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Controversy Over a Sunday Story

By Andy Alexander

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, 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, 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.”

By Andy Alexander  | August 19, 2009; 2:49 PM ET
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Hi Andy--

You misunderstood at least one point that I made. I approved the letter the Brooklyn Public Library wrote on my behalf. We discussed it and they wrote it for me and I was appreciative of that.

Writing a letter for someone else's signature is certainly a common practice in business. Obama, for example, doesn't write his own letters.

I do appreciate the Library's concern for its employees and their privacy and am very sorry I was involved in an article that did not protect that privacy. In our business, that is the ultimate offense.

No, Kim does not take Tylenol -- ever, and we don't give monthly bonuses. Our staff has had a good laugh over both of those statements.

Kate Wendleton,
The Five O'Clock Club

Posted by: kate29 | August 19, 2009 6:21 PM | Report abuse

and now for all of those who wonder why people need labor unions...well you are fair game for plucking if you have no one but your independent self to fight the kind of abuse that this illustrates...I don't care how much money you have

Posted by: dmyers412 | August 20, 2009 6:09 AM | Report abuse

I don't use a Blackberry, I use a Liberry often though. Keep it real. Research and golf.

Posted by: Dermitt | August 20, 2009 10:31 AM | Report abuse

1. Ginny Cooper must be grinning like a Cheesier cat.

2. Maybe Mr. Jennings and Ms. Wendleton should be fired and Brooklyn Public Library can re-hire the lucky 13 that were noted in the article, and save the money the are going to spend settling lawsuits!

3. Re-write the article "The Art of How NOT to Let Employees Go"!

4. Look for the Union Label.

5. Enough with the apologies and the back and forth banter of who said what, in the end this entire matter was poorly handled.

Posted by: honestyma | August 21, 2009 12:01 AM | Report abuse

To reword a popular saying: "May I step into your parlor?" said the spider to the fly.

Posted by: waterfrontproperty | August 21, 2009 9:45 AM | Report abuse

Imho you miss a major point, Mr. Alexander. Saslow had the ok from the library to report about their business, but did he also ask the staffers he portrayed? It doesn't read that way. And if this is true, this was a dire invasion of their privacