Was Consumer Columnist's Demise Due To Editorial Cutbacks Or Advertising Interference?

The story of consumer columnist George Gombossy‘s departure from the Hartford Courant has become a “he said”/”company said” argument that seems like something out of a consumer affairs column. Was Gombossy let go for reporting on an advertiser, as he alleges, or was the elimination of his position simply part of the cutbacks taking place all over the Tribune Company?

The New York Times took a look at the issue, talking to both Gombossy and his bosses.

Mr. Gombossy said he had the column [about mattress store Sleepy's] approved by his editor. But the article did not run, and on Aug. 3, he said, he was called into the office. “I was told that my position was being eliminated, and they were going to have a different kind of consumer columnist,” he said. He said his performance reviews had always been strong. “They had no intention of laying me off until this happened.”

[Editor and print platform manager Naedine] Hazell said the Sleepy’s column was held, not killed. “George could have written about Sleepy’s,” she said. “We’ve never had and never will have a policy to favor advertisers in any form,” she said. “Our concerns had largely to do with sourcing.” In fact, she said, Mr. Gombossy’s final column, which ran on Sunday, was about an advertiser, Connecticut Light & Power.

Mr. Gombossy was laid off because he was not interested in a different position, which would focus on consumer complaints and not investigative work, Ms. Hazell said. “My understanding is that he just wasn’t interested in the direction we were going,” she said.

The consumer columnist position was eliminated, and replaced with a print/TV shared position. Gombossy claims that this position had a significantly lower salary, and did not apply for it.

Is this very public dispute a disgruntled employee’s revenge, or a troubled media company trying to cover up its lack of journalistic integrity? The parties’ stories differ enough that it’s difficult to tell.

Losing Job, Consumer Columnist Cries Foul [New York Times]

UPDATE: Gombossy has posted internal e-mails related to the meetings in question, and now claims that Hazell lied outright to the Times.

There are some interesting morsels in the chain of e-mails, and as a blogger this paragraph from an e-mail from editor Hazell caught my eye:

Going forward, I think that, journalistically, it would be
responsible to post online the comments that we also would feel
comfortable putting in print. I think that holds true in all cases,
whether the posts are about individuals, key advertisers or government
offices.

That’s a pretty high bar. The intent is logical, since the idea is to keep problematic accusations from going out under the paper’s name. But is that a fair standard? Can a blog have robust debate if all comments that say bad things about people, companies, or government agencies are held for indefinite review?

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Sleepy’s Exec Says Bedbugs Come From People
Hartford Courant Consumer Columnist Fired For Pissing Off Advertiser

(Photo: ChodHound)