Controversy Over a Sunday Story
It’s not uncommon for those who cooperate with a reporter on a story to complain after it appears in print. That happened with a prominent Post piece a few Sunday’s ago. But the intriguing story behind the story raises questions about whether those who cooperated should be blaming The Post, or themselves.
The August 9 story was a riveting inside account of how an outplacement firm assisted the Brooklyn Public Library in terminating 13 employees as a result of budget cuts. Reporter Eli Saslow provided extraordinary detail about how the New York-based firm, The Five O’Clock Club, prepped library officials on how the firings should be conducted. The story, headlined “The Art of Letting Employees Go,” took readers through the process. Without naming those who were terminated, it nonetheless offered vivid descriptions of some of the employees as they left the room after getting the ax.
As reported yesterday on the Web site of Library Journal, a venerable publication covering the library field, the executive director of the Brooklyn Public Library apologized last week. In an August 13 memo to the library’s staff, Dionne Mack-Harvin said, “I want to assure you that the library did not collaborate with either the Washington Post or The 5 O’Clock Club in writing this article.” It went on to say that the Club, as it is sometimes called, had “asked if the reporter could observe their work here at the library. We were told that the library and the activities surrounding the reduction of our workforce would not be part of any article on The 5 O’Clock Club; however, it is clear that we were misled.”
Mack-Harvin’s note was accompanied by one from Kate Wendleton, president of the Five O’Clock Club, who also apologized to library staffers. “I intended this article to be a profile of my company, The Five O’Clock Club, and not, as it turned out, a detailed and personal account of the downsizing that took place at BPL. As a matter of fact, the mention of Brooklyn Public Library by name should never have happened.”
But today, Wendleton told me her note of apology was actually written by library officials. “I took the rap for it,” she said, adding later: “The Brooklyn Public Library wrote it, 100 percent.”
Wendleton said that she had put Saslow in touch with BPL human resources director Larry Jennings and left it to Saslow to get Jennings’ approval to accompany the Club team to the library.
Saslow today confirmed that account, saying, “I talked to Larry, and Larry, I believe, had talked to others at the library, including the PR people.”
Saslow said it was clear that library officials knew he would be accompanying Five O’Clock Club staffers to the library, that he would be writing about it and that the library would be named in the story. He said he even contacted the library before publication “to run through what the story was about and to tell them that employees’ names weren’t being used, but that Larry’s was.” Jennings was quoted extensively in the story.
Judith Nichols, the library's deputy director of external affairs, said this afternoon that "the understanding we had from the Five O'Clock Club was that the library would not be named at all" in the story.
Wendleton said she was especially upset that Saslow’s story cited precise Club client numbers in referring to library employees who had just been terminated. For example, Saslow wrote of those leaving the room where they had been fired: “Client 23546 comes through wearing a white chef’s coat and carrying a signed severance agreement, eager to get back home to care for a mother who has Alzheimer’s.”
Although Saslow did not use names, Wendleton argued that the descriptions left little doubt who had been terminated. Mack-Harvin’s staff note alluded to this, noting that “very delicate information” had been included in Saslow’s story. Nichols added today that the descriptions Saslow used, even without disclosing names, was "very regrettable" because employees felt their privacy had been invaded.
The Post story has caused problems for The Five O’Clock Club in other ways. In the opening for the piece, Saslow recounts the scene at the desk of Club vice president Kim Hall as she takes a client call. “She rocks in her chair as she listens and scribbles notes: A law firm in Manhattan. Downsizing. Their third one this year. Twelve employees. Probably in August. More to come in October and November.”
AboveThe Law.com, a gossipy Web site that bills itself as providing a “behind-the-scenes look at the world of law,” picked up on The Post story and speculation began over which New York law firm was about the downsize. Soon, law firms were contacting the Web site to deny it was them. Scores of commenters offered guesswork.
After several days, Wendleton posted her own comment on AboveTheLaw.com, using her name and title, and asserted that Saslow’s description was fiction.
“Sorry to ruin the fun of speculating, but – being the (Club’s) president – I know that the author was using artistic license to make the article more dramatic. There IS no law firm we’re working with that is planning those kinds of layoffs.”
She didn’t stop there, disputing color details in Saslow’s story. Contrary to Saslow’s description of Hall gulping two Tylenol, Wendleton said: “Kim does not pop Tylenol – ever.” She denied Saslow’s claim that Club employees get bonuses “almost every month.” She even denied his description of their offices being located “across from a laundry room where tenants come and go in their pajamas.”
“It’s all meant to add drama to the article,” she wrote in her comment. “The technique obviously worked and I am sorry you were misled. We were upset at first, but then realized that this is what sells newspapers. That’s show biz.”
Saslow insisted today that the anecdote of Hall talking about the law firm is accurate. The same with the monthly bonuses, and the laundry room. He said there is nothing in the story that warrants a correction.
He said he spent “close to a week, all told” in the Club’s offices under an agreement with Wendleton that he “pretty much had open access to everything” with the understanding that he would not publish the names of clients whose business was being discussed by Club employees.
After the story ran on August 9, he said, Wendleton sent him a “very nice note about the story.” But “as the public response started to turn,” he said, “her feelings about the story turned with it.”
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