Friday, January 27, 2006

CHCA Creates Alternate Reality; Tosses Walsh

The mark of the beast is on this decision by the CHCA Board of Directors. Lawrence Walsh was removed from the board for alleged "sabotage." This group must be living in an alternate reality. To call Walsh a liar in the face of Mishak's letter is the true unspeakable lie. In a post received this morning, the two staffers who left give their story; a direct contradiction of the board's claim that Lawrence Walsh "sabotaged" the paper. Sabotage --pretty strong accusations. I wonder if they can defend it in court; civil or chancery. This action is pathetic; a chilling warning to anyone who crosses this board's path. 'We will get you,' they are telling us. What a mess they have made.

The report follows.

From the Board
Although associate editor Mishak was given full support and editorial control for the transition period following Jim's resignation, he nevertheless also resigned on Oct. 28, throwing the Local into even more turmoil.

It is the right of any board member to question the policies of the board. But to work to convince a young man to quit a job and forego a paycheck he needs to make a political point for someone else is heartless on its face. To try to convince him that he will be fired by those in charge is, in this case certainly, an unspeakable lie. And for a board member with fiduciary responsibility for the health of the paper to urge its staffers to abandon it in crisis is not principled dissent. It is sabotage."

"For the record … the truth," Chestnut Hill Local, Jan. 12, 2006

Messages frrom Mishak (first) and Sturdivant

Let's set the record straight:

I am not a liar. I stand by my account of events as stated in my resignation letter, which makes clear to anyone who cared to read it that both the Local management and the CHCA leadership found me to be untrustworthy in the wake of Jim Sturdivant's resignation and managing editor Nancy Berger's impending leave, putting an "editorial consultant" on the paper's payroll to prevent any further criticism in the public square.

I was explicitly told by Local business manager Kari Ghezarian (whose role in the newspaper's operation at this point had ballooned to unchecked levels), "It's an issue of trust," and that the powers-that-be did not trust me to run their newspaper.

I was just a lowly English major in college, but getting my own personal minder plus a vote of no confidence by what was essentially the publisher did not equal "full support and editorial control" in my book. Upon review, it still doesn't. Deeply insulted, I made my decision to resign in the early morning hours of Oct. 28. I had sought advice from a number of individuals, ranging from family members and friends to colleagues and CHCA board members, but in the end, my decision was my own. It is one that I do not regret. (Philadelphia City Paper and Philadelphia Style, among others, have been quite pleased with my departure from the Local.)

To be sure, by mid-October, leaving the Local was hardly an abstract thought in need of some coaxing. It was, in fact, on my mind since that August, when the CHCA publisher's committee – the body charged with all things Local – proved itself to be little more than a hollow cabinet of political appointees, most of whom were apparently rewarded by the administration for their dogged criticism of the newspaper and outright threats. (Just one member, Lawrence Walsh, had previous experience in the fields of publishing and journalism.)

L. George Parry, the committee chairman, told the editor that "trouble [was] brewing" as a result of his editorial direction. "You may be picking a fight you can't win," Parry said. There was even talk of Sturdivant's ouster, with a few anonymous CHCA board members leading the charge. I expressed my concern that night that most Local staffers, nearly the entire editorial staff and certainly the entire production department, felt as if they were working without the support of their publisher, the CHCA. I followed up the next day with a memo to the committee, elaborating on the issues that I felt needed to be addressed before the Local could move forward with any sort of comprehensive plan. It was dead-on-arrival. Besides a few inane e-mails from one committee member, the detailed analysis was virtually ignored. Then, a week later, came chairman Parry's call for the CHCA to sell its troublemaking newspaper.

There was never any real dialogue. The discussion was over before it began. In the Local offices, already-low morale sunk even further. The era of restructuring was abruptly announced with the firing of the newspaper's veteran advertising manager. Without the benefit of a contingency plan, anxious staffers were told to pick up the pieces and soldier through. Soon, without any staff consultation, a new administrative position was created, one that would carry veto power on editorial content, or so employees were told. Within weeks, Sturdivant was dubbed "senior editor," demoted in the masthead and issued his first order to kill content. The message was clear: There was a new boss in town (or were there three?).

Understandably, Sturdivant gave his notice, leaving the CHCA a month to find a suitable, qualified replacement. A day later, he was relieved of his duties as editor and given just a few hours to clean out his desk and clear the building. (A longtime CHCA board member and officer, who could hardly be considered a dissident, told me later that while he thought the set of circumstances surrounding Sturdivant's resignation did not meet the legal definition of a constructive firing, "it was certainly the moral equivalent.")

Again, the publisher had no Plan B. Slack-jawed staffers were left to their own devices as a deadline loomed and my request for a staff meeting was denied. "Onward and upward," managing editor Berger told me. Employees, hysterical and in fear for their jobs, were left to simmer for a week before management made any attempt to explain the whirlwind it set into motion. Most Local readers learned of the shakeup by way of a note in the editorial box, drafted by the managing editor and signed by the CHCA president, that raised more questions than it answered.

