a beautiful cadence, Mr. Shafer.

Posted by mattieg | Report as abusive