San Francisco Chronicle Fires Reporter For Attending Peace Protest

Former Chronicle columnist Henry Norr talks to Democracy Now!


The following interview aired on the national listener-sponsored radio program "Democracy Now!" on April 24, 2003

Amy Goodman, Democracy Now! host: The San Francisco Chronicle has fired technology columnist Henry Norr. He was arrested while taking part in an anti-war rally last month. Norr was participating in the massive direct-action protest that spread across the Bay area on they day after the US invasion of Iraq began.

The next day his column on computers and technology was pulled. He was suspended for a month and now he's been officially fired.

The paper has refused to comment on the case. Yesterday we talked to two of the Chronicle's top three editors, executive editor Phil Bronstein, and Asst. Executive Editor Narda Zacchino. They both declined to come on the show, citing the newspaper's policy not to publicly discuss personnel issues.

At the time of his arrest last month, Chronicle policies did not ban participation in demonstrations. The paper's ethics policy stated that "the Chronicle does not forbid employees from engaging in political activities, but needs to prevent any appearance of a conflict of interest." The official line from the Chronicle is that Henry Norr was suspended and then fired because he had allegedly falsified his time card.

But according to unnamed sources within the Chronicle interviewed by the San Francisco Examiner, there was only one reason and that was politics. Not only had Norr protested the invasion of Iraq, but he was also outspoken on the Israel/Palestine issue.

Henry Norr joins a growing number of journalists who've lost their jobs or columns due to their views on war. Two months ago, MSNBC cancelled Phil Donahue's show. A leaked internal memo claimed that Donahue would present "a difficult public face for NBC in a time of war. He seems to delight in presenting guests who are anti-war, anti-Bush and skeptical of the administration's motives." The report warned the Donahue show could be "a home for the liberal anti-war agenda at the same time as our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity."

Brent Flynn, a reporter for the Lewisville Leader in Texas, was told he could no longer write a column for the paper in which he had expressed anti-war views.

Kurt Houghly, a reporter and columnist for Michigan's Huron Daily Tribune, quit the paper after allegedly being told that an anti-war column he'd written would not run because it might upset readers.

War Correspondent Peter Arnett was fired from NBC after he told Iraqi TV, in which he said the war -planners had "misjudged the determination of Iraqi forces" and that there was "a growing challenge to President Bush about the conduct of the war."

And Ed Gernin, a veteran TV producer who worked with CBS, was fired after he compared state of US affairs today with that of Nazi Germany. While plugging the CBS miniseries Hitler, Gernin described the series like this: "It basically boils down to an entire nation gripped by fear who ultimately choose to give up their civil rights and plunge the whole nation into war. I can't think of a better time to examine this history than now."

Well we turn now to Henry Norr, the fired San Francisco Chronicle technology writer. Welcome to Democracy Now.

Henry Norr, former San Francisco Chronicle columnist: Thank you, Amy, it's a pleasure to be here.

Amy Goodman: It's good to have you with us. Well, can you respond to the San Francisco Chronicle's firing? How are you feeling right now? What's your response?

Henry Norr: Well, the firing wasn't a surprise. From the time I was arrested, there were a lot of indications from inside the paper that they intended to get rid of me for good. And in the month that I was in limbo, there got to be more and more evidence of that.

You know, I think it's an outrage because it's part of this trend that you nicely described and just yesterday you had, Bruce Springsteen, I think, defined it nicely. He said the pressure coming from the government and big business to enforce conformity of thought concerning the war and politics goes against everything this country is about. But I would amend that myself to say everything this country should be about but often isn't.

And it's scary. I mean, the idea that an employer can dictate political activity and political expression of their employees. You know, there's no reason to think that this is limited to the media and if this trend spreads, and more and more companies get the idea that they can set up rules and justify them with one or another kind of rhetoric about business necessity to appear neutral or whatever, and of course that only on people who oppose government policy rather than those who support it, then we're in a pretty frightening situation.

Amy Goodman: Can you talk about the actual response to what you did, going out to the anti-war protest? How did all of this go down? How did the firing happen?

Henry Norr: Well, I had notified my, you know, I had you said, there was a lot of planning in the Bay area, direct action against the war. I had planned to participate with my wife and my daughter in the demonstrations when the war began. The night before when the attack on Iraq began, I sent email to my supervisors saying that I expected to be arrested the next day and that I wouldn't be in. I went down to Market St. along with thousands of other people and, you know, blocked traffic. And we were arrested pretty early in the day and kept first in a pen on the street and then in the county jail until about 9:30 or 10 that night. I didn't go to work that day.

