First Amendment, Schmirst Amendment

Herald journos and staff not AP brothers' keepers

On a recent Friday, Tony Winton and Cathy Wilson skipped lunch and headed down to the monstrous word factory on Biscayne Bay known as the Miami Herald. The two veteran Associated Press reporters took with them a stack of flyers they intended to hand to as many Herald employees as possible in one hour's time. The flyers contained a plea to journalistic colleagues: "If staying competitive is important to you, Associated Press staffers need your help."

The missive, written by members of the News Media Guild, explained that AP reporters are leaving the organization in droves because of low pay and insufficient benefits. (The guild is pushing for a new labor contract, which expired in November.) It reminded employees that the Herald, like most major news organizations, belongs to the Associated Press news cooperative, and is therefore one of its owners. The Herald made for an especially attractive target for a low-key protest because Tony Ridder, CEO of the Herald's parent company, Knight Ridder, sits on the board of the Associated Press. "We're doing this to highlight our plea with the news media," reveals Winton, an AP radio/TV reporter based in Miami and president of the guild (which represents roughly 1700 reporters nationwide). "Because in a sense, they are our owners, and they can express their support."

On January 24, Winton and Wilson, a 22-year AP veteran who covers courts in Miami, began leafleting the Herald parking lot. "They ignored us for about 40 minutes," recalls Winton. "[Then] security asked us to get out of the parking lots, which we did." The pair moved to the sidewalk in front of the Herald building and continued handing out the flyers. "Most people were very willing to take them," says Winton. "Some started reading immediately. A handful declined to take them."

That's when things got silly. As Winton and Wilson describe it, a small contingent of security guards (two uniformed and two in plainclothes), led by a well-dressed woman with a legal air, stormed over and demanded they leave the premises. The woman, who identified herself as the assistant general counsel, told them they were on private property. "This looks like a public sidewalk to me," argued Wilson, suggesting they could call the police to determine who was right. The lawyer told them that if the cops came, it would be to arrest them. Wilson says the lawyer told the security guards, "Make sure the police arrest these people." The reporters kept handing out flyers for another few minutes, while the guards urged folks walking into the Herald not to take the "union propaganda." Eventually lunch hour was over and the reporters left. Miami police confirm that a call had been made from the Herald about two people standing in front of the building refusing to leave. But the two reporters were gone by the time police arrived. "I was surprised it was only toward the end they [security] came out," Winton muses. "I guess reaction filtered through the building slowly."

Certainly this is not the first time the Herald has endured protests at its hallowed doors, some much more distracting than two middle-age reporters with leaflets. One of the more memorable involved a young Cuban exile named Ramon Mestre, who chained himself to the Herald's doors in 1976 to protest the way the newspaper ignored human-rights violations in Cuba. Later, exiles staged a hunger strike, and hundreds more demonstrated in front of the Herald to show their support. Mestre later went to work on the editorial board in 1989, then took over El Nuevo's opinion pages. Which goes to show that attitudes and possibilities at the paper have changed.

Robert Beatty, Herald general counsel, says he wasn't involved in the incident but was briefed later. To him it's a simple issue of trespassers being shooed off private property. "As I understand it they were passing out leaflets in our parking lot and on our property," he says. "Security asked them to leave and that's it. A person in my office went down and spoke to them." Beatty says the woman who spoke to the reporters was not the assistant general counsel, but declined to say who she was. Winton finds the Herald's response ironic. "This [newspaper] is a paragon of the First Amendment! -- except in front of our building," he parodies. He notes that AP reporters also visited the Philadelphia Inquirer that day, and CNN headquarters in Atlanta the day before. Reaction at each was a bit different. "In Philadelphia, management welcomed us," he says. "I guess they're used to protests in Philadelphia. Either that or it really is the 'City of Brotherly Love.'" At CNN, the issue of private property was brought up, but the AP reporter in that case called local police, who determined she was, in fact, standing on a public sidewalk. Winton says he plans to visit other local media outlets in the near future, such as the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, and TV and radio stations that are AP members. Other forms of protest, such as withholding bylines on stories, have been tried and may be used again, until some agreement with the AP can be reached.

 
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