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NLRB judges scorns editor's credibility in Ziner case

In a stinging rebuke to newsroom managers at the Providence Journal, a National Labor Relations Board administrative law judge has ruled that the reassignment of a respected reporter to the night police beat ó after colleagues protested the way in which editors took her off a story following a complaint from a source ó was illegal and designed to punish her.

"No credible lawful reason exists to explain why Respondent took a veteran, award-winning reporter from the day shift and put her on the night shift covering mostly mundane matters," writes Judge William G. Kocol in a decision dated April 11. "Respondent does not contend that the assignment was related to any poor performance by [Karen] Ziner. [Metro/Managing Editor Tom] Heslinís testimony concerning why he selected Ziner is so vague and lacking in supporting foundation that I do not credit it, even apart from Heslinís general lack of credibility."

Kocolís determination that the Journal illegally transferred Ziner to the entry-level night slot is part of a decision in which he found the newspaper guilty of five of 20 alleged unfair labor practice charges. In September 2002, Kocol found the Journal guilty of 22 other charges from a separate trial ó a finding that the paper has appealed.

The Ziner episode began when she reported on a May 2001 domestic violence case in which an East Providence woman, Caitana "Tanya" Threats, was assaulted with a hammer. Ziner has said that although executive editor Joel Rawson and Heslin found no fault with her reporting, they took her off the story following complaints from Threats. About 80 ProJo staffers signed a subsequent petition to Rawson, describing a precedent that "sends a dangerous message to the public: subjects of stories can call the Providence Journal and intimidate management into removing reporters from a story, regardless of the storyís validity. It also sends a disturbing message to the staff, whose members may now infer that if they engage in hard-hitting journalism, or even simply report the facts, they may be punished if their reporting angers someone who catches managementís ear."

After being initially reported in the Phoenix, the Ziner story received national exposure on Jim Romeneskoís highly read media industry Web site at the Poynter Institute and was subsequently published in the New York Times. Heslin nonetheless testified during an October 2002 National Labor Relations Board trial in Providence that he was unaware of the petition launched in support of Ziner ó a stance that triggered considerable disbelief in Kocolís ruling:

"Indeed, Rawson, Heslinís superior was quoted in the [Timesí] story. The New York Times article pertained Heslinís own department. Further, the petition was circulated in the newsroom where Heslinís office is located. Under these circumstances, it defies belief that Heslin would not have noticed this story. Moreover, Heslinís general demeanor as a witness was not at all convincing. I conclude that Heslin was well aware of the petition and its content."

Kocolís judgment, which will almost certainly be appealed by the Journal, orders the newspaper to return Ziner to her previous dayside schedule within 14 days of the decision.

"I feel vindicated," says Ziner, a 24-year veteran who has won various recognitions, including a 1992 Overseas Press Club award for a five-part series on the closing of Cambodian border camps. "Iím thrilled because this has been an attack on me personally, on my integrity and on my reputation in the community. It has been a real nightmare trying to go in and hold my head up everyday while Iím assigned to writing the briefs and answering the telephone like Iím an office clerk or something."

Heslin declined to comment on the NLRB decision. Rawson, Mark T. Ryan, the Journalís executive vice president and general manager ó who was mentioned in the petition as a perceived influence in Zinerís reassignment Ė and Richard A. Perras, a lawyer for the newspaper, didnít return calls seeking comment.

Kocolís decision notes that Zinerís reassignment "dramatically diminished" her career opportunities. "Ziner went from reporting some of the top stories for Respondent to listening to police and fire department scanners and giving out information on the weather and lottery numbers," he writes. "Respondent attempts to counter this by pointing to the stories that Ziner did while on the night shift that appeared on the first page of the newspaper. However, these stories for the most part included topics such as tree kangaroos, stripping firefighters, and giant hogweed. These were hardly the equivalent of the award winning stories that Ziner had done in the past."

Tim Schick, administrator of the Providence Newspaper Guild, says Kocolís finding shows how management "concocted out of whole cloth a rationale for putting her [Ziner] on a menial entry-level assignment with the worst hours of any assignment in the newsroom. That shows just how mean and vindictive they can be at times."

Ziner was the second well-regarded ProJo veteran to be assigned to the night police beat in the aftermath of the newsroom petition. Morgan McVicar, a twice Pulitzer-nominated reporter who wrote the petition and was the first to sign it, abruptly left the newspaper in October 2001 rather than working the night shift. Ziner got the assignment a few days later ó the first time in at least 22 years, Kocol writes, that a reporter from Journalís Providence office, rather than a less experienced bureau staffer, received the assignment.

Despite a lack of direct evidence that the Journal had any "animus" about the newsroom petition, "the timing of the transfer supports the finding that it was motivated by Respondentís negative reaction to the petition and its attendant negative publicity," writes the NLRB judge.

Additionally, Kocol finds, "Respondentís attempt to first assign McVicar to the night shift actually serves to strengthen the case that Respondentís selection of persons to work on that shift was connected to the Ziner petition . . . We have a situation where Respondent had an opportunity to assign virtually anyone from its staff to the night shift but it selected first the leader of the petition drive and then the subject of the petition. I can not conclude that this is a mere coincidence."

The judgeís decision has not been reported in the ProJo.

Meanwhile, after a breakdown in months of off-the-record contract talks (see "A sudden halt to contract hopes," This just in, News, April 11), the Journal indicated last week that it might be amenable to disclosing its current contract offer to Guild members. The Guild newsletter, www.riguild.org, notes, "Neither the negotiating committee nor the executive board feel they can endorse the companyís proposal. But executive board members also feel that after six months of secret talks and more than three years of no raises, members have earned a chance to see what it is being proposed and to advise their union leadership on how to proceed."

Managementís expression of possible flexibility on the issue came after a petition by Guild members, who have been working without a contract for more than three years, attracted almost 240 signatures.

Issue Date: April 17 - 24, 2003
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