by Steve Miller
copyright © 1996, Electric Nevada
She was a reporter from one of the better papers in the region, checking out the scene here at Electric Nevada, and the conversation turned to the Reno Gazette-Journal. She said that while her arrangement with her editor allowed her to sell free-lance stories to other publications, she wouldn't sell to the Gannett chain's local product because she didn't respect it as a newspaper.
At times, she said, when she compared what had happened before her own eyes at a news event with what appeared in the Gazette-Journal, she wondered "if they were on drugs."
"And then," she said, "there are all the stories that they don't cover. I guess they don't think they're important."
This idea -- that the only reason Gannett's local editors don't assign reporters to certain stories is that, in their judgment, those stories aren't important -- is an impression the Electric Nevada team has run into repeatedly in the past few weeks when talking to news sources and prospective writers and reporters.
A Reasonable View
It's a reasonable enough assumption to make. No business, much less a newspaper, has unlimited resources; priorities have to be set. The assumption is also generous -- it assumes that no hidden agenda is in operation at Gannett's Reno operation to bias its local news coverage.
That last point, however, has been brought into serious question because of recent developments in a current East Coast court case.
Plaintiff attorneys in a wrongful-termination suit against one of Gannett's 93 papers -- Burlington, Vermont's Free Press -- used legal discovery to explore documents at Gannett corporate headquarters. They emerged with internal Gannett papers showing that chain headquarters uses a race-quota system to measure the racial correctness of individual chain papers' reporting of news touching on race and minority topics. Gannett also then ties compensation and career security for the chain's top editors and executives to their scores on this scale, which it calls its "All American Contest."
Annual Race-Numbers Review
Writing in the March 18 Wall Street Journal, William McGowan reports that the "contest" is "an annual numerical review that judges editors on how successful they have been at achieving racial balance on their news staffs and their news pages." Similarly, he says, Gannett mandates that papers in the chain follow a policy called "mainstreaming," under which the news is covered by racial numbers, reporters are distinctly encouraged to maintain and consult minority source lists, and special efforts are made to integrate positive images of minorities in news coverage and photos.
In Vermont, minorities represent less than 3% of the population. Consequently in 1993 Gannett's Burlington paper had some of the lowest "All American" scores in the corporation's entire newspaper division. Internal Gannett documents showed that the Gannett headquarters was exerting pressure on the local editor to raise those scores.
This was the context in March of that year when a community forum on racism was held in Burlington and a white woman trying to defend Vermonters against angry accusations of white racism was cut off at the microphone by the moderator, a black aide to the mayor. Announcing that the meeting was "specifically designed for people of color" to describe their "ethnic experiences" of living in Vermont, the aide had the woman ejected from the meeting.
The Free Press reporter covering the meeting agreed with the woman's characterization of the incident as reverse racism, and judged that newsworthy, since it happened at a community forum on race relations. When the story appeared the next day, minority activists charged that the story was "ugly" and "distorted" and that it "inflamed racial tensions." Leading the attack was the mayoral aide, who threatened a lawsuit and a march on the paper unless the reporter was fired and apology published.
That evening, in a 90-second meeeting, the Free Press editor terminated the reporter, writes McGowan, "without giving him a chance to defend himself, reviewing a videotape that
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supported the reporter's account or talking to any officials in attendance" -- officials who also confirmed the reporter's account. The blackballed reporter has since tried to make ends meet with a string of low-paying, short-term jobs.
Hyper-Sensitivity & Double Standards
Attorneys for the reporter (now the plaintiff in the defamation/wrongful-dismissal case against Gannett and its Burlington paper) argue that Gannett's system encourages hyper-sensitivity and double standards, and is thoroughly inappropriate in a setting where minorities represent a small proportion of the population. They also argue that Gannett's system -- by tying an executive's compensation and career security to how well his or her paper conforms to company doctrines of racial correctness -- made the Burlington editor highly susceptible to the mayoral aide's threats. The "mainstreaming" policy mandated by Gannett headquarters -- covering the news by racial numbers -- could not be implemented if an alienated black community stopped taking calls from the paper's reporters.
In a deposition to the fired reporter's lawyers, the editor conceded that he had subsequently taken implementation of the Gannett "news by the racial numbers" doctrine to the point of decreeing that one out of six faces in a photo series called Vermont Voices should be a person of color. Another deposition, from the paper's star columnist, disclosed that the editor had instructed him in a memo that at least one column in four should be about a minority or address a diversity issue.
What is the relevance of this Vermont case to the situation here in western Nevada? With a uniform policy across the 93-paper Gannett empire, do editors at the Reno Gazette-Journal feel they have to operate under that same constraints as did the editor of the Burlington Free Press?
An Incident in the Gazette-Journal
Definitive answers are elusive, but an incident that this reporter witnessed a few years ago may be relevant. It was during an especially active period of Hispanic gang warfare in the Truckee Meadows, when a small Hispanic child had just been killed by a suspect identified, by local law enforcement and federal Immigration and Naturalization Service sources, as an illegal immigrant.
At the time, the same sources were also alleging that over 50 percent of the population of the Nevada state penitentiary in Carson City were in the United States illegally. But when it was proposed that the Gazette-Journal do a story determining whether or not the allegations were true, the executive editor was very skittish toward the idea.
Rather than focusing on the savings to Nevada taxpayers (Hispanic or otherwise) if illegal-immigrant convicts could be deported back to their home countries, and rather than focusing on the potential increase in safety to local residents (Hispanic or otherwise) if immigration law could be enforced on out-of-control local gangs, the Gannett-appointed top editor, for some reason, only chose to see any news coverage in the paper of the role of illegal immigration in the local gang-war situation as an "attack" on the entire Hispanic community. And rather than exercise his own editorial authority to insure that reporting on the issue did not approach anything like such an "attack," he simply vetoed the whole idea. So that entire important dimension of a weighty community problem was never discussed in the Gazette-Journal.
"At the time," recalls the story advocate, "it just looked to me like the guy was just a politically-correct twit. Now, though, even if that is true, he could also have had his perks, salary and long-term career success with Gannett in mind."
A few weeks later, Electric Nevada conducted an extensive interview with an individual who had, in recent years, a close-up view of Reno Gazette Journal news operations. The source detailed how the Reno paper does follow -- slavishly -- the Gannett's racial and ethnic news quota guidelines.
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