The reporter who hit 'send'

Let me take you back to the morning after the election last fall when Maine voters overturned that state's same-sex marriage law. You're a veteran newspaper reporter named Larry Grard. You're a Christian. You work for the Morning Sentinel, part of a chain of papers owned by MaineToday Media. Your company editorialized in support of same-sex marriage, but you disagree. You show up at work that post-election Wednesday -- apparently after sleeping very little -- and your fuse is a little short. Maybe a whole lot short. Your crank up your e-mail, and a news release from the Human Rights Campaign, a national gay rights organization, is waiting. You read this statement, and it offends you:

"Although we lost our battle in Maine, we will not allow the lies and hate -- the foundation on which our opponents built their campaign -- to break our spirits. We are on the right side of history and we will continue this fight," said Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese.

How do you respond? Remember, you chose a profession where you're supposed to keep your opinion to yourself. Particularly on the job. But ... this really nags at you. So, you log into a personal e-mail account and fire up a response. You hit the send button on this message:

"Who are the hateful, venom-spewing ones? Hint: Not the Yes on 1 crowd. You hateful people have been spreading nothing but vitriol since this campaign began. Good riddance!"

Your boss finds out about the e-mail. You're fired. And before long, you're making national news, claiming you're the victim of religious discrimination. But your boss insists that the firing was not about same-sex marriage or religious discrimination, but rather a serious breach of the company's employee and journalistic expectations.

The Portland Newspaper Guild, which represents Morning Sentinel newsroom employees, files a grievance on your behalf, saying that the union contract calls for progressive discipline when dealing with an employee. The union negotiates what it considers a satisfactory settlement on your behalf. But you have not accepted the offer.

Instead, as the Bangor Daily News reported this week, you take this approach:

Now, Grard, who said he simply was responding to what he felt was hate speech directed at Christians, is fighting his dismissal with the help of two groups committed to preserving religious rights.

The Catholic League of New York, the nation's largest Catholic civil rights organization, and the Christian Anti-Defamation Commission of California both are providing counsel to Grard as he pursues legal options.

Grard's attorney, Michael Pospis with the New York law firm the Boyd Group, said he recently submitted paperwork with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which is the first step toward filing a formal federal lawsuit. Grard also has filed a complaint with the Maine Human Rights Commission.

"We look forward to pursuing all available state and federal remedies in light of what appears to be a textbook case of religious discrimination," Pospis said in an e-mail Monday.

So, after all that buildup, here's my take: This case is about journalism, not religion. In a traditional model of journalism, news reporters shouldn't do stupid things like send opinionated e-mails to a national gay rights organization. This reporter screwed up.

Here's my other take: When a veteran reporter is fired for a one-time lapse that just happens to clash with his own paper's editorial position, there is ample reason to be skeptical and seek full disclosure of the facts and circumstances of the firing. In other words, is this case really about journalism, not religion?

On the journalism side, the reports I have read fail to make clear whether Grard actually covered the same-sex marriage election for his newspaper. If he did, how fair was his reporting? Could an independent observer spot any bias? Is there any indication that his personal beliefs influenced what he wrote? Similarly, is there any evidence that the paper's editorial position influenced news coverage -- by Grard or others? Regardless of his beat, what kind of reputation does Grard have among sources and readers? Up to this point, was his work respected? Does he have a reputation as a hot head? Or did he send one boneheaded e-mail and pay severely for it?

On the religion side, what evidence -- besides his firing -- can Grard produce to support his claim of discrimination? How vehemently did the paper's publisher and top officials support the same-sex marriage law? Did any of them contribute financially to the gay rights campaign? As for Grard, how openly has he practiced his faith, and what ramifications, if any, has that created for him on the job? Has religion always been important to Grard, or did he find it -- in a hurry -- after sending the e-mail?

This impresses me as an important story -- for the worlds of journalism and religion -- and one that deserves additional scrutiny by reporters.

It's likely that this won't be the last such case that we read about, as the Bangor story noted:

Michael Socolow, a journalism professor at the University of Maine who teaches media ethics, said Grard's case may become more common in ever-changing newsrooms.

"In the era of Facebook and blogging and multiple e-mail address, reporters have to be extra sensitive in interacting with audiences," he said. "Reporters never used to have the kind of direct communication with their audience that they have today."

Socolow said Grard likely erred by engaging with a reader the way he did but also said, "Reporters need freedom to do the job."

What's your take? Please, as always, stick to the journalistic issues in your comments.

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