Newspapers are generally good at reporting about lawsuits involving major businesses within their circulation area, but they can be notably less thorough when they or their affiliates are in the judicial crosshairs. The Denver Post deserves credit, then, for running a September 15 report about an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission suit leveled against the Denver Newspaper Agency, which handles finances for the Post and the Rocky Mountain News. In it, the EEOC argues that Karen Stenvall, a former retail sales manager for the DNA (and, previously, an employee at the Post), was fired primarily because she'd committed the sin of getting pregnant.
Thus far, however, neither the September 15 article nor any other that's appeared in the Denver dailies has mentioned a pair of additional cases pending against the Post or firms associated with it. Veteran reporter Carol Kreck recently filed a complaint with the EEOC, charging the Post with gender and age discrimination over the way she left the paper around the beginning of the year. Meanwhile, David Marin has sued his former employer, the Alameda Newspaper Group, a California-based chain of six newspapers that, like the Post, is owned by Denver's MediaNews Group.
Kreck, 57, spent decades at the Post in a variety of news-gathering roles, and according to lawyer Darold Killmer, who speaks for her, she's currently in an odd sort of employment limbo. "She wasn't dismissed," he says. "She's officially on disability leave right now, but her status is up in the air. As a legal matter, they've basically eliminated any satisfactory position for her, but they've never uttered the words 'You're fired.'"
Nevertheless, Kreck was one of several veteran women journalists who left the Post in close proximity to each other. (The group includes former national editor Michelle Fulcher and fellow reporters Cindy Brovsky and Gwen Florio.) That's why "we filed preserving the right for class-action status -- because I think it's part of a pattern," Killmer says. Right now, the EEOC is in the process of scheduling Kreck's complaint for mediation, and Killmer expresses optimism that a resolution can be reached. Post spokeswoman Jeanette Chavez, the paper's managing editor/administration, had no comment.
For his part, Marin wouldn't consent to an interview for this column, but his suit states that two major factors contributed to him being wrongfully terminated by ANG in March 2003. First, he points to purported fraud in a "best-of" contest overseen by Colleen Brewer, a onetime ANG ad director who's now vice president of display advertising for the DNA; Brewer didn't reply to e-mails from Westword. Second, he asserts that Michael Lynch, his immediate superior, who came to ANG several years after working for the Post, punished him for wanting to adopt needy children. Both Lynch, who is no longer with ANG and couldn't be reached, and Brewer are named as defendants in the suit.
According to John Boggs, Marin's attorney, a disagreement over his client's desire for fatherhood immediately preceded his ouster. Marin, who's single, was well along in the labyrinthine adoption process required by the state of California when, Boggs says, "Lynch found out about it and strenuously objected. He told him he shouldn't go through with it." After Marin refused to change his plans, Boggs continues, "Lynch told him, 'You're to instruct your staff that you're resigning at the end of the month.' He also handed him something about a job at another newspaper, and said, 'Maybe you can move there and raise a family.'" Marin wound up taking this unsolicited advice. After applying for the gig, at the Santa Maria Times, he was promptly hired and later promoted. Today, he's working as an executive in the Times advertising department and serving as a foster parent to Brian, Yvanna and Jesus, three once-homeless kids (ages three, five and seven, respectively) who subsisted on pet food for a time before coming to live with him. He hopes he'll soon be able to formally adopt them.
Another part of Marin's suit, which was filed in late July, deals with discoveries he allegedly made in 2002 upon taking over as ANG's ad director. Brewer, his predecessor in the position, had overseen the chain's best-of promotion, in which readers voted for their favorite local eateries, businesses and so on. In the suit, Marin maintains that on Brewer's watch, the game was rigged.
