Funny thing about newspapers: When they are denied access to information, or threatened with a lawsuit should they print something someone doesn't want to see in print, they squeal like school girls. But when a newspaper becomes the story, the indignity vanishes.
We speak, of course, of that stalwart defender of the First Amendment, the Orlando Sentinel. On May 29, Slug reported that the Tribune Co., which owns the Sentinel and nine other daily newspapers, was recruiting scabs from its Florida papers (including the Sentinel) to replace unionized workers at the Baltimore Sun, who are threatening to go on strike if they don't reach a contract agreement by June 24. We got a lot of response to the column, and understandably so. The Sentinel doesn't think its union-breaking efforts are newsworthy.
Our sources say that scabs are being recruited with the promise of Sun pay on top of their regular pay. Who would sell their journalistic brethren down the river for a few (OK, quite a few) extra bucks, we wondered. The easiest way to find out would be to compare the masthead in the June 25 issue of the Sun with the masthead of the Sentinel, just to see if there were any names we recognize. Information doesn't get any more public than that, now does it?
But the Sentinel doesn't see it that way. On June 17, the Weekly got a letter from the Sentinel's lawyer, William B. Wilson, of the powerhouse law firm Holland & Knight, saying that if we publish the names, they'll sue. Here is what Wilson had to say:
"The Sentinel is a zealous First Amendment advocate and does not question your publication's right to criticize the newspaper. However, we are concerned about the effect such a publication of names would have on the families of the replacement workers. A publication of names does not contribute to the debate about the negotiations between organized labor and the Baltimore Sun. Its only purpose is to expose families to harassment from people in Central Florida who know nothing about the events taking place in Baltimore or the policies of the Baltimore Sun or the Tribune in relation to the labor relations."
Here's where it gets good: "Therefore, the Sentinel wants to place Orlando Weekly on notice that a publication of the names of these workers creates a palpable threat of harm to those employees and their families. On behalf of these families, we ask that the Orlando Weekly refrain from doing so."
Wilson goes on to say, "While the Sentinel does not consider being a replacement worker a defamatory fact, such a wrongful naming would hold that person in a False Light [sic] making the publication responsible for the injuries that would arise from the publication."
The logic behind this threat is laughable. The Sentinel is arguing that it should have the legal right to quash stories based on what it thinks might happen. I wonder if Sentinel reporters are subject to the same standards.
If this strike is so fraught with peril, should the Tribune Co., and by extension the Sentinel, be putting its people and their families in danger in the first place? Do they really think no one is going to notice when the Sun's masthead is full of new names from one day to the next? Is the Tribune Co. aware that even if this paper doesn't print the names, others might, and those other publications are readily accessible on the Internet? Are Tribune Co. lawyers blanketing Baltimore-area media with similar threats?
Trying to silence reporting on a legitimate story is the worst form of corporate behavior, and nothing short of disgraceful when the corporation in question wraps itself in the First Amendment when convenient. The Sentinel wouldn't tolerate such pre-emptive threats from the city of Orlando, for example; it's called "prior restraint" when the government does it. But when the tables are turned, it's time to trot out the high-priced lawyers and protect the franchise.
And therein lies the problem with media conglomerates like Tribune Co. Now that the Federal Communications Commission has virtually erased the limits on how many outlets a single company can own in a single market, monopolies won't be confined to newspapers anymore. Imagine if Tribune Co. bought a few radio stations in town, and maybe picked up a few TV stations while they were at it. Then imagine (and this is a real stretch) that journalists working at those outlets were barred from reporting on the doings of their own company. Soon enough, the company's union-busting activities fall off the radar. We'll still get plenty of gardening tips and full-on coverage of mall openings, though, so fear not.
Slug understands that it's difficult for Floridians to get their heads around the idea of a union, the Sunshine State being so historically hostile to unions and all. So as a public service, we're offering all Sentinel scabs the chance to learn a little bit about the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild, the union you are helping break, and the people who have spent their professional lives at the Baltimore Sun. It so happens that we have a sister publication in Baltimore, City Paper, which has been following the story. This week, City Paper (www.citypaper.com) went inside the contract negotiations and reports that, even though Tribune Co. made $443 million in profit on a net income of $5.38 billion last year, the company wants Sun workers to accept a one-year wage freeze, give up automatic cost-of-living increases and cut sick leave to five days a year. The story is called "Sun blocked."
"Fine, fine, fine," you say, "but what about outing the scabs?" Stay tuned.
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