The next day, I returned to work and sat down to write my column for the following week, which had nothing to do with politics. It was about a new email service. And at the end of the day, I was all finished and my editor asked me trim a couple of inches from the column. So I was working on that and then he came by and said "Hey, never mind. It's not gonna run." I said why? And he said "Orders from higher up."

And then the following week when I came in on Monday morning, they told me I can't write anything for the Chronicle at this time. There was no official explanation. I just sat there for basically three days. Oh, at the end of the week after my column had been pulled originally, jumping back here, I filled out my time card and on my time card, I claimed the day I'd spent in jail as a sick day. I did that for a variety of reasons. Partly because were organizing a call-in-sick campaign, and I thought I would join with that. Also, I was feeling sick, as I told the Chronicle. I was feeling nauseated by the lies and the arrogance and the racism. I was feeling deeply depressed. All kinds of reasons. And of course, by the time work started, I was in a lot of pain because the cop had twisted my arm in trying to get me to move. And I will point out that there's no official definition in the union contract or in any other personnel policy document that I've been able to see that defines what constitutes a sick day.

People at the Chronicle, as with every other place I've ever worked and I'm 57 years old, people take sick days for a variety of personal purposes. They need to fix their car or they need to see a lawyer or whatever. Well I needed to get out there and do my little part to oppose the war. But the Chronicle, I think, when the higher-ups wanted to punish me but they realized that in fact what I had done was not in violation of the ethics policies that stood at that time. So they latched on to this time card technicality and a few days later, they called me in to a meeting with the Human Resources people and announced that falsification of a time card is a grave offense and suspended me and I've basically been without pay. I've been out of work since then and I guess now I'll be out of work for a while.

Amy Goodman: Statements before and after you were suspended, from management, about staff engaging in political activity outside?

Henry Norr: What happened was, a few days after the war began and after I participated in the demonstration, the management put out a memo, partly reiterating the existing, in a somewhat selective form, reiterating the policy that had been agreed upon and negotiated the year before. But adding an amendment that employees had to get permission from their editor if they wanted to participate in any war-related demonstration. They weren't taking sides. They had neutrality. The same policy applied to pro-war demonstrations as to anti-war demonstrations. And so that was the policy in effect for about a week or so. And then a week later, for whatever reason, they issued another memo which they called a clarification in which they scrapped that whole permission bit and announced a flat-out ban on participation in war-related demonstrations. The union immediately...the union had already filed a grievance over my suspension. They filed another grievance over that unilateral change in policy and both of those grievances are still pending. It's not clear whether they can make the policy stick but I would point out that this is part of a larger trend that many newspapers led by your local paper, the New York Times, have been enacting these strict policies banning any political activity.

Amy Goodman: ...Democracy Now!, the war and peace report. Our guest is Henry Norr, San Francisco Chronicle technology writer, reporter and columnist. Well, he was technology writer and columnist. He's just been fired after protesting the war on his own time. What are your plans now? How long have you worked at the Chronicle, Henry?

Henry Norr: I was there four years almost. Four years next month, full-time. And before that, I had a regular freelance arrangement with them for a couple of years. I'm not sure what my plans are. I'm planning to continue to participate in the anti-war movement. I've been doing so actively during the month I've been suspended and I expect to continue that.

I need to line up some work so I'm hoping to get some freelance writing and editing jobs or some other kind of part-time work that will leave me room to stay active politically. Also, it turns out that there's a lot of media interest in this case and a lot of interest and support from readers -- actually a tremendous outpouring of support from readers and other people who've heard about the case. So I'm spending lots of time trying to respond to them.

Amy Goodman: Have there been protests within the San Francisco Chronicle and outside?

Henry Norr: There has been a little bit of protest inside the I. A number of veteran reporters put together a little statement defending people's First Amendment, you know, calling that reporters didn't sign away their First Amendment rights when they came to work at the Chronicle, you know, pledging to continue to express themselves. I think, you know I have to say, I think a lot of people are intimidated. This is a very tough time, especially in the Bay area. Unemployment is very high and journalism is, you know, most papers have been cutting back since the bubble burst. Ad sales have been down and so on and so...

Amy Goodman: And the grounds on which you will be challenging this, how does the process go?

Henry Norr: Well, the union grievance, now the third grievance over my termination, will be proceeding through the union process and if they're not resolved as it doesn't look like they will be, they will go to arbitration eventually. As I do also plan to file a legal complaint, California actually happens to have a wonderful law passed in 1937 and apparently hardly ever used, so the lawyers tell me, that has an actual straight out, unambiguous, unqualified prohibition on such activities. It says no employer shall coerce or influence or attempt to blah, blah, blah his employees to follow or refrain from following any particular course or line of political action or political activity. No ifs, ands or buts.

