In a nutshell, the jury of Chittenden County residents will have to determine if Paul Teetor was fired because he was a problem employee who failed to deliver what was expected of him, or if he was dismissed because the paper's management buckled under pressure from minority activists led by then-mayoral assistant Rodney Patterson. On the surface, Burlington's "trial of the decade" will be about whether a reporter was fired justly or unjustly. On another level, the Teetor case has torn away the corporate veil of one of America's media giants and exposed a black-and-white editorial agenda inflicted on Gannett-owned newspapers coast to coast.
Teetor was fired on the evening of March 30, 1993, the day his story on a "community forum on racism" appeared. The forum had been structured to allow minority residents to vent frustrations about their experiences before a "blue ribbon" panel of white community and government leaders. Teetor included in his article a description of what happened to a local white woman who spoke up, and the comments of Shirley Boyd Hill, a local black woman who claimed she had "belted" a white woman at a local supermarket for calling her a "nigger."
On the morning the article appeared, Patterson was so upset he began organizing a protest march in front of the paper's College Street headquarters. Simultaneously, several local blacks called the newsroom objecting to Teetor's article.
According to an internal memo written by Assistant Managing Editor Juli Metzger, Roy Hill — Shirley Hill's husband — called at 9:30 that morning "to complain that the reporting in Paul Teetor's racism story misrepresented what happened at the meeting ...Roy Hill says he has spoken to Ron T. [Editor Ron Thornburg] in the past and felt this article did not live up to the spirit of the paper's commitment to fairness. It was an injustice to the community. And this is typical of the types of subtle bias minorities face every day."
A half hour later, according to Metzger's memo, Shirley Hill called to say "she was totally misquoted" by Teetor.
About an hour later, Patterson called off his protest march after he was informed by someone at the paper — the name escaped him — that Wednesday would be Paul Teetor's last day as a Free Press employee.
At 9 p.m., Thornburg, who had just returned from a conference in Connecticut, called Teetor into the conference room and told him, "This is the end of the road. Your job as a reporter is being terminated.''
The Teetor case has drawn national attention, already receiving coverage in the Washington Post, Boston Globe, Albany Times-Union and Editor & Publisher. The Wall Street Journal is working on a story as of presstime. Hoping to prevent local media attention, the Free Press unsuccessfully sought a gag order in 1994 — a maneuver that won the paper a "Dart" from the Columbia Journalism Review. In 1996, the trial is clearly not going to escape media — or public — scrutiny.
Opening arguments before the jury are scheduled to begin Wednesday, March 6, at Chittenden Superior Court in the matter of Paul Teetor v. Gannett Co. Inc., Gannett Satellite Information Network Inc., d/b/a the Burlington Free Press, Ronald Thornburg, Judith Diebolt and Juli Metzger. (Former Editorial Page Editor Candace Page was dropped as a defendant several weeks ago.)
Teetor is seeking unspecified damages for defamation and breach of contract. Since his dismissal, he has been unable to find work as a journalist and supports himself by delivering food orders for Menus On the Move.
Since Teetor filed suit on July 12, 1993, all three defendant/editors have left the Free Press. According to testimony given in his deposition, Thornburg was threatened with a poor performance evaluation by Publisher James Carey in December 1993, and chose to resign the following month. He currently works for a paper in Ogden, Utah. Diebolt departed the following year, returning to a post at the Gannett-owned Detroit News. Metzger left in the spring of 1995 for a job at another Gannett paper in Ohio. This week they're reuniting in Burlington for the trial, sitting side-by-side at the defense table in the courtroom of Judge Alden Bryan.
The witness list comprises a who's who of local government, media and academic personalities. Members of the original forum panel, such as WCAX-TV anchorman Marselis Parsons and Burlington Police Chief Kevin Scully, are expected to take the stand. So are University of Vermont political science professor Garrison Nelson, State Rep. Bill Aswad, former president of the Burlington City Council, Deputy Secretary of State John Howland Jr., a former Free Press reporter, Rob Eley, the paper's metro editor, Free Press columnist Sam Hemingway and former Rutland Herald managing editor Steve Terry.
