Veteran Berkeley technology reporter Henry Norr has reached a settlement with the San Francisco Chronicle, which suspended him last April, ostensibly for participating in protests before the Iraq invasion started.
Norr agreed not to disclose the financial specifics, but the amount was substantial enough that he’s planning to do only free-lance writing for a while. The Chronicle will continue to pay his retirement and health benefits.
Norr fans, especially East Bay techies, turned the firing into a major cause celebre, setting up a website, whereishenrynorr.com, and replacing the cover sheets on Chronicle coin boxes around Berkeley’s Bart station and elsewhere with ‘Where is Henry Norr?’ posters. They also organized a demonstration on his behalf at one of Executive Editor Bronstein’s public appearances, and called for circulation and advertising boycotts.
The Chronicle’s Monday story about the settlement claims that “Norr’s termination occurred as a result of events arising out of his role in anti-war protests against the current war in Iraq.” Norr concedes that his Iraq opposition, including his arrest in San Francisco, played a part in his eventual firing, but he thinks there’s more to the story. His statement, published in Monday’s Chronicle article, says that “because I didn’t violate the ethics policy the Chronicle had in place at the time, it is clear I was fired because of my political views—my opposition to the war in Iraq and Israel’s occupation of Palestine.”
In an interview with the Daily Planet Monday, Norr went on to say that “I can’t prove it, but I have a strong suspicion that one of the main reasons I was fired is because of my support for Palestine.”
Norr’s July 2002 column about a billion-dollar Israeli Intel plant built on land guaranteed to Palestinians in a 1948 treaty was the subject of a heated campaign by pro-Israel groups, and he incurred further criticism for a vacation trip to the Occupied Territories with the International Solidarity Movement.
He himself is Jewish by background, though not religious, and he answers accusations that he’s anti-Semitic with the quip that “anti-Semites used to be people that hated Jews, but now they’re people that Jews hate.”
Chronicle Managing Editor Robert Rosenthal told the Planet he couldn’t comment on Norr’s charges because he wasn’t around when the Intel story appeared. He joined the paper in October of 2002.
Phil Bronstein and Deputy Editor Narda Zacchino, who were there, are both out of town, and Chronicle “Reader’s Representative” Dick Rogers told the Planet he knew nothing more about the issue than he’d read in Monday’s article about the settlement.
Verbatim publication of Norr’s statement was a major sweetener of the deal for him.
He said that the Chronicle retained the right to do a final edit on his words, but “in fact they didn’t make changes, though they added their part. My [Newspaper] Guild lawyers were blown away—they’d never heard of such a thing.”
Under the union contract between the Chronicle and the Media Guild, unresolved grievances go to binding arbitration. In November 2003, Norr went to Palestine to participate again in the International Solidarity Movement. When he returned, he learned through the Guild’s lawyers that management was eager to settle instead of going through with the case.
“Basically,” he said, “they offered me some money, my pension and other retirement benefits (which I would otherwise have lost), and publication of an article like the one that appeared today.”
He told the Planet that the Chronicle promised him an unpleasant future at the paper even if he won. “They implicitly threatened that even if they were ordered to reinstate me, they’d never let me write for the paper again—they’d make me a copy editor or a mailboy or something—and the lawyers advised that there wouldn’t be much I could do about that, because determining the actual work assignment is considered a management prerogative. All in all, that wasn't a very attractive scenario,” he said.
The downside, he noted, aside from not getting his job back, is that he has to withdraw the complaint he filed with the state labor commission, which means he doesn’t get to challenge the illegality of his firing.
The Chronicle article quoted managing editor Rosenthal as denying that the paper had violated any laws. Norr wondered whether Rosenthal had ever read sections 1101-1106 of the California Labor Code, which states, Norr says, with no qualifications and no exemptions for journalists or anyone else, that “No employer shall make, adopt, or enforce any rule, regulation, or policy ...controlling or directing, or tending to control or direct the political activities or affiliations of employees” and “No employer shall coerce or influence or attempt to coerce or influence his employees through or by means of threat of discharge or loss of employment to adopt or follow or refrain from adopting or following any particular course or line of political action or political activity.”
Norr had one final comment on the statement attributed to Rosenthal in the article that appeared today: “On the question of the appearance of conflict of interest, it's astonishing to me that he uses that as a justification for preventing an antiwar demonstrator from covering personal technology, yet apparently sees no problem in having a Sacramento bureau chief whose wife is Arnold Schwarzenegger's deputy chief of staff, and was previously a flack for Maria Shriver.”