So I intend to file a complaint with the state labor commission, which is charged with enforcing this law and I would urge anybody else in California who's got in trouble to look up. It's section 1102 of the state labor code. Unfortunately, as always happens with a progressive law, the employers have managed to challenge it in a variety of ways. A case in Washington State, a somewhat similar situation back in 1997, the newspaper argued that the First Amendment gave it, the paper, the management the right to set rules that any state labor law was a violation of the paper's First Amendment right, so, you know, I don't know. I don't have a lot of confidence, frankly, in the American judicial system at this point to enforce the rights of people who oppose government policy. But I'm gonna take a shot at it and see how it goes. One of the interesting things about this law is that it actually has criminal penalties. Employers who violate the law can be subject to up to a year in prison. So I'm asking them to enforce that law.

Amy Goodman: Were you also active on Israel/Palestine issues and what has been the response of the paper? Do you think that has weighed in at all?

Henry Norr: Well, that's an interesting issue in the background of all this, never mentioned explicitly as far as I can see and as far as insiders at the paper will tell you, very much a part of the picture here. I went on vacation last year with my wife. We went to Palestine to be part of the International Solidarity Movement, the people who support and assist the non-violent resistance of the Palestinians to the Israeli occupation. We did that for just a couple of weeks. We didn't do anything particularly heroic, but we did it and when I came back I talked about it with my colleagues. I put together a little lunchtime presentation and slideshow, a little discussion of what I had seen and observed and heard. And apparently management didn't like that very much. Apparently there was somebody who attended that presentation -- I'm told, I don't know this first-hand -- but somebody supposedly reported to management that I made anti-Semitic remarks and so on, which is really a big joke. I mean, I'm Jewish by background and I don't think I'm the least bit anti-Semitic. However, I'm deeply opposed to the policy of the Israeli government.

And then there was another thing last summer I wrote in my technology column. I wrote a column about a $2 billion dollar, state of the art, high-tech factory that Intel owns in Israel. I wrote about the history of the land that that factory is on and about the Palestinian villagers that were there before. It's a complicated story, but it happens that that land was subject to some special legal agreement. There were just two villages but the Israeli government had signed a treaty, an international agreement, protecting the rights and property of the Palestinians who lived there back in 1948 for historical reasons. And then of course, almost immediately after they signed the agreement, they proceeded to do what they did elsewhere in Palestine: chase and terrorize the local residents out of their villages. They eventually converted that area into what they call an economic-development zone.

Many years later, in the 90's, Intel happened to choose it as the site for this state-of-the-art fancy factory. So I wrote about that kind of as a metaphor perhaps, for Israel's so-called first-world high-tech economy and the foundations it sits on. Needless to say -- actually I got a tremendous amount of support. I was amazed. Most of the email I got about the column was supportive and appreciative. But the local pro-Israeli Zionist lobby was outraged and the Israeli Consulate in San Francisco, which is kind of the cheerleader coordinator for those forces apparently, was outraged and, I found out later because nobody at the Chronicle told me, but apparently they came and demanded an immediate meeting to object to my column.

Nobody, I should point out, nobody has been able to point to a single syllable in the column that was not accurate. The history of the particular area is actually amply documented in Israeli government documents by Israeli historians so there's really no real question here. But they were pretty outraged. In particular, they were outraged because I called a couple of international lawyers and asked whether the descendants of those villagers who lived there, who were dispossessed, might have a legal case against Intel. And a left-wing lawyer that you have quoted I believe, Francis Boyle, who wasn't familiar with the facts but when I described them, he thought there might very well be a case. And then I called a right-wing lawyer, a guy named Abe Sofaer, who was General Counsel for the State Department under Ronald Reagan, and a Mideast negotiator for Reagan at one point. And again, he didn't know the facts, I described the facts and asked whether the Palestinians might have a case and he said "I'd take that case!" And that of course infuriated the Likkud lobby and so on. And eventually I was told this was an inappropriate topic and I wasn't supposed to write such things anymore.

Amy Goodman: Well, Henry Norr, on that note, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Henry Norr, fired by the San Francisco Chronicle for his involvement in anti-war activities. Again, we asked the Chronicle to join us for this conversation, speaking to both the executive editor Phil Bronstein and the assistant executive editor, Narda Zacchino, but they declined, saying they would not publicly discuss personnel issues. Henry Norr, joining us from the Bay area.

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