Since Teetor's dismissal, the Vermont press has not exactly rallied to his side. Many fellow journalists consider him abrasive and egotistical. Teetor had started his career at the Rutland Herald as a strikebreaker in 1980 and subsequently became the paper's Bennington reporter. Three times in the 1980s he was chosen "Reporter of the Year" by the Vermont Press Association. Those awards may have contributed to Thornburg's decision to woo him away from the Herald in 1990 with a $30,000-a-year position as the Free Press' investigative reporter. Thornburg did not ask any Herald editors for references. Had he done so, he may have had second thoughts about hiring Teetor.
According to performance evaluations conducted by Steve Terry — now a vice president at Green Mountain Power — Teetor had problems with productivity. Terry also questioned his journalistic ethics; he accused Teetor of "picking sides" on a story before checking it out thoroughly.
At the Free Press Teetor's initial performance evaluations were top-notch, but then began to slide. Once again, his lack of productivity was cited by superiors. He was criticized for obtaining press credentials to attend a UVM women's basketball game even though sports was not his beat. He had been taken off probation a mere two weeks before his dismissal.
But Teetor's attorneys, Ritchie Berger and Pietro Lynn, will argue that his dismissal did not follow proper procedures according to the Free Press Employees Handbook. They will note that he was never given an opportunity to defend himself, nor had Thornburg or Diebolt bothered to review the Channel 17 videotape of the community forum before firing him for alleged inaccuracies. Teetor's legal defense will be sure to compare their client's story of the minority forum with that of the "corrected" version authored by Juli Metzger and printed in the Free Press the following day.
Teetor's article, titled "Burlington's minorities describe acts of racism," appeared at the top of the paper's Vermont section on March 30, 1993. It recounted the forum, hosted by Rodney Patterson, which had convened at the Lawrence Barnes School the previous evening. Patterson was at that time the pastor of the New Alpha Baptist Church as well as assistant to the mayor. He had been appointed to that post by Progressive Mayor Peter Clavelle a month earlier. Even though Clavelle lost the election on March 3, Patterson continued on the city payroll through the end of the fiscal year despite distancing himself from the new mayor, Republican Peter Brownell.
Teetor's article reported that a white woman who spoke at the forum was "cut off" by Patterson:
An hour into the forum, Patterson cut off a white woman, Ellen Norton, who was talking about how hard it is to grow up in Burlington without knowing many blacks. "We don't know what black people are about, but we're not bad people, " Norton said into a microphone.
Patterson interrupted Norton.
"If you're coming to the mike, we want you to come as a person of color, to share your ethnic experiences," Patterson said.
When Norton protested that she had the right to speak like everyone else, Patterson called for several volunteers, who escorted Norton out of the room where the forum was being held.
"That was very rude," said Phi Doane, a leader of the Vietnamese community. "People should be together, and everyone should be allowed to speak. "
Norton, in tears, described the incident as "reverse racism," and added: "It was advertised as a public forum, and it did not say blacks and Asians only. I was just trying to tell people to look at both sides of the issue, but I was basically told to shut up. "
Teetor also reported:
Shirley Boyd Hill told of an incident at a local supermarket in which a woman in line behind her said: "Niggers are always complaining."
"So I belted her," Hill said, brandishing her cane. "I won't stand for it."
The next day, March 31, assistant managing editor Juli Metzger authored a "clarification" article, also appearing at the top of the Vermont section's first page. It was headlined, "Burlington residents organize to fight racism — Free Press clarifies initial news story." Prior to writing the article, Metzger had watched a videotape of the forum shot by Channel 17, the local government-access television station.
Metzger claimed in clarification that the Free Press "mischaracterized two incidents at Monday's meeting."
Although the gathering was designed for people of color, whites were in the audience. One white woman, Ellen Norton, said she had lived in Burlington all her life and that she believed racism was bred of ignorance. "There are more black people in this room than I knew my entire life growing up," Norton said. Each speaker was allotted three minutes. After that time, Rodney Patterson, who helped organize Monday's meeting, said:
"Let me interrupt. I don't want to lose the essence of what the forum is about," said Patterson, who is assistant to Mayor Peter Clavelle. "Tonight's forum is designed for the ethnic community to share feelings with the panel."
