Larry Grard still says "we" when he talks about his former workplace. The gaffe is understandable: Grard spent 18 years as a reporter at the Morning Sentinel in Waterville, Maine, before losing his job on Nov. 10. Grard wasn't the victim of a struggling news industry; his dismissal stemmed from penning a personal email at work opposing gay marriage in his home state.
Grard, a practicing Catholic, believes his editors fired him for expressing his personal beliefs. The newspaper's management denies that claim but doesn't offer clear reasons for immediately terminating the veteran reporter with a clean discipline record and 35 years of newspaper experience.
The curious case raises broad questions: How far should reporters go to appear neutral? And does newsroom policy ensure newsroom neutrality?
Grard says he always pursued fair reporting, even though he was the "lone conservative" in his Maine newsroom. A longtime sports writer, Grard began covering news for the Sentinel 11 years ago. He says though the newsroom leaned left, his conservative views didn't cause friction: "I shut up in the newsroom."
When the paper began covering attempts to legalize gay marriage in Maine, Grard says he didn't write about the issue, though he worried that the newspaper's coverage favored gay marriage.
Then Maine voters defeated gay marriage on Nov. 3. The next morning, Grard arrived at work and found a news release sent to media outlets by Trevor Thomas of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay-rights group. The release said gay-marriage opponents built their campaign on "lies and hate," a refrain that "just angered me," Grard says. "I don't hate people, and I don't like being told that I do."
Grard copied Thomas' email address into his personal Yahoo account and fired back. Though he says he didn't sign the email, his account identified Grard as the sender. Thomas offered reporters part of Grard's email: "who are the hateful, venom-spewing ones? Hint: Not the yes on 1 crowd. You hateful people have been spreading nothing but vitriol since this campaign began. Good riddance!"
Thomas says he discovered Grard was a reporter and forwarded his email to Bill Thompson, a Sentinel editor, along with a note: "It's frankly, just not acceptable coming from a news organization the morning after our defeat." A few days later, Grard says Thompson called him into this office and told him the email was unacceptable. Grard says he offered to apologize for personally replying to a professional news release. But three hours later, he says, "They fired me."
Grard is convinced his firing was political. Thompson says he didn't ask for Grard's firing and responded to a WORLD interview request by sending a statement from the paper's management, saying it didn't fire Grard for expressing his personal opinion about gay marriage. The statement didn't offer a precise reason but called his emailing HRC "unacceptable behavior" and noted he sent the email from a company computer on company time.
Grard doesn't believe the paper's claim. "That's absolutely false," he says. "What if I had agreed with what Trevor Thomas sent? Would they have fired me for that? Of course not."
Tom Bell, president of the Portland Newspaper Guild, the union representing Sentinel employees, says his group doesn't understand why management fired Grard: "We've seen reporters making far worse mistakes and not getting fired." While Bell says Grard shouldn't have expressed his political opinion, he says Grard's contract calls for progressive discipline, not immediate termination. Bell also says the Sentinel doesn't have a written policy regarding internet use or support for political causes.
Other news outlets maintain strict guidelines: The New York Times instructs journalists to avoid endorsing or contributing to political candidates. Company policy also prohibits participating in rallies of public causes or movements, or signing petitions taking a position on public issues. The Associated Press maintains similar standards.
Dan Gainor of the Media Research Center, a conservative media watchdog group, says neutrality policies don't always mean neutral reporting in news organizations. He notes that mainstream outlets regularly endorse the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association. The pro-gay journalism group named Martha Irvine of the Associated Press its 2008 Journalist of the Year.
Back in Maine, Grard waits to learn if he still has a career in journalism. The union has filed a grievance and expects a hearing in the next few months: "We're on pins and needles here."