Sunday, June 01, 2008

The Right to Write?

Decent Sunday morning reading: The sad-but-true tale of my firing from CNN gets another set of news legs, compliments of the American Journalism Review.

In all honesty, Kevin Rector has written a thoughtful and thorough article on the current conflict over personal internet writing among journalists. It details the questions being raised, the institutions that are making their policies crystal clear, and the ones which seem to be sticking their heads in the sand and hoping that this whole blogging fad will pass.

(American Journalism Review: "Murky Boundaries" by Kevin Rector/5.30.08)


VOTAR said...

Good article. Even the two examples that Rector cites of "extremely precise guidelines" for blogging outside of the workplace (NYT and LAT) suggest that a primary function of these policies is to both protect the reputation of the parent company and to prevent competition from within -- or the perception of either. As precise as they may want to try to be, this idea still seems quite vague, and arguably impossible to enforce in any uniform way. The quote from the LAT is quite telling: "approval will be granted only if the proposed blog meets the paper's journalistic standards." In other words, once a journalist, always a journalist. That's a very interesting stretch of the limits of corporate control over the lives of its employees.

Having never worked for a large company ever in my life (except maybe that one miserable, greasy summer at McDonald's in high school), I have no experience like this, which makes your situation so interesting to me. When my business partner and I drafted our partnership agreement, we put in a clause that gave me a little lee way to accept clients on my own, and make a few side commissions that go straight into my pocket rather than our mutual account. The clause was vague but there was an understanding that such side projects should be for relatively small commissions, and I was obligated not to compete with our regular business or to create conflicts of interest by using partnership resources for private gain.

Even the parts of that mutual arrangement that were put in writing are vague, and I can assure you I have, over the years, violated it on more than one occasion. Clients often seek me out as an alternative when they have relatively small or uncomplicated jobs that the partnership would otherwise turn down because they would be unprofitable for us. It's tricky because sometimes it means living a double life as a professional, almost the career version of keeping a mistress. I have to be selective about giving out my cell phone number and finding ways to avoid having an unwitting "after hours" client send communications to me through my "day office." I'm not really doing anything wrong, it's just better to adopt the George Costanza credo, to keep worlds from colliding.

It occurs to me after reading this article though that the distinction between my career and your situation is a financial one. Yes, what I do while representing myself as a sole practitioner could wind up also coloring the reputation of the partnership, so there is a real need to be careful because my business lives and dies on reputation. But the risk of violating my de facto no-compete partnership agreement is relatively low considering that taking a few side jobs here and there is pretty commonplace in my profession. It gets dicey if doing so takes income away from the partnership, and before now I hadn't considered this question in your case: since you started blogging as a hobby without much if any financial reward from other media companies, were you ever competing (in a business sense) with the interests of CNN?

Having had friends such as you for many years who all work(ed) in television news, I got used to one rather commonplace phenomenon: you all know each other, and you all dish dirt about that industry. When you started DXM, the posts you included that dealt with your experiences behind the scenes at CNN I always regarded as just an extension of all the many conversations I used to witness -- so many of them between employees of "competing" news affiliates. Knowing how all of you kept hopscotching around from one station to another, and hearing all the funny stories that no one seemed concerned about keeping particularly private, I was left with the impression that this industry is more like a big convention than a collection of separate, competing storefronts. And I guess that's what I found most surprising when you were fired, for doing what everyone in that industry does anyway at every social gathering I ever attended with the rest of you. Widening the broadcast by occasionally publishing these conversations to the entire planet does, I guess, change the sensitivity level, but as you stood to gain nothing by writing literally for yourself, it's still intriguing that an employer like CNN would treat such a situation as a threat rather than handle it as a lapse of judgment on your part that could be easily, and privately, managed.

On the one hand, if one day twenty years ago, after putting in a miserable ten hour shift slaving over a McRib station, I decided to walk across the street and get a (vastly superior) meal at Burger King, my McDonald's slave lords probably couldn't have done much about it (except sadistically put me on grease trap pumping duty for a month or something) unless maybe I was wearing their uniform. But blogging on the internet is sort of like having lunch at the food court in a shopping mall, where everyone may be wearing their work clothes, but they're not on the clock. I suppose though that it could be argued that what you did, by writing things like "one day Ed Litvak did this or that," is give away the recipe of CNN's secret sauce.

Damn now all my food metaphors have made me hungry.

Anonymous said...


All that legal partnership talk to too damn sexy Votar! ;)

After reading the entire article that you linked to and disgesting (sorry Votar but food analogies seem appropriate) the information for a while, I would like to know the following:

1. Why is it okay for CNN to have their on air "personalities" blog? (Seriously it's the suckiest blog especially AC360 with all the vomit inducing fawning and the same six low IQ'd retards posting drivel all day on each and every single post)
2. Why is it okay for Klein to post at the "CNN insider" on TVNewser to get his messages of hatred out?
3. Why is it okay for Klein to do this ( about himself on a blog?
4. Why is it okay for them to have a "Gestapo" (from the story of your firing) watching their staff blogging and generally spying on staff but they have no one watching the staff ( steal from the mailroom? (Would this be why Klein carries a large suitcase to work every day instead of a briefcase like a normal person?)

If you can answer any of these questions Chez, I'd really appreciate it.

Chez said...

Votar --

That's right! There ain't no freakin' fries!

Anon --

I wish I could answer any of your questions to some satisfaction, unfortunately, I just don't have a damn clue why any of that happens (or doesn't).

Anonymous said...

I can answer one of them. It is a briefcase, not a suitcase. But it's one of those metal briefcases like the kind evil guys have their henchmen carry and fill with money in bad crime movies.