April 16, 2003
It's funny in Kansas
Arts and Entertainment
April 2 Bronstein memo banning antiwar activity
Northern California Media Workers Guild response
Bronstein's March 26 modification of company policies
The Chronicle's union-approved conflict of interest policy
New decree bans employees from peace protests
By Steven T. Jones
Instead of being back at work writing his technology column for the San Francisco Chronicle last week, Henry Norr was at home nursing a deep bruise on his leg, the result of being shot with a wooden dowel by Oakland police during an antiwar demonstration.
His two-week suspension from the paper for calling in sick and being intentionally arrested on the first full day of the war should have ended April 3 ("When Speech Isn't Free," 4/2/03), but he has been neither formally fired nor invited to return. And he probably won't be welcomed back on terms he can accept, given a policy change unilaterally implemented by editor Phil Bronstein.
On April 2, Bronstein issued what he labeled a "clarification" to the Chron's conflict-of-interest policy, stating in a memo to staff, "Our responsibility as journalists can only be met by a strict prohibition against any newsroom staffer participating in any public political activity related to the war."
That memo followed one issued by Bronstein in the days after Norr's suspension, which said staffers participating in war-related demonstrations needed to clear it with a supervisor. This was itself a change from the paper's established policy, which stated: "The Chronicle does not forbid employees from engaging in political activities but needs to prevent any appearance of any conflict of interest."
Bronstein's evolving protest policy has rankled the paper's employee union, the Northern California Media Workers Guild, which denounced and appealed the "clarification" within hours of its issuance. "We consider the new regulations a clear violation of the collective bargaining process," the union wrote in a memo to Chron staffers that was obtained by the Bay Guardian.
Guild executive director Doug Cuthbertson told us he is taking issue with both the substance of Bronstein's new policy and the way it was issued without union consultation: "I told the company that we thought it represented a new policy."
But Cuthbertson also told employees that until the grievance was worked out, which could take weeks, they need to abide by Bronstein's decree: "I know the company feels pretty strongly about the policy." That has many Chron writers feeling angry, and they're circulating a petition challenging the policy. It has also left Norr's job in limbo.
"I'm a committed political activist, and I don't plan to stop being one. People have a duty to oppose this war," Norr told the Bay Guardian. "If I can't work at the Chronicle consistent with my principles, then I won't work at the Chronicle."
Bronstein did not return a phone call from the Bay Guardian, but Chron public relations director Joe Brown said, "Clearly, Chronicle management believes the policy was rightfully set." He acknowledged the issue has ignited an impassioned reaction but said, "That is the policy."
Brown wouldn't say why the paper singled out antiwar activity while still ostensibly allowing other forms of political expression. For example, the Chron is a sponsor of the annual San Francisco Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Pride Parade, which at least in theory is a political event.
Ironically, the Hearst Corp., which owns the Chron, has a long history of political activism, from helping start the Spanish-American War to crusading for federal antidrug laws to William Randolph Hearst's strong pre-World War II support of Adolf Hitler to the corporation's political lobbying to first create the Chronicle-San Francisco Examiner joint operating agreement, and, later, to get out of that agreement ("The publishers' six big lies", 5/10/2000).
Norr believes the paper is treading on dangerous philosophical grounds in banning antiwar protest. He also thinks that snuffing out people's political passions is a bad idea, and that it's better for journalists to be honest about their biases and disclose them in print when appropriate.
"I think the best journalism comes when people are actively engaged
in their communities and the issues of the day."