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The Guild should have fought for Finney.

As a St. Louis Post-Dispatch feature writer, Daniel P. Finney created a blog that was a tasteless, puerile example of writing and ranting in incredibly poor taste, the sort of juvenile misbehavior that should bring loss of driving privileges or grounding.

As an emergency surgeon for the U.S. Army in Iraq, Maj. Michael Cohen created a blog that was an example of the writing of a sensitive man who was appalled at the circumstances under which he carried out his work.

Neither man has his blog today. Finney doesn't work for the Post any longer. Cohen remains in Iraq, risking his life and performing surgery to keep soldiers alive.

This is the area where free speech and good taste come together on either side of an extremely narrow line. And still dealing with freedom of speech, when I read the Post Jan. 9 and got to Kevin Horrigan's column about Cohen, my first thought was, "Wow! Three cheers for Kevin! You found a way to write a good story defending a brave man who is saving lives in Iraq and is disciplined by an uptight group of executives, called officers, for exercising his First Amendment rights. Without even mentioning Daniel Finney, you pointed out how two uptight groups of executives, one called management, the other called labor, had successfully squashed the reporter for exercising his First Amendment rights.

"I'm proud of you, Kevin, because you certainly exercised your own First Amendment rights some years ago with a memo to the Post staff that criticized management--as strongly, though in better taste--when you resigned from the Post to join the St. Louis Sun. And in the fullness of time, all was forgiven and you returned to the Post. Eventually, you even were granted permission to expand those rights into radio."

Unfortunately, when I called Kevin, he said he had not thought of Finney at all when he wrote about Cohen, and he was quite critical of his former colleague. Horrigan sounded as if he thought that being drawn and quartered, or keel-hauled, would not be sufficient punishment.

Unlike Horrigan, Finney will get no second chance.

Finney walked the plank, signing a resignation letter and a confidentiality agreement as he went. His Guild representatives handed him the pen--similar scenarios were enacted by other Post employees who have disappeared over the last few months. Most took the advice of the Guild to go quietly, taking whatever settlement they could get.

Second-guessing is easy, and if you ever were a sports writer, as I was a long, long time ago, it's even easier.

But I don't think Finney's blog was a firing offense, and the Guild should have fought it. A major chewing out in the style of one-time managing editor Dave Lipman? Certainly. A harsh letter for his personnel file (that's what happened to "your permanent record" after you graduated from grade school)? Definitely. Suspension for a week or two, without pay? Of course.

I feel strongly enough about the First Amendment that I don't think Finney's misjudgment and juvenile behavior merited firing. After all, the contract between the Post and the Newspaper Guild sets out a four-step disciplinary procedure, with a written warning and two without-pay suspensions (one day and three days) before "further suspension or discharge."

There are exceptions to this "progressive discipline" for "theft, deliberate damage to Employer property, gross insubordination, serious misconduct, physical violence or other similar offenses." That phrase, of course, probably provides sufficient room to do anything to anyone, but that's where the union is supposed to step in. In fact, inside the front cover of the new contract, distributed to all employees, is a description of employee rights to be brought up at any meeting where discipline may be discussed.

The Guild says, "Ask for representation--this right is not automatic. If you are denied this right, offer to return to work. Do not stay in the room." As reinforcement, it continues, "Start any interview of (sic) discussion with: 'Could this lead to my being disciplined? If so, I wish to have my union representative present.' If you are denied union representation, then state: 'I am not being insubordinate. I am refusing to talk with you further until my union representative is present. I will either return to work or go home, but I will not continue the interview.'"

Whether a Guild representative was there remains a mystery known to only a few. Finney would not discuss it, and Jim Light, the Guild's business manager, snapped, "I will not comment," when asked about Finney. The same stone walls have been in place when it came to others who have left the Post.

The irony in the entire Finney affair is painfully obvious. Finney, who is under 30, had been working at the Omaha World-Herald and was hired by the Post as a feature writer who would connect with the younger readers the newspaper so desperately wants. And after he acted like a younger reader, he decided to resign.

The job posting for his successor seeks "an energetic self-starter whose goal is to attract a young audience through lively writing and deft reporting. In addition, this candidate must have a strong work ethic, imaginative story ideas as well as alternative approaches to story-telling. This candidate also must be well-versed in pop/youth culture and lifestyle trends. At least five years of daily newspaper experience is (sic) required."
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Title Annotation:Commentary; Daniel P. Finney
Author:Pollack, Joe
Publication:St. Louis Journalism Review
Geographic Code:1U4MO
Date:Feb 1, 2005
Previous Article:Juggling media relations.
Next Article:Death of a journalist.

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