As nonsensical as it sounds, al.com/The Birmingham News pulled off the unusual feat by ushering reporter Joey Kennedy out the door recently. Veronica Kennedy, Joey's wife, broke the news on her Facebook page and said he received no severance pay, just a final paycheck and notice that his insurance would end on February 28.
Joey Kennedy had come to focus his reporting on animal-welfare issues, and about a month ago, he reported on a change in the organization that would operate animal control for Jefferson County. The comments section on that article suggest the issue had become emotional and contentious, with major disagreement about the best way to approach animal control in the area. Did Joey Kennedy get caught in the crossfire? Did his age make him vulnerable at a company that is struggling to stay afloat in an ever-changing digital environment?
We do not have a clear answer to those questions, so we are left to ask, "What on earth did Joey Kennedy do, or not do, to merit termination?" The reasons given, according to Veronica, were that Joey was "too personally involved" in covering his beat and he had engaged in "threatening" sources. Here is a portion of her Facebook message:
For those of you who haven't heard: My husband, Joey Kennedy, was fired by Alabama Media Group on Thursday for being "too personally involved" in covering his beat and for "threatening" sources. Up until then, the same bosses had been praising him for developing the animal beat so well. He had been with the Birmingham News/AMG almost 34 years. He won a Pulitzer Prize and was in the top three for a Pulitzer two other times. He was named best columnist in the state FIVE times, and he received numerous writing and community service awards, including the Incarnation Award from Beloved Community Church and the Abe Krawchek award from the Greater Birmingham Humane Society Auxiliary.
Yes, he was personally involved in his beat. Any good journalist is. No, he did not threaten anyone. He is a good man and a wonderful husband who loves his wife, animals, and people. I He received no severance. Our health insurance ends on Feb. 28, and he received his last full paycheck yesterday. What a way to reward loyalty.
I didn't know a reporter could be "too personally involved" with his beat. That kind of commitment is what makes great reporters. The line about "threatening" sources is even more curious, and it reminds me of some of the bogus charges UAB management concocted against me when I was "terminated" in May 2008.
Let's see if we have this straight: Joey Kennedy is roughly my age and has effectively interacted with thousands of sources for more than three decades. He has taught English at UAB, and as one of the most high-profile writers at the state's largest newspaper, I'm sure he has been invited to speak before groups all over the metro area, the state, and probably the region.
He successfully manages that terrain for years--but now, all of a sudden, he resorts to "threatening" sources? Why would Joey Kennedy need to "threaten" a source? Specifically, who did he threaten and what did he threaten them with?
Somewhere amid questions of that sort probably lies the real reason that Joey Kennedy got fired. He was known as a rare moderate/liberal voice (maybe the only such voice) at a news outfit dominated by right-wing sensibilities. That might have put a target on his back.
My guess is that Joey Kennedy didn't "threaten" anyone. In the new world of digital media, reporters are encouraged to interact with readers in comment sections, to voice opinions in addition to presenting the facts, to have followers on Facebook and Twitter, and to do it all with a sense of immediacy and urgency. It appears Joey Kennedy was not shy about sharing his opinions--his Pulitzer Prize was for editorial writing--and one would assume that al.com encouraged him to do that. After all, many journalists these days are judged by their number of "hits" and "page views," rather than the quality of their reporting.
Perhaps Kennedy made a statement with which some community figure didn't agree, and the person complained to higher ups about it. Like bad managers everywhere--such as the ones I encountered at UAB--they would rather stab an employee in the back than stand behind him.
Are office politics and age involved in this? I don't know, but I wouldn't be surprised; both definitely were present in my termination at UAB.
Was Joey Kennedy treated with anything that remotely approaches fairness? Well, we learned about three weeks ago that reporter Kyle Whitmire received court documents (from a divorce case styled Brinyark v. Brinyark) that pointed to an extramarital affair involving Republican political candidate John Merrill. Whitmire indicated in a column that he stuck the information in a drawer and never even consulted an editor about it.
Whitmire's actions blew up on al.com when we reported on the Merrill affair, and it became a statewide story. In fact, it became such a major story that Merrill gathered with four al.com journalists for an interview that proved to be a transparent attempt to sweep the controversy out of view--especially now that Merrill is Alabama secretary of state, with his eye on either the governor's office or Richard Shelby's U.S. Senate seat.
(Note: We have received several tips about other "zipper issues" involving John Merrill, beyond the Brinyark case. We are investigating those tips now.)
In his al.com interview, Merrill provided several "explanations" that his own mother probably would not believe. For example, Merrill admitted to having a sexual encounter with Millie Brinyark, as described in her sworn deposition, but claimed she lied about providing him with oral sex. This somehow passed the smell test of all journalists present and made it into print, generating guffaws that probably still haven't died down.
Which brings us back to Joey Kennedy. Four al.com journalists combined on the Merrill case to produce a story that was sophomoric (at best) and embarrassing (at worst). But it appears that all four of those journalists still work at al.com.
As for Kyle Whitmire, he committed an act of journalistic malpractice by hiding the Merrill story, but he still works at al.com. We're not certain of Whitmire's age, but our guess is that he's in his 30s.
Meanwhile, Joey Kennedy's record suggests he has firm opinions, but it's highly unlikely he would do anything to merit termination. He is, however, out the door-- and we're guessing that he's well into his 50s.
Perhaps that's the big story underlying all of this: Age discrimination is alive and well in America's workplaces--and Joey Kennedy might be its most recent victim.