News

May 14, 1998

CAQ Purges Workers

To: Everyone who has supported CAQ

Last week the publishers fired the entire staff on payroll at CAQ (CovertAction Quarterly), a prize winning magazine of investigative journalism. We'd like you to know how and why.

On Sunday morning, May 10, a courier makes the rounds to three apartments in Washington, DC. He slides a plain white envelope under the front door and scurries away.

At the same time, a few blocks from the White House, owners of a small corporation watch as the security company they hired changes the locks on the door of a workplace. Their employees across town are now bending down, placid with weekend sleep, to pick up the intrusive white oblong by the door. As the workers tear it open, the owners, back at the office, begin to search systematically through all the drawers and files of each of the employees. They go through the letters the workers wrote to old friends, colleagues, writers, and lovers; they search through phone logs, old medical bills, photos, e-mail, as well as through the company records. They own the business and they have the right, under law.

We are the three people who opened the envelopes last Sunday morning and read that we were summarily fired without cause.

For the last eight and a half years of the magazine's 19-year life, we are the people who have brought you credible, solid news reporting and articles that have consistently added to the historical record and fueled social change. Terry Allen (editor) and Barbara Neuwirth (staff) have worked at the magazine for almost nine years, along with Sanho Tree (associate editor) who joined the staff last year. We, are the people who did the work, who produced the magazine. They have a piece of paper that grants them legal ownership; our ownership in sweat equity was earned.

Louis Wolf, based in Washington and Ellen Ray and William Schaap, who operate out of New York, are the people who fired us. These publishers/owners consider themselves socialists, leftists, progressives, whatever. All have done some good work in the past. But all of them acted on that rainy Sunday morning like corporate thugs. They did not try to discuss problems with our collective; they did not lay us off with notice and dignity. They cowardly hired others to sneak an envelope under our doors; they seized the contents of desks and computers and sorted throughpersonal information. "Arrangements will be made," their letter noted, "for you to remove from the office under our representatives' supervision, any personal property currently there."

Why this sordid little covert action? Why the firing of three employees whose job performance was consistently excellent? Well, here are the reasons they gave in the letter: "Your employment is terminated...effective immediately" because of "interpersonal relations and work styles ... creating a hostile and unproductive environment for all of us."

Two weeks before, Wolf sat in the audience smiling and applauding with seeming pride as CAQ, for the second year in a row, swept Project Censored's prestigious journalism awards. Only a few days before the purge, the other two publishers wrote to us praising the latest issue as "terrific. One of the best. A really fine job and one to be proud of. No nitpicking even."

As for interpersonal relations: they were fine among the three people who actually produced the 64-page magazine four times a year. We did it on time, on budget, and on target with annual costs under $200,000. Interpersonal relations were admittedly less good between management and workers, but no worse than at many workplaces. In any case, they were not the real problems.

As to how we were fired, there can be no explanation. The method speaks for itself. As to why, there are two basic reasons. The first and most important was our refusal to be bullied by Wolf, Ray, and Schaap into publishing whacko-conspiracy theories and articles that served their agenda but failed to distinguish between facts and political fairy tales. While we accepted some of their suggestions, we rejected inferior or polemical material proposed by them and their friends. Among those championed by one or another of the publishers was a proposal to expose Hitler's current hideout in Antarctica, an undocumented piece on alleged US release of screw worms as a weapon of war, a story presenting Serbia as the blameless victim of Bosnian aggression, and a reference by Schaap and Ray to President Aliev of Azerbaijan as a model of progressive governance. Some of these we were able to stop immediately and others took endless discussions before they were dropped. We also received a letter from Schaap and Ray berating us for a humorous piece because they said embarrassed them in front of their friends. The story quoted a long-time solidarity worker affectionately calling Fidel Castro "a nice old fart."

In all cases where we disagreed with the publishers, we documented our logic and discussed our reasons at length, often circulating the articles and soliciting the opinions of experts. We looked for common ground always, but always we refused to compromise on basic principles and journalistic standards. This commitment to maintaining the firewall between owners and editors did not sit well with management. We allowed no special treatment, no cronyism, no party lines. We insisted on publishing solid, well-written, rigorously documented progressive journalism. And we did.

Our second unpardonable sin was that we also refused to condone unethical behavior and challenged the publishers whenever they stepped over legal and moral lines.

Throughout these difficult times, the CAQ staff has refrained from airing the individual crimes and misdemeanors of the publishers. We are already hearing reports that Wolf, Schaap, and Ray are starting a smear campaign against us.

We prefer to confine ourselves to the real issues: the exercise of raw power by employers against workers and the violation of the principles of independent journalism. There are, however, some work related issues we should put on the record. As is often the case in corporations, the owners were almost wholly irrelevant, not only to production, but to administration as well. Aside from interference into editorial matters, in the last eight years, Schaap and Ray shirked almost all the responsibilities of publishers. They did not raise one cent--either in donations or grants. They did little to promote the magazine and they met with staff on average less than once a year. Wolf did a little fact checking and proofreading and some occasional research. But except for contributing a small portion of his inherited wealth to CAQ, he plaid a minor role. And worse, his admitted unethical behavior and dishonesty repeatedly endangered the credibility and viability of the magazine.

The way they fired us speaks eloquently to what these people stand for. Wolf, Schaap, and Ray "terminated" us in a manner that smacks of monstrous arrogance. They did it with a smarmy exploitation of the legal niceties of capitalism that would make the Dulles brothers blush.

And it is not the first time. Nine years ago, they changed the locks on a previous editor while she was at lunch. They then launched a rumor campaign to smear her character. Her major crime was trying to publish an article critical of Stasi, the East German intelligence agency. She, like many people they treated like expendable serfs, kept quiet--for the good of the left.

But we believe that injustice is injustice no matter what ideology is cynically used to justify it. And like all workers--whether their bosses are gloating capitalists or self-righteous leftists--we live under a system that uses labor and then dismisses the laborer at will. We also now understand in our guts that it is the people who own the presses who have freedom of the press.

The irony is painful and the experience has left us angry and profoundly disappointed. But at the end of the day, it will only strengthen our commitment to good independent journalism and social justice. We go public with great reluctance, but out of a belief that the damage to CAQ the publishers have wrought will not be mitigated if we go quietly.

We have invested a lot of sweat and pain, tears and time and are very proud of eight years of powerful muckraking; we do not wish it to end with a battle of internal mudslinging. Neither will we be shut up or bought off with promises of severance pay or other compensation. In some ways we are relieved to be finally and irrevocably separated from people whose vision and practice of journalism differs so greatly from our own. We worked hard to establish the magazine's editorial quality and integrity, and to increase graphic quality and circulation and now we are ready to wipe off the bottoms of our shoes, take a long shower, and move on.

What we will miss most--what it is most painful to have been robbed of--is the opportunity to work with the generous, smart, committed, and talented writers, photographers, artists, computer experts, copy editors, and valued advisors who have been our friends and colleagues. We are doing our best to make sure that anyone owed money by CAQ will be paid.

To all of you who have shared this decade and helped make CAQ the fine, credible magazine it has become, we cannot express how grateful we are for your help and support. We are so deeply sorry at this turn of events, and we hope profoundly that, together or separately, we can continue to fight the good fight.

Please keep in touch and we will try to do the same as events unfold. Feel free to pass on this message.

In solidarity,
Terry Allen (802-434-3767) email: [email protected]
Barbara Neuwirth: (202-232-6863) email: [email protected]
Sanho Tree (202-234-6854) email: [email protected] Website: www.caq.com
fax (202-234-7952)