Best-of specials, which are conducted by a wide range of publications, including this one, generate profits and goodwill -- a terrific combination -- but they present plenty of ethical challenges, too. Last year, for example, the editorial department at the Rocky, whose best-of entry is called "Top of the Rocky," sauntered into a gray area by giving the names of winners to their business-side counterparts prior to publication, so that salespersons could solicit ads from the lucky victors. At the time, Rocky editor/publisher/president John Temple defended this approach, noting that those contacted weren't eliminated if they failed to purchase space in the "Top of the Rocky" insert. Via e-mail, Temple taps out the same tune. He reveals that salespeople will be informed about "Top of the Rocky" winners before the October 28 debut of this year's supplement, but not the category in which they prevailed.
At ANG, Marin's suit claims, the approach was much more dubious. "The allegation is that the best-of winners weren't necessarily the best-of ballot winners," Boggs allows. "Instead, from what we heard from interviews with past and current employees, the ballots may have reflected one thing, but it was common knowledge that whoever would pay money for the ad space would be named the best-of winner." He cites the owner of "a barbershop that was the best-of winner for a period of time, until he said, 'I don't want to put the ad in anymore.' And, lo and behold, the best-of barbershop changed that year. So they were pawning off advertising space as a legitimate contest."
Boggs says that by insisting upon "cleaning up" best-of, Marin became a marked man at ANG -- but his suit goes beyond the impact whistleblowing might have had on him alone. He's seeking monetary compensation for ANG's readership of over 200,000 individuals under California Business and Professions Code 17200, which gives individuals the right to sue entities as "private attorneys general" -- the unelected equivalent of a public official. Plaintiffs are only required to prove that a defendant has engaged in unlawful behavior, and needn't have been damaged personally to gain standing in court. In Boggs's view, "David could collect on behalf of every ANG reader -- all of the people who were cheated by being sent to what was supposedly the best restaurant, when it really wasn't."
Why didn't ANG newspapers report about Marin's suit? An account in the August 13 San Jose Mercury News quoted a source at the Oakland Tribune, the largest of the ANG papers, as saying editors there felt the subject was "inside baseball." An unidentified ANG reporter referenced in the same piece scoffed at the portion of the suit pertaining to the best-of push. "This guy files a class-action lawsuit demanding that anyone who's ever eaten at Everett & Jones gets to take his nickel out of the Tribune, just because it was voted best barbecue joint? We'll see how long that lasts before it gets thrown out of court," the journalist said.
On the other hand, a settlement in another Code 17200 affair shows that such suits aren't necessarily doomed from the outset. Three years ago, Sony Pictures was caught using complimentary blurbs from a fictional film critic identified as "David Manning" to hype several of its flicks, among them The Animal, an aggressively humor-free concoction starring Saturday Night Live grad Rob Schneider. In June 2001, two Californians, Omar Rezec and Ann Belknap, sued on behalf of all those consumers who, in Boggs's words, "went to see movies after seeing ads in the newspapers, and found out they sucked." Earlier this month, Sony agreed to pour $1.5 million into a fund created for the plaintiffs and those who joined their quest. Reports suggest that aggrieved parties will likely come away with about $5 apiece -- a tangible symbol of Sony's shame, albeit not nearly enough to make up for suffering through The Animal.
Attorney Ian Fellerman, who represents ANG, doesn't weigh in on the odds that Marin will make his former employer pay in a similar way. "ANG Newspapers' policy is not to comment on pending litigation," he says, "but I can tell you that ANG intends to vigorously defend the lawsuit." Dean Singleton, who heads Media News Group, adds that "the records at the newspapers basically indicate that what's alleged in the suit couldn't possibly have happened. I'm told that when you compare those who advertised with those who were picked for best-ofs, they didn't match up in most cases. That would mean there's no validity to the suit."
Less effusive is Jim Nolan, spokesman for the Denver Newspaper Agency, who declines to speak about either Marin's suit or the filing made for Karen Stenvall by the EEOC. Likewise, Eldon Silverman, identified in the September 15 Post article as Stenvall's lawyer, did not return calls.
Resolution of these disputes will likely be a long time coming, as an employment lawsuit filed against Westword indicates. As reported in our September 26, 2002, issue, former staff writer Steve Jackson accused Westword of age discrimination following a layoff, but the suit is still awaiting a ruling on the paper's summary-judgment request.
