Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Joey Kennedy's firing at al.com seems to signal that Alabama's right-wing media is spinning out of control

Joey Kennedy
(From yellowhammernews.com)
How often does a newspaper fire a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter? I've been a professional journalist for 35-plus years, and I've never heard of it happening. Heck, it would be like a major-league baseball team trading its MVP--and getting nothing in return.

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.


Anonymous said...

If Mr. Kennedy did something wrong, it seems amazing that this couldn't be handled with some kind of internal discipline. But outright termination? That is way out there.

Ned said...

I understand the Kennedys had been victims of vandalism recently. That couldn't have helped the situation.

Anonymous said...

Are the animal people more dangerous than legislators?

Anonymous said...

This does, indeed, smell of age discrimination. I've experienced that and it really sucks. For young people who don't seem to care about age discrimination, just wait--your day is coming.

Anonymous said...

I wonder why both al.com articles about the Merrill case now give a "Page not found" error?

Anonymous said...

Are you declaring war on al.com now?

legalschnauzer said...

I'm a journalist. I'm not in the "declaring war" business.

Do you think someone needs to "declare war" on al.com?

As for me, I certainly think this is a story that needs scrutiny.

legalschnauzer said...

That's interesting about the Merrill links turning up "Page not found." Thanks for sharing, @3:31. Quite a few pages seem to be disappearing at al.com today.

FRANK said...

I really don't have much compassion for jkennedy he wrote lies and said harsh hard things about me..but in the name of Jesus I forgive him and I wish him well... but always be reminded what goes
around comes around if you dig a ditch be careful you might just fall in yourself an if you web a net beware you might get caught in

Anonymous said...

I had little respect for Kennedy because he was one of the opinion writers who wrote shameful articles regarding the Siegelman/ Scrushy trial. I did not believe that Kennedy wrote them from any heartfelt conviction; but rather because he was forced to write them by the partisan publisher.

legalschnauzer said...

I'm getting the Merrill story now, @3:31. Don't know why it disappeared there for awhile. Could someone be following this blog so closely that they saw your comment, and quickly got the article back up there? I don't know, and that might be far-fetched. But I sense a legal battle is brewing, and experience has taught me that people will pull all kinds of underhanded stuff in the legal setting.

Anonymous said...

Al.com (press register), has fired several good reporters and hired a disgraced one!!

The paper is losing credibility with the little readers it has left!!!

Anonymous said...

And shut up, Frank.

Anonymous said...

I hear Joey made some powerful enemies by standing up for the nonprofit spay/neuter clinics.

For-profit veterinarians can be a greedy bunch of SOBs.

Anonymous said...

I heard Joey got drunk a lot and would threaten rescue people by different means to try to get responses or articles out of them and about twenty or so of these rescue people it had happened to all sent in letters regarding being harassed and that the board of the rescue he wrote about in favor so much was actually not supporting spay and neuter clinic protecting legislation, so I doubt it has anything to do with that avenue of the asbvme, seems like they'd all be one big happy family on that boat. These are just thing I've heard, however.

Anonymous said...

For the record -- he threatened plain ol' regular people. Not "sources". Although...if he did threaten sources, that's beyond my personal understanding.

But you have to wonder...no severance after 30+ years. You have to do some seriously messed up ish to have THAT happen, right?

legalschnauzer said...

Please let me know if you are willing to be interviewed, @9:59 and @10:02. Also, feel free to send me copies of the referenced letters.

Anonymous said...

Some who took his FACTS personally definitely are. Some who refused to investigate the real reasons behind what happened are dangerous. Some would rather ignore FACTS. Some hold on to OLD OLD OLD grudges from being employed with the old entity who took over. They won't let go of past hurts from a business NAME. The new animal control has nothing to do with the old place where they previously worked. But, I have to go with the age discrimination and the animal people gave al Dot com a reason.

Anonymous said...

America and Alabama. AA. Could stand for simply the gut doesn't work in Alabama?

More necessary biotic health in the gut than the brain. That is why the saying "think with the gut".

Most Americans' stomachs and brains too, have been absolutely eaten with respect to the good flora. No good flora and the brain is definitely not able to think as healthy.

Americans want to think they have bulging brains, especially the media in the USA.

Alabama lost a lot of power in the losing face for all the criminal enterprising, a long time ago. The South continues to act like a civilized place, talking definitely not too emotional to be fired and all.

Emoting gets the humans in Alabama into big trouble, the media there proves the hand in glove with the guns.

Legal Schnauzer's case didn't get reported, and then the family continues to live and spend money in the place of barbarism.

Must be the weather there.

Or, the guts would get healthy enough to all feel real deeply about living elsewhere.

Leave, all healthy guts, to another state. Sue the State of Alabama for being a barbaric place and not civilized by any stretch of any imagination in the universe.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps Jory's firing had nothing to do with anything listed in this article? If you read some of his articles, he writes from an extremely biased standpoint, especially where animal welfare is concerned. Not that I don't agree with all of his articles, which I absolutely do, but it is very obvious which shelters and people he agrees with and which he does not. I'm not trying to start an argument by any means, it's just what I would personally see as the reason he was let go.

legalschnauzer said...

You might be right, @9:01, but that doesn't seem like grounds for termination to me, especially in an environment where reporters are encouraged to engage readers about content--to have opinions AND report facts.

At al.com, maybe news staffers are supposed to only have opinions that match those of the public.

Anonymous said...

I just went and tried to look at the article about GBHS taking over animal control services. All that I could find were the pictures that were posted in that column, but the column itself was deleted along with the entire comments section. Coincidence?

Anonymous said...

