Freep flap 

Reporters firing raises questions

Steve Neavling, a five-year Detroit Free Press veteran who has covered the City Hall beat for the past two years, announced last week via Twitter that he'd been fired. 

He isn't going away quietly. 

"If you support independent, objective journalism, boycott @freep for firing a reporter who stood up against city hall," Neavling wrote on his Twitter account last week.

A reporter for 13 years now, he was working at the Bay City Times when his muckraking there caught the Freep's attention and he was recruited to join the big leagues in October 2006.

With the city's financial problems making national news recently, Neavling has been front and center covering one of the biggest stories in Detroit's history. 

Two weeks ago, in the days leading up to a crucial Detroit City Council vote on a controversial consent agreement with the state, Council President Charles Pugh decided to hold a meeting to discuss the volatile issue in the council chambers rather than move proceedings to the much larger Erma Henderson Auditorium located down the hall. As a result, a couple dozen concerned citizens were reportedly forced to cool their heels in the hallway outside.

During a break Neavling asked Pugh, why not hold the meeting in a room that could accommodate the crowd? Pugh's flippant response was: "We're holding the meeting in here. That's why."

The council president then whined when the quote appeared in print.

In an April 5 letter to James Hill, metro editor of the Free Press, Pugh detailed his discontent with the decision to use the quote, indicating that Neavling had somehow sandbagged him.

"As a former journalist, I know it is proper to indicate if questions are off-the-record, on-the-record, or for background," wrote Pugh. "To publish my response to a casual question as if it were my official response is irresponsible."

Really?

A reporter asks a public official a question at a public setting. And Pugh, former journalist that he is, expects the reporter to spell out beforehand whether the response will be on or off the record? That's ludicrous. 

There's no doubt Pugh should have known that anything he said in that situation is fair game. At least there's no question here at the Hits. But it seems that Paul Anger, editor and publisher of the Freep, might disagree. 

"That was something Paul Anger was mad at me for," Neavling tells News Hits. "I didn't make clear that I was on the record. I'm sitting there as a reporter with a pen and notebook in my hands. When you're at a council meeting you don't need to say you're on the record. Now, if I was exercising with Pugh, I'd assume he would think it was off the record."

Does Anger really think every question posed by one of his reporters — even if it's a well-seasoned public official being queried— has to be prefaced by a warning that the answer could appear in print? We don't know for certain if that's what Anger expects, because he and other higher-ups at the Freep refuse to discuss anything involving Neavling with us, saying this is a personnel matter. 

Too bad, because there's even more to the story.

Before this incident, Neavling had filed a grievance claiming one of his editors had given preferential treatment to another reporter. According to Neavling, he was told to take a week off while the allegation was investigated.

He'd been back on the job a few days when the aforementioned council meeting took place. The next day, according to Pugh's letter, the council president called Neavling out.

"I said to Mr. Neavling, 'I think that was BS what you did to me the other day by putting that quote in the paper,'" Pugh recounted. "Mr. Neavling then shouted across the crowded room, 'I think what you said was BS!'"

So, let's get this straight. Pugh accuses a reporter of crap reporting. Then what? Neavling walks across a crowded room to shout his response? Or did, as Neavling alleges, the president of the Detroit City Council loudly lash out at a reporter for all to hear? If that's the case, then who's the one guilty of acting unprofessionally, President Pugh?

On April 5, the same day Pugh's letter to the Freep is dated, Neavling says he was called before Anger and managing editor Jeff Taylor. At that point, it seems, no one from the paper had seen Pugh's complaint saying he would no longer deal directly with Neavling, for a variety of reasons.

However, the reporter was already in hot water for something else. The editors, Neavling says, were upset over the fact that he'd chimed in on a Facebook thread discussing the potential outcome of City Council's pending consent agreement vote by saying, "It looks like it'll go 5-4 either way," he says.

The problem, in the eyes of the editors anyway, was that someone else had quipped earlier, "the fix is in," implying something fishy was going on between the council and the state behind closed doors. Neavling's comment, said his editors, suggested that he shared the sentiment.

At that point, they told Neavling he was off the City Hall beat. 

He didn't take the news well. Neavling suffered a severe panic attack, something he says he's dealt with throughout his life, and left the newsroom on a stretcher. 

Neavling says his doctor told him to take some time off from work, which he did. On April 18, he returned to the office for another meeting with Anger and Taylor. With Pugh's letter then in hand, they allegedly told Neavling, "We can't have a City Hall reporter who can't work with City Hall. We feel like you're out of control."

Then the ax fell.

"I was absolutely shocked," Neavling says. "I never thought in a million years that responsible, aggressive reporting would lead to my termination." 

The Free Press would not comment on the matter. 

"Normally editors would try to rehabilitate someone who was having difficulties," says Benjamin Burns, former executive editor of The Detroit News and director of the journalism program at Wayne State University. "If that was the only reason — Charles Pugh complaining ... then that would indicate he probably shouldn't have been fired."

Burns, who describes Anger as an editor who doesn't make quick and unsupported decisions, suspected there were other factors involved. "I think the Facebook comment would cause an editor to think a reporter was biased, and unable to fairly cover City Council," he says. "That alone would be grounds to remove someone from a beat. It's unlikely, in my view, that they reached this decision based on the Pugh letter. That may have been a straw in the whole thing."

Burns, who says he doesn't know Neavling, attributed part of the problem to the digital direction that journalism is headed in.

"Newspaper organizations are encouraging reporters to have blogs and make comments," he says. "Then when reporters make comments that offend the corporate folks they smack them on the knuckles. Normally, if a reporter did that, you would call them in and say, 'Hey, don't do that.' So I think there are other factors involved in [the] decision."

In fact, Neavling had been disciplined once before. About a year ago, he says, he'd had a confrontation with one of the police officers who provide security at council meetings. Again, there was an overflow crowd. Security was deciding who could get in, and who couldn't. Neavling objected when he was barred from covering the action, and began complaining that the Open Meetings Act was being violated. One of the cops shoved Neavling, hard, he says, pushing him into a wall and giving him whiplash. Neavling says he called the officer an "asshole."

The paper suspended him for three days as a result of that incident.

Neavling is now in the process of filing a wrongful termination grievance through his union. He says he expects to be reinstated, but is talking to a private attorney just in case. 

 

This week's News Hits was written by editorial intern Ryan Felton and MT news editor Curt Guyette. Contact the column at 313-202-8004 or NewsHits@metrotimes.com.

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