Virginia Gerst calls it the “easiest and the hardest decision I have ever made.”
She’s referring to the day she walked away from a job she’d held for two decades rather than compromise her integrity.
Gerst was arts and entertainment editor at Pioneer Press, a chain of weeklies in suburban Chicago. In May 2003, she printed a critical review of a restaurant that was a major advertiser.
Her publisher was aghast; he apologized to the restaurant owner and promised a new review. A marketing executive wrote it, and Gerst was ordered to publish the review immediately.
“I understand these are tough times for newspapers. But economic concerns are not sufficient to make me sacrifice the integrity of a section I have worked for, cared about and worried over for two decades,” she wrote in her resignation letter.
As word spread, e-mails of accolade flooded in. The Chicago SPJ chapter, the Headline Club, gave her its Ethics in Journalism Award last year. A week later, she received the Payne Award for Ethics in Journalism from the University of Oregon.
She also received “two very flattering offers for jobs” but chose to go into freelance writing instead. She likes the flexibility.
Gerst says she’s never regretted her decision, though she gets wistful about the Pioneer Press now that the owners are putting money back into it.
Jon Leiberman had butted heads with his bosses at Sinclair Broadcasting Group for months over what he considered ethical issues. Then came the final straw.
The company planned to air “Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal,” a 40-minute film critical of Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, just before the November election. Sinclair labeled the special a news program.
Leiberman, chief of the company’s Washington bureau, publicly criticized the decision. He was swiftly fired.
If Sinclair had presented “Stolen Honor” as a documentary or commentary, Leiberman says, he wouldn’t have spoken out.
“But they knew they could get away with more if they pegged it as news,” he said.
A noncompete clause that expires in mid-April keeps Leiberman from taking a job in any community served by Sinclair, but he hasn’t lacked for work.
He completed a documentary — not a news program, he makes clear — on the American veteran for the Veterans Administration. He signed on with “America’s Most Wanted” for a month. He hopes to land a Baltimore TV job once his contract is moot.
He has had no regrets.
“I knew inside I did the right thing,” Leiberman says. “Many other people at Sinclair thanked me. … I don’t like not having a full-time job, but I knew I couldn’t continue at Sinclair.”
DEBRA J. SAUNDERS
Debra J. Saunders acknowledges she was wrong. She never should have put her card in a fishbowl at that reception during the bioethics trade show last summer.
The San Francisco Chronicle columnist thought she was getting on an e-mail list, not entering a drawing for first-class tickets on Virgin Airlines with amenities such as massages and an open bar. Once Saunders realized her error, she knew she was going to win the package worth $20,000.
Her premonition was right. Her name was drawn.
Saunders immediately turned down the prize.
She was at the reception to interview the British science minister. Accepting the prize while on the clock would just look wrong, she says.
She’s flattered by the attention she has received since then, which she calls “dessert — and the icing on the cake is I get credit for doing the right thing.”
Fellow Chronicle columnists wrote about her. The Poynter Institute’s Aly Colon featured Saunders in a column. Her newspaper gave her a $500 bonus.
But she’s also bemused by the attention. She knows other journalists have sacrificed their jobs over ethics.
“What those reporters did took real courage,” Saunders said. “I just said no to something I shouldn’t get.”
STEVE MARTIN, RON BAST
Steve Martin and Ron Bast were excited about the work they were doing. The publisher and editor at a startup chain of weeklies in California saw their work was picking up readers and making a difference. New editions were opening as 1999 turned to 2000.
And then came the order from the owner, a developer who is a devout Catholic: Abortion and homosexuality could be shown only in a bad light in his newspapers. There would be no positive news, no calendar listings, no readers’ leaders supporting either cause.
Bast, then the editor of the Atascadero Gazette, protested. He showed his bosses copies of journalism ethics codes — to no avail. So he quit. Martin did, too. They were followed by a dozen other reporters and editors. Eventually, more than 30 people left over the policy, Martin says.
“We had a number of talks to try to preserve journalistic integrity,” Martin says. “We had been developing a good readership. But when we saw what the choice was, there was only one thing we could do.”
“Small-town people depend on their local paper for information they can’t get anywhere else. If they’re getting tweaked news out of the local paper, they aren’t being served.”
Advertisers bailed out, too. The papers limped along for another two years, but all have now closed or been sold, Bast says.
Bast says he was always frustrated by those who cast the controversy as a debate over abortion and homosexuality, missing the finer point.
“This issue isn’t about homosexuality. It is an issue that revolves around ethics in journalism and fairness to the community and readers.”
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