A Perfect Storm is Brewing in Indianapolis

It Includes Sex, Status, Race, Inaction, Death and Possible Coverup

Indianapolis Star Lawsuit First Sign of Big Problems

A lawsuit filed by two former editorial writers last year against the Indianapolis Star makes some familiar charges — managers pressuring employees and making them uncomfortable enough to leave, allegations of racial and age discrimination — along with the unfamiliar: claims of religious discrimination linked with questions of sensitivity to gay concerns.

The accusations come at a newspaper that has been undergoing a housecleaning of its staff and that claimed a newsroom that included 14.4 percent people of color in the latest American Society of Newspaper Editors census. One manager of color is at the assistant managing editor level, AME for features Jacqueline Thomas.

James Patterson and Lisa M. Coffey filed their suit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana on Monday. Patterson is described in the documents as “a 51-year-old African-American man with strong and sincere Christian religious beliefs” who had worked at the Star since 1989.

Coffey is “a 46-year-old Caucasian woman with strong and sincere Christian religious beliefs” who began working in 1990 on the editorial page of the old Indianapolis News, coordinated the Pulliam Journalism Fellowship program, and then switched to the Indianapolis Star, where she continued to work on the fellowship program along with her other duties.

According to their suit, both were praised for their work until shortly after Gannett Co. changed managers after buying the paper in 2000. Barbara A. Henry became Star president and publisher and Dennis Ryerson soon after became editor.

The court action included:

“… The Star, through the actions of Ms. Henry and Mr. Ryerson, implemented a policy and practice of encouraging, favoring and printing news coverage and editorials with a positive slant on homosexuality and of disfavoring editorials with a positive slant on Christianity.”

The complaint says that “shortly after Mr. Ryerson’s hiring, he made a public statement to the members of the Editorial Department that sodomy laws should be repealed,” and that Coffey then began researching the topic. When he read it, Mr. Ryerson became enraged and refused to print it, stating that the Star would never run anything that was so anti-gay. The test column was not anti-gay, despite Mr. Ryerson’s interpretation of it; it was an accurate depiction of the risks associated with anal intercourse.”

Three months later, Ryerson told Coffey that the newsroom would be taking over her Pulliam Fellowship work and that she would be transferred to the copy desk.

In discussing Patterson, who also is the founding president of the Indianapolis Association of Black Journalists, the suit says “Mr. Ryerson’s first day at The Star was the day after war was commenced against Iraq. Plaintiff Patterson had written an editorial calling for the country to pray over our troops and the war effort in general. Mr. Ryerson informed the Editorial Department that he had been repulsed and offended by the prayer editorial and stated that, in the future, he would not allow any editorials with any Christian overtones to be published or which could be construed as proselytizing on the editorial pages.”

The complaint said his career went downhill, with positive performance evaluations — cited in the lawsuit — turning negative. Patterson said he made a “minor error” that was corrected and that his 2003 evaluation, “contrary to prior practice,” made “scant reference” to “two state first-place awards and a prestigious international award for his series of editorials on the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

“In 2003,” the complaint continued, “Plaintiff Patterson had won a first-place award from the Indiana Associated Press Managing Editors organization for his editorial writing. Trophies for the other award-winning reporters were distributed to them. Plaintiff Patterson did not receive his trophy. After several months, he eventually found it in a gunny sack in an empty office.”

The EEOC allowed the plaintiffs to follow through with their actions.

Indianapolis is the site of this year’s National Association of Black Journalists convention.

This is on top of the OSHA and Guild investigations into alleged poor safety policies at the Gannett paper that may have been a factor in delayed action to save a stricken staff member, a Mr. Mpozi. The story goes that Mpozi was eating Cherry Garcia Ben & Jerry’s ice cream that night and he began chocking.

Comments made on a former columnist’s blog ruthholladay.com
have indicated a “lock down” of the phone system or bottle neck to the security office, redirecting 911 calls to an illprepared agent. Meanwhile Mpoze had turned blue and was not breathing. Two staff members tried CPR but there was a long delay before EMTs arrived at the Star.

The Poynter.com Web site’s James Romensko posted the Ruth Holladay blog and was later criticized for doing so by the paper’s editor, Mr. Ryerson.

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5 thoughts on “A Perfect Storm is Brewing in Indianapolis

  1. This is a recent post by the blogger who started to look into the untold story: Holladay weighs in
    Posted by Ruth Holladay 7/26/2006 9:37:12 PM

    Thank you for creating a forum to talk about the ethics of linking to a blog that contains sensitive or unfair material, etc.
    As a virgin blogger, I would rather be part of the solution than the problem.
    That said, maybe I am at fault for not contacting Dennis Ryerson before posting. Maybe I should have included his denials about the 911 system in my original post.
    But maybe not.
    I did not because I know there are often two stories in traditional print media — the one that gets in the paper, and the one told over the coffee pot.
    The former had already been given plenty of ink about Mpozi in The Star — a powerful witness but not necessarily a complete account of his death.
    What I did not read in The Star is what was circulating internally at the paper — concerns about the phone circumstances and lack of safety protocol. Nor did I read about the IOSHA investigation, which apparently began a couple weeks ago.
    For better or worse, this is now a matter of public record, including today’s Editor & Publisher story about IOSHA checking into the death. Of course Mr. Ryerson does not like it. But he had his say, and in my opinion, the system — the vast and fluid media system — worked. Romenesko was not the only outlet to post my blog, although you are the only ones to raise these valid issues.
    Maybe it isn’t perfect. Maybe it is messy and unfair at times. But if the goal is to get the news out there, in this case an unflattering side of the news for some, in a landscape that is changing, then mission accomplished.

  2. I am so sick of hearing about the so-called liberal elite media! All I see on TV and hear on the radio is Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and anti-liberal news reporting. Examples: the limited, often biased-against reporting of the Occupy Wall Street movement; the lack of coverage regarding Bradley Manning’s torture by the U.S. military; the commercials paid for by big oil, etc. etc. etc. Get a clue!

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