I don't know if Joey did anything wrong or not, but this stinks of age discrimination for sure. Your comparison to Kyle Whitmire's actions should be of great interest to Joey's lawyer.

legalschnauzer said...

A number of Joey's animal-related stories disappeared for a while yesterday, then they returned--after someone commented about it on this blog. I haven't checked that today but it sounds like some are missing again.

Derek The Just said...

A reporter should report news using facts. A commentator will tell a story using facts and supposition and hearsay. Sounds like a case of sour grapes to me.

e.a.f. said...

holy moly! Firing a writer who writes about animals. They must be desperate or someone is scared shitless. Oh, well I'm sure he treaded on some one's toes. Of course if you follow the money in animal "rights" causes, you might find some interesting things. Perhaps that is what they were afraid of.

Time for a lawsuit and a blog!

So much for freedom of speech. First let Americans clean up their own back yard before trying to tell the rest of the world how to run their countries.

e.a.f. said...

if there were so many threats then why no law suits or police action. if there were so many "threats" why didn't the newspaper deal with or publicize it.

What some consider "threats" is frequently some one else simply stating what they plan to do. Its not a threat if you simply state what you are going to do.

legalschnauzer said...

I don't think it's that cut and dried, Derek. Joey K wore quite a few hats during his time at the newspaper--editorial writer, reporter, community engagement specialist (or something like that). That last title makes me think it was part of his job description to engage the public--and not just "report the facts." Like so many workers these days, newspaper people are being asked to "do more with less," and that can be a tough thing to do. Did Joey K make a mistake, maybe got too emotional or blunt with somebody? Maybe. Does that merit termination after 34 years on the job? Not in my book. Does his termination amount to age discrimination? I don't have all the facts at the moment, but my guess is that, yes, he was ousted (in large part) because of his age.

Anonymous said...

The Newspaper Guild used to be a powerful union at some newspapers. With any sort of union at al.com, this never would have happened to Joey Kennedy.

legalschnauzer said...

Excellent point, @2:58. And it hits close to home because I never would have been fired if we'd had a union at UAB. The right has convinced many Americans that unions protect "bad workers." My performance reviews and overall record at UAB showed I wasn't a bad worker, and Joey Kennedy has a Pulitzer Prize that reflects the quality of his work. My department at UAB more than doubled after I came on board, largely on the back of my work and the work of a colleague who also had "senior status" due to age. She and I, for years, did the work of two and three people, so our boss could go out and solicit new projects and hire people in their 20s and 30s to work on them. What was our reward? To have people with 20 years less experience promoted over us.

In my case, I was fired because of my blog (which I wrote on my own time and with my own resources, on matters of public concern--protected, as a state worker, by the First Amendment) and because my presence as a member of a protected class (age) presented a possible threat for plans to promote the younger crowd.

(By the way, I liked all of my younger coworkers and thought they did good work. They were a pleasure to work with, and I'm glad my efforts, and those of my older coworker, could open up opportunities for them. It was my boss--a warped narcissist who gave no mind to federal law or the UAB handbook--that caused the problem. And she had pretty much free rein because of weak management above her--and UAB had no union.

A lot of Americans have forgotten that unions can prevent management abuse in the workplace. The classic line lawyers will tell you is this: "In most states, you can be fired for a good reason, a bad reason, or no reason at all--as long as it doesn't violate federal discrimination laws." Lots of employers fire for discriminatory reasons and take their chances with lawsuits, in federal courts that are filled with right-wing judges who disfavor any plaintiff.

Sorry to get wordy, but this topic is pretty important to me--and, I feel certain, to Joey Kennedy.

Anonymous said...

Have no idea why he would be let go, but based on my experience in the corporate world they would be concerned with a charge of age discrimination. Typically to head that off a severance package is offered and an agreement signed stating there would be no charge of age discrimination. Since no severance was offered you have to think they felt that they had justification to let him go. Time will tell I guess.

Anonymous said...

Probably only about money. Someone with JK's credentials costs a lot more than a neophyte just out of school. Yet another example of age discrimination. Advance Digital is a total joke when it comes to credibility and professionalism.

Anonymous said...

I believe that it has nothing to do with what he was reporting, but rather his age. He has been replaced by someone much younger (cheaper) and with a larger social media following. The new format over there is all digital and how many hits on your page you can get. Sadly, in Alabama you can fire anyone for almost any reason.

legalschnauzer said...

Yes, but under federal law, you can't fire someone because of his age--or any other discriminatory reason (race, gender, religion, etc.)

Anonymous said...

If one would do some digging, one would find that its probably not age related. More likely he got too close to some truths that someone involved did not want out. And that someone probably had close ties with the powers that be who, not liking the pressure they were receiving from that someone. So, they took the easy way out and rid themselves of Joey, instead of doing the right thing and allowing him to report what he found. Case in point, in eastern Alabama, Calhoun county. The county commissioners bowed to threats and bribery from what one commissioner deemed 'heavy hitters'. The commissioners bowed en mass to this group of individuals and gave them an entire county department to run as they saw fit, including the use of the citizens tax dollars that were allocated to this department. This action resulted in the loss of a much needed service to the citizens of that county. the county employees who operated this department before the county gave it away, were all terminated. Two commissioners involved in this deal were found guilty of violating state ethics laws, receiving a slap on the wrist. The president of the organization that took over the county department in question, made the statement that the charges and subsequent verdicts were no more serious than a traffic ticket (all while thanking her 'friends down south' for the outcome of this ethics case). A reporter for the local news was given facts and information relating to this before and during the entire situation. Instead of investigating and reporting the story, the heads of the local news organization simply quashed the story.