By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
Management at local television stations went 1-for-2 in the past week when it comes to litigation.
KPRC somewhat easily turned aside a suit by a former cameraman who claimed he was fired for refusing to use a counterfeit media pass in order to interview then-governor George Bush (see News Hostage, "Pass or Fail," July 26). A jury believed Channel 2 had plenty of other reasons to fire Leo Chavarria. They apparently weren't bothered by the thought of reporter Brendan Keefe using his computer to make two fake news passes and then waving them around at a media check-in.
The folks at Channel 11 weren't quite so lucky. Former NASA beat reporter John Getter won a hefty arbitration award August 13 in the age discrimination action he filed after being fired in December 1997.
Getter and his lawyer can't say how much he won. Getter didn't get punitive damages, but he got an award for wages lost between his firing and his April 2000 hiring by a space-industry company. He also forced KHOU to spend close to $500,000 for the station's own attorneys, say sources familiar with the litigation. The station has to pay the former reporter's legal fees as well.
Former KHOU staffers who testified in Getter's behalf at the arbitration hearing included reporters Jim Moore and Sam Saucedo and news director David Goldberg. Getter was 47 and a 16-year KHOU vet when he was axed by station manager Peter Diaz, who seemed intent at the time on lowering his on-air age demographic as fast as possible and who since has brought in a bunch of thirtysomethings to the operation.
KHOU is owned by A.H. Belo Corp. of Dallas, which also owns The Dallas Morning News. The standard Belo employment contract calls for disputes like age-discrimination complaints to be handled by an arbitrator rather than through a lawsuit in state or federal district court. (A Belo spokesperson did not return a phone call from the Press.)
"After all this time, to get validation of what I've been saying is a tremendous satisfaction," says Getter. He now lives in Virginia and puts together space-related on-line and on-air programming such as the Web site www.moonwalkers.com. "You know you're right when you're telling people you were fired just because of your age, but you're not sure what other people are thinking. When you have a week to present your case to an objective third party and he decides what I believe is absolutely right, it's very satisfying."
Next up for KHOU is the arbitration hearing for former reporter Norm Uhl, who was axed at the same time and has the same attorneys who represented Getter.
Stations all over the country are facing similar suits as their on-air talent begins to age; many of the cases have been tossed out of court for one reason or another, although wins by former employees are not completely rare. News and station directors hungering for the younger viewers that advertisers want still remain quick to target reporters who might have added a few pounds or wrinkles, no matter how much they might know about the city or their beats. Lopping off the higher salaries earned by veteran talent, of course, also helps the bottom line.
Getter says he hopes his victory makes executives, especially at KHOU, hesitate before they start going after staffers who might be more than a few years out of college.
"I would've just as soon not have had this fight," Getter says. "I was happy doing what I was doing, but once it happened I felt obligated to go forward. I'm not the only one in this position and after all, we all get old."
They're All Homo Sapiens
The Houston Chronicle faced something of a quandary as it put together the August 16 issue of its Preview section. The weekly section includes the Sunday crossword puzzle from The New York Times; hard as it may be to believe, the Times crossword that was due to be published by the Chron had actually generated some controversy.
No, the controversy wasn't over whether eery is an acceptable "variable" spelling of eerie. (It isn't, dammit, no matter how often they try to squeeze it in.)
The Times' crossword that week was titled "Homonames." Among the key answers were homonyms for such folks as Jim Nabors (i.e., "Gym Neighbors"), Rex Reed and Bette Midler. Other clues offered included "Add more lubricant" and "Scratched-up leather straps."
Some Times staffers who saw an early edition of their weekly magazine with the puzzle complained, so the paper published an Editor's Note that Sunday saying they had investigated and determined there were no intentional references to anyone's sexual orientation. (Other names in the puzzle were such out-of-the-closet heterosexuals as Kurt Russell.)
Papers such as the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Cleveland Plain-Dealer and the Des Moines Register refused to run the "Homonames" puzzle that week, substituting older Times crosswords and offering editor's notes explaining their decisions.
The Chronicle? They ran "Homonames" but changed the title. Calling it "Homonym Names" apparently addressed any questions anyone might have had.
Dancing with Herself
The current issue of the women's magazine Marie Claire has been brought to our attention, which is a sentence we never really expected to write.