MEDIA WATCH: FIRING OF THREE USA TODAY STAFFERS IS TROUBLING
By Al Mattei
In Reston, Va., a dusty blue round Lita Albuquerque sculpture known as "Aperture," sits in the foyer of the corporate offices of Gannett, the parent company of USA Today.
And one day in late 2001, Denise Tom, Cheryl Phillips and Karen Allen -- three senior staffers in USA Today's sports section -- started brushing off the dust with their fingers, and also started tracing words on the surface.
Days later, these unionized staff members were unilaterally fired.
Said The Washington Post, "After noticing fingerprints and scrawls in what appeared to be blue dust covering the sphere, they touched the surface. Then Phillips and Allen playfully traced the words 'Kilroy was here,' as well as Denise Tom's name. Tom tried to blot out her name and nervously backed away. The 'dust' was actually pigment that awaited a sealant. The whole thing was caught on videotape by security cameras."
The newspaper business, especially the business of sports journalism, does not need an incident like this.
Downsizing has hit publishing big in 2001. Knight-Ridder and Gannett are just two of the groups which have had to lay off workers in huge numbers, trying to keep their heads above a sinking advertising market and a poor economy.
Speculation has Gannett putting Tom, Phillips, and Allen out of work because of their high salaries. Many within the publishing business have decried Gannett's high-handedness over what some are calling "a non-incident."
However, it has become an incident that is beginning to spiral out of control of even a multimillion-dollar media empire. The principal actors not only have a formal nickname ("The Blue Journalists"), but a media-inspired one ("The Blue Ball Three"). A legal defense fund was being established in late 2001.
While this imbroglio is beginning to simmer, one of the most troubling aspects of this incident has yet to be discussed: gender and sportswriting.
The firing of three women from the USA Today sports staff tilts the male-female balance even further into the territory of "male dominance." Unlike many local sports departments around the nation, USA Today was making efforts in order to make more diversity opportunities for women in the workplace.
But you got the feeling that, when USA Today did not staff the inaugural WUSA championship game, there was a lessening of their progressive stand.
Weirdly enough, all that USA Today president Tom Curley could talk about the day after the firings was the sculpture itself, not his employees' welfare.
"The theme of the art is a reflection of our culture," Curley told The Washington Post. "This particular piece is a brilliant conceptualization! It was a commissioned work and the only one on the so-called executive floors. I don't know what it cost, but it's fair to say it was within our overall budget for all the art."
Didn't know that a big blue ball could sell advertising, write good copy on deadline, or navigate a corporation through rough economic times.