Messy Situation in St. Paul; Fired Theater Critic Files Gender Bias Suit against the Newspaper; Alleges Double Standard Disciplinary Policy

By Jones, Stacy | Editor & Publisher, June 14, 1997 | Go to article overview

Messy Situation in St. Paul; Fired Theater Critic Files Gender Bias Suit against the Newspaper; Alleges Double Standard Disciplinary Policy


Jones, Stacy, Editor & Publisher


CALLERS TO THE St. Paul Pioneer Press' theater critic are no longer asked to leave a message on her voice mail. Instead they hear Jayne Blanchard explain that she is no longer employed at the paper.

Fired on May 16 for what the Pioneer Press calls "proven dishonesty," Blanchard has filed a gender bias suit against the 202,000-circulation daily:

While the Pioneer Press maintains that Blanchard was dismissed for "misstatements" while appearing on a local talk radio show to discuss her situation, the theater critic received two back-to-back suspensions over a conflict of interest issue prior to her termination and documented questionable treatment and continents by male superiors.

HOW HER TROUBLES BEGAN

The paper's theater critic since December 1992, Blanchard's troubles started with what she thought was a great story idea: produce a play and then write an article about her experience.

"It was a shoe-on-the-other-foot thing," said Blanchard. "And then I would take my lumps" and share them with readers.

In early March, Blanchard ran the idea past her boss, arts and entertainment editor Bob Shaw. Though concerned about conflict of interest issues, Shaw approved the idea, provided Blanchard use no local moneys, business connections or financial investments from an entity she covered regularly to fund the project, said Laura Davis, in-house labor attorney for the Pioneer Press. Another added stipulation was that Blanchard should not hold the production at a theater in which she regularly reviewed new works.

To further lessen the chance of any conflict of interest situations occurring, Blanchard offered to take a leave of absence while she was producing the play. In the end, she remained on active duty with the approval of Pioneer Press management.

Blanchard planned to use accumulated vacation and comp time to work on the play, "The Obituary Bowl."

According to Blanchard she proceeded to make arrangements for the play, updating Shaw regularly. Using her own money, she secured a theater (though not the one mentioned during her initial discussion with Shaw) and paid publicity and printing costs. By the time rehearsals were scheduled to begin, Blanchard said she had invested nearly $10,000 of her own money.

CONFLICT OF INTEREST?

On the issue of the theater, when Blanchard's original St. Paul location fell through, she contracted with the Jungle Theater in Minneapolis, an establishment she covered regularly' on her beat.

Though she wasn't fired for conflict of interest violations, labor lawyer Davis said this detail violated Blanchard's original agreement with Shaw.

Blanchard denies she was told by Shaw or any other superior to avoid theaters whose works she normally reviewed. In any case, she said, "It wasn't a secret. Everybody knew."

"It was my job to update [Shaw}" on new developments, said Blanchard. "Whether he listened or not is his responsibility."

On April 17, with rehearsals set to begin the next day, Shaw informed Blanchard her story idea constituted a conflict of interest. In her complaint, filed in Ramsey County's Second Judicial District Court, Blanchard said Shaw charged her with violating the union contract and asked her to choose the play over her job.

In its answer to Blanchard's complaint, the Pioneer Press admits that Shaw told Blanchard her story was a conflict of

interest, but denies Shaw commented about Blanchard violating the union contract. The paper's legal response added that it "is without sufficient information to admit or deny whether Shaw told Blanchard to choose the play over her job" as she alleges.

HEART OF THE SUIT

In an encounter that goes to the heart of Blanchard's gender bias suit, the Pioneer Press admits that Blanchard discussed her initial story idea with Shaw, but that he didn't take her seriously because in his own words it sounded like a "lark. …

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