To top it all off, I arrived at work my final Wednesday to the scene of a crime. Someone had jimmied the lock on my office door. The knob itself came off in my hand. Given the gross instability at the Local in recent weeks, the sight of forced entry was devastating. I reported the break-in at the staff meeting that day, only to be treated to faux shock and empty talk of security cameras for 8434 Germantown Ave. It was also learned at that time that someone had tampered with files on a production computer. After more than three hours, the meeting broke, leaving crucial questions unanswered and a staff with no clear direction. "Who is the editor," one production staffer asked. There was no reply.

By the next day, the talk of changing the "outdated" Lentz Policy was stronger than ever, with managing editor Berger feverishly pushing the cause. "You don't criticize your boss," she said, backing it all up with stacks of what she called "homework," policy statements from corporate publishing behemoths like Knight Ridder, a far cry from the unique beast that is the Local. She told me to "go easy" and to "play it straight" while she was away for a week caring for her new grandchild. Then came the push for a guarantee of silence regarding the CHCA. Barring that, I was getting a babysitter. End of story.

I (and I predict that I'm not alone) walk away from the front page "correction" of Jan. 12 with the impression that the blame for the collapse of a community institution rests squarely at the feet of two hysterical ex-staffers and a few community dissidents. Again, for the record, by the time of my resignation, the writing was on the wall. The outcome would have been the same regardless of the advice I sought out and received from numerous parties. Employment at the Local was hardly secure. The place was an emotional war zone, the epitome of a hostile workplace. Ex-staffers shouldn't be repeatedly blamed for "abandoning" the Local because the publisher had already done that months before, creating an environment that stifled the very practice of traditional journalism and an independent free press. The only unspeakable lie is what the CHCA powerbrokers tried to pass off as "the truth." The only sabotage is that of the administration itself, stacking the deck and then pointing fingers when principled men don't play along.

To the CHCA leadership: Come on, grow up. Stop the smear campaign and start accepting responsibility for the crisis that you strategically forced. The fallout is on your hands alone. The lesson: From the White House to Town Hall, placing politics ahead of competence always ends in disaster.

I smell fear. The piece stinks of it. Finally, after months of drivel in the Local, we're treated to something that hardly approaches "the truth," a shameful piece of revisionism that would make some spin doctors in Washington proud. (You can use that last bit for the dust jacket if you ever decide to publish your "truth" in book form.) As the CHCA approaches another election, it appears that the ruling party is doing little more than observing the most basic rule of politics: The best defense is a good offense.

As a reporter who has covered his fair share of campaigns, I can confidently say, unfortunately for the community-at-large, the incumbents are also engaging in another exercise prized by many a successful politician: LYING.

Michael J. Mishak



Statement for the CHCA board of directors 1/26/05

Any suggestion that Lawrence Walsh engaged in pre-publication review, assumed some sort of behind-the-scenes oversight of editorial operations of the Chestnut Hill Local or attempted in any way to influence the decisions I made as editor regarding the content of, or positions taken within, the newspaper is false. Such accusations are rooted not in fact but in a campaign to discredit Walsh because of his strenuous, and admittedly sometimes strident, criticisms of the board leadership. His opinions reflect the opinion and feelings of a segment of the Chestnut Hill community and should be tolerated – indeed, under the proper circumstances, welcomed -- by this board. Any move to kick Walsh off the board of directors will be perceived by the community as one of the most blatant among recent attempts to squelch dissent in this purportedly democratic organization.

I have always respected Walsh for his journalistic experience, abilities and scruples and appreciated his advice and opinion on matters related to the ongoing battle to preserve the integrity of the Local, but I never solicited from him, and he never provided, any dictates on how to run a community newspaper. In my capacity as editor, I treated Walsh as I treated other board members, running an opinion piece written by him about the Hiram Lodge proposal (which, for the record, I edited down significantly), printing his candidate’s statement during board elections in April (Walsh ran, and was reelected on, a position that laid out clearly his criticisms of some leadership initiatives and desire to protect the newspaper’s independence), and, in at least one instance, criticizing him in print (in a May 5, 2005 editorial about Hiram Lodge). I never asked Walsh for any help in editing or writing material for the paper. At no point was he aware in advance of the content of any of my editorials. At no time did Mishak or I provide him with advance copies of stories or editorials that were to run in the paper, nor did he ever ask me or any other staff member at the paper to see such material. Ask Dornemann if she can honestly say the same about the last editorial I wrote for the newspaper.

Regarding matters at the Local, Walsh never conducted himself in a way that was patronizing, disrespectful or meddlesome. We exchanged e-mails on occasion, but he never suggested that I change the way I covered stories, “hold off” on writing about certain subjects or take a different tack in my editorials. For that matter, he never, to my recollection, specifically praised any of the paper’s editorials or news stories. Were he to have felt the need to comment on my or Mike’s approach to journalism, he would certainly have done so in the paper’s opinion pages.

Walsh understands the value of being above board and never said anything to me regarding the CHCA that he did not repeat at public meetings. To varying degrees, I shared some of his opinions about issues/individuals and disagreed with him on others. As George Parry has said on several occasions, board members should feel free to bring their opinions about issues in the community or specifically related to the CHCA to the Local’s editor. To kick Walsh out for doing just that would represent the height of hypocrisy.

James Sturdivant

1 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow! These people will just not back off. Thank you, John Lombardi, for starting this blog. Thank all of you who contribute to it.

Fri Jan 27, 11:49:00 AM EST  

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