No matter what happens with the Jackson case, expect to read about it in these pages. As for the Post, the paper scheduled a management retreat to discuss diversity over Yom Kippur, the holiest date on the Jewish calendar. That kind of decision makes lawyers perk up.
Suits, part two: A couple of student journalists have discovered that there can be career benefits for fighting the power.
In March, Megan Fromm, editor of the Mesa State College Criterion in Grand Junction, filed a suit against the MSC board of trustees, which refused to provide minutes from a closed-door meeting the previous November; the subject of the trustees' chat was Tim Foster, a political cohort of Governor Bill Owens who became the only finalist for the open position of college president. In July, a judge found that the board had entered executive session in violation of Colorado's open-meetings law, and the next month, the trustees chose not to take exception to this conclusion. The board signed a settlement agreement making tapes of the meeting publicly available, and paying just over $600 to cover Fromm's court costs. Her Denver attorney, Kenzo Kawanabe, represented her pro bono.
For her trouble, Fromm won a major award from the Society of Professional Journalists that'll look mighty fine on her resumé, and she earned an internship with the Student Press Law Center, a non-profit organization in Arlington, Virginia, that provided her with valuable assistance when she was considering whether to sue the college. "When I first started this process, I called the Center, and the executive director, Mark Goodman, gave me the basics, and helped me get an attorney," Fromm says. "Hopefully, I can repay a little of what they did for me and maybe help people the way they helped me."
Decision-makers at the Denver Post have already come to the aid of Heath Urie, editor of the Mirror, a student-run newspaper at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley. Less than two weeks after an August 31 Post article about his scrap with university types, Urie's byline was on the Denver broadsheet's front page.
Earlier this year, Urie and two other Mirror staffers sued UNC's Student Representative Council for allegedly violating the state's open-meetings law on three occasions. Afterward, the SRC recommended significant cuts in the Mirror's operating budget, and when the institution's board of trustees concurred, Urie and company sued the board as well. A district-court judge responded in July by granting a temporary injunction against the funding cuts. Because the ruling clearly indicated that things weren't likely to go its way, the board soon began negotiating with Urie's legal team to resolve matters outside of court. Considering that the SRC got clear of the first suit by agreeing in a settlement to obey the laws they were accused of breaking, the trustees will probably capitulate before long.
This likely triumph isn't the only reason Urie's future looks so bright. After interviewing him for the August 31 update, Post reporter Monte Whaley told Urie about internships that were open at the paper, and promised to put in a good word for him. "I called down that same afternoon and said I was interested," Urie recalls. "Three hours later, I had an internship."
Urie's schedule is unbelievably taxing. He spends Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Greeley, editing the Mirror, and Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays as, essentially, a fulltime Post reporter. He's been placed on several high-profile stories for the Post, with more undoubtedly on the way.
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"Things have worked out well," Urie concedes. He advises any other budding muckrakers "to challenge authority when it needs to be challenged, because the power of the press isn't a myth. It really does exist."
Thanks, Kobe: KOA's Alex Stone, who's 24, is another young journalist moving on to greater things. He's going national, as a Los Angeles-based correspondent for ABC Radio News. He takes over from another KOA alum, Stefan Tubbs, who's accepted a TV job in New York City.
Like Tubbs, Carol McKinley, now of Fox News, jumped from KOA to the bigtime, and Stone has a theory why all three of them came to the attention of network honchos. McKinley got coast-to-coast exposure by reporting on the JonBenét Ramsey murder; Tubbs earned airtime courtesy of the Oklahoma City bombing trial; and Stone was a go-to guy when it came to basketballer Kobe Bryant's legal mess. "One of my bosses at ABC was talking about how he's amazed how much news comes out of Colorado, like Kobe and the scandals at CU and the Air Force Academy," Stone says. "I don't know why that is -- and I don't know why so much of it has to do with sex. It's a strange phenomenon."
It's also excellent news for KOA reporters, who now have a simple recipe for success. Step one: Get hired. Step two: Wait for something perverse and disturbing to happen. And they probably won't have to wait for long.