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In Media Downturn, Reporters Get Litigious


In an age of layoffs, it's hard to sue for job security.


The ego of reporters is legendary, but a lawsuit by the Hartford Courant's former consumer affairs columnist takes absurdity to new heights.

George Gombossy says the newspaper forced him out of his job last summer, violating his free-speech rights.

In a lawsuit filed Tuesday in Hartford Superior Court, Gombossy alleges that the newspaper's management objected to his columns and blog posts because he was critical of advertisers. He alleges that the newspaper said it couldn't afford to lose advertisers angered by his comments.

"Our suit, if successful, should result in less pressure on journalists to commit unethical acts on behalf of advertisers as media publishers will know that it will be at their peril," Gombossy said in a prepared statement.

He seeks lost wages and benefits as well as unspecified punitive damages.

Assuming everything Gombossy alleges is true -- almost certainly a stretch -- the proper response should be: So what?

Gombossy or any reporter at any newspaper isn't guaranteed a job. This just in: Newspapers exist to make money for the publisher -- not as a platform to display the writer's brilliance.

Credibility serves as a check on a publisher's ability to muzzle reporters who go after sacred cows, including advertisers. If a newspaper pulls its punches, readers won't trust the publication and will turn elsewhere for news and opinion. This means a smaller readership, making the paper less attractive to advertisers -- and that means lower revenue. This informal system of checks and balances has generally served the public well.

In any case, reporters and columnists are reassigned or fired all the time. Cutbacks are common in the newspaper industry, especially in the current downbeat economy. A column critical of privately held mattress retailer Sleepy's hardly seems like a First Amendment case.

In a prepared statement, the newspaper said:

"George Gombossy has consistently mischaracterized the circumstances surrounding his departure from the Hartford Courant for his own personal gain. Mr. Gombossy was not under any contract requiring his continued employment as our consumer reporter, and a business decision was made to move in another direction that did not require his particular talents."

This shouldn't be hard to understand, even for an ink-stained wretch.

The Los Angeles Times purchased the newspaper in 1979. Andrew Kreig, a former Courant reporter wrote, Spiked: How Chain Management Corrupted America's Oldest Newspaper. Maybe so, but thanks to the Internet, there are plenty of other news outlets. The Hartford Courant is now part of the Tribune Company. Sam Zell took the company private in 2007 and it filed for bankruptcy protection in December 2008.

Lawsuits similar to Gombossy's are almost routine. Former news anchor Dan Rather's lawsuit against his former employer, CBS Corporation (CBS) is perhaps the best known.

Earlier this week, the appellate division of the New York State Supreme Court ruled unanimously to dismiss Rather's $70 million lawsuit against the network. Rather had a long and distinguished career at CBS, but he got the story of President George W. Bush's National Guard record wrong. CBS reassigned Rather and he stepped down from his anchor slot. He later alleged that CBS had violated his contract.

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