In a time when mainstream media are constantly telling us which opinions matter, it's refreshing to read the Washington Post's detailed, lucid piece on the firing of Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran.
In writing up Cochran's lawsuit against the city, alleging that his firing was over his religious beliefs, the Post has an indepth report worthy of the name. The story cites the allegation that Cochran was canned over his published views on homosexuality. It also cites a city investigation and a source for the mayor, saying he was actually fired for misjudgment and mismanagement.
The article is well researched, with six quoted sources and links to 13 articles and other documents. It also has a couple of stumbles and doesn't clear up all questions. But more on that later.
Here's a decent summary high in the story:
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said in January that Cochran’s firing was over his “judgment and management skills,” and that “Cochran’s personal religious beliefs are not the issue.” The city had suspended Cochran in November, after questioning whether the book’s passages on homosexuality violated the city’s non-discrimination policy.
But that is not at all how Cochran and his growing number of supporters see things.
“To actually lose my childhood-dream-come-true profession – where all of my expectations have been greatly exceeded – because of my faith is staggering,” Cochran said in a statement released with news of the lawsuit. “The very faith that led me to pursue my career has been used to take it from me.”
There's a fair amount of rhetoric like that, and the Post makes Cochran sound like an actual human rather than a talking head. The story offers some history, including a recent letter from six members of Congress on Cochran's behalf. It spends two paragraphs on whether Cochran got permission from the city's Board of Ethics to publish the book. And it shows how the case has become a cause celebre for both sides.
And special kudos to the newspaper for a point-counterpoint, matching the lawsuit complaints against the answers by the city, mainly a spokeswoman for Mayor Reed. That back-and-forth takes a third of the 1,300+ words, for a fuller understanding of the issues.
Now for the comparative nitpicks. One is the labeling of Cochran's backers, like Alliance Defending Freedom and the Family Research Council, as "conservative religious groups." When the Post lists friends of the city, including Lambda Legal and the Human Rights Campaign, it doesn't call them "liberal secular groups." Those are known here as "LGBT rights groups." Rights, as you know, trump religion.
Then there are the li'l quote marks in this sentence:
"In one section of the book, Cochran called 'homosexuality' and 'lesbianism' a 'sexual perversion' morally equivalent to 'pederasty' and 'bestiality.' "
"Pederasty" and "sexual perversion," yeah, I'll give the Post those. The first is a not-well-known term for sex between a man and a boy. And the second is clearly an opinion by Cochran, though of course he believes it to be biblical. But does anyone really not know what bestiality, homosexuality and lesbianism are?
I'm not quite ready to call them scare quotes, because, as we've seen, the story also quotes Mayor Reed saying Cochran was fired for his "judgment and management skills." That's clearly a partial quote, but apparently not the scary kind. Then again, the city's investigation of Cochran, linked from this article, uses the word "lesbian," but the Post doesn't draw attention to that.
The Post article also found on Cochran's alleged errors of judgment and management. The city says he gave his book to "at least nine employees, three unsolicited"; he says he gave copies only to other Christians or to those who asked. But we read no examples of mismanagement or disruption of the fire department. And the city's investigation cited only three cases -- out of 120 -- that Cochran overruled recommendations of his disciplinary board.
But it seems to come back to the book, as the Post notes:
Based on interviews with multiple city employees, the city’s report concluded that “there was a consistent sentiment among the witnesses that firefighters throughout the organization are appalled by the sentiments expressed in the book. There also is general agreement the contents of the book have eroded trust and have compromised the ability of the chief to provide leadership in the future.”
So the city denies Cochran was fired over the book. And it doesn't say his religion influenced his actions. And it finds no examples of mismanagement. That leaves the matter of whether Cochran published the book without permission from the city. Was that a firing offense? I guess that will be the main question for the judge.
Honestly, I'm not really asking the Post to take sides. That would amount to contradicting myself. But whether Cochran was in fact fired for his beliefs, totally apart from his performance, will be the question for whichever judge takes this case. I look forward to the follow-up coverage, especially by the Washington Post.