Patterson asked Norton to join a volunteer to continue relating her concerns that the ethnic community might "hate whites." Tuesday's story in the Free Press incorrectly implied that Norton was led out of the meeting.
An anecdote by Shirley Boyd Hill also was misleading in Tuesday's story. Hill said she had experienced racism at a local supermarket. She said she was in line talking to another woman, when yet another woman interrupted her and said, "Niggers are always complaining."
"She stuck her mouth in a conversation that had nothing to do with her," Hill explained. "I said, 'Excuse me.' She said: 'You heard me. Niggers are always complaining.' I said, 'Are you calling me a nigger?' She said, 'You're the only one standing there.'
"I said, 'Well, since you're calling me a nigger, I'll show you what a nigger acts like,' and I belted her. I am 50 years old, and I should not have to be intimidated. I won't stand for it."
Tuesday's story said Hill was brandishing a cane. Hill, who has a disability, regularly carries a cane. She did not use the cane against the woman, nor did she wave it during her remarks.
The fact is, Metzger's story doesn't jibe with the videotape. Norton was interrupted after two minutes and 41 seconds, not three minutes. In fact, people of color were allowed by Patterson to exceed the time limit by several minutes. And the video clearly shows Hill waving her cane above her head.
Black and White
Teetor attorneys Berger and Lynn have obtained internal Free Press and Gannett documents that paint a disturbing picture of corporate policy. Minority "quotas" are applied uniformly to Gannett's 85 newspapers nationwide, regardless of whether they're located in Detroit, Michigan, or Burlington, Vermont.
According to those documents, the Burlington Free Press has scored poorly on Gannett's so-called "All-American" contest that annually measures minority hiring in the newsroom as well as minority coverage in the newspaper.
A July 1992 letter from Thornburg to corporate headquarters demonstrates the pressure local management was under to comply with upper managements' politically correct dictums.
"In the past year," wrote Thornburg, "the Free Press has strengthened its commitment to All-American hiring and mainstreaming goals." He noted that Diebolt had been appointed head of the paper's All-American Committee. She had, he boasted:
- "Visited Vermont's only black church to demonstrate our interest in news about the community." [the New Alpha Baptist Church, led by Rodney Patterson]
- "Appeared on a black cable-access talk show to discuss Free Press editorial policy and urge black viewers to contact the Free Press about their stories and concerns." [Shirley Boyd Hill's show]
- "Dropped off wedding and engagement forms at ethnic grocery stores and restaurants where the minority community will find them more accessible."
- "Sent a photographer to three minority business and political forums with the assignment of photographing every minority there. Those photos, with phone numbers, are now in our library files so we can quickly obtain minority voices to react to major news events."
Thornburg's stated goal was to have at least half of those photographed for the papers "Vermont Voices" — a nowdefiinct person-in-the-street-type feature — to be "nonwhite minorities." This despite the fact that Vermont's population is a far cry from 50 percent minorities.
"Vermont Voices" increasingly became a target of public ridicule after redundant publication of the photos and views of the same prominent minority residents. Another Thornburg memo reveals that there was an editorial decision made not to run a photograph of a convicted murderer being led into court in manacles because he was black.
Many observers question why the Teetor case has not been settled out of court. Indeed, a last-minute settlement on the courthouse steps still cannot be ruled out. But it's not likely. Gannett has hired the largest, most prominent law firm in the state — Downs Rachlin Martin — to protect its interests. Bob Rachlin himself is personally heading up the defense team.
Gannett, a multi-billion-dollar media corporation, recently busted a strike at its Detroit operation. Giving in to a "problem employee" in Burlington, Vermont, would be a dent in its armor — and would set a bad example for its thousands of other employees.
The trial, which is expected to last two to three weeks, won't do the Free Press any good — regardless of the outcome. As for Paul Teetor, if the jury does find that he was improperly dismissed, that his reputation was damaged by it and that the Free Press "intentionally inflicted emotional distress" upon him, he will likely be in for a financial windfall. But if the jury believes he got just what he deserved, Paul Teetor's name is likely to survive only as the answer to a media trivia question, not as a byline — at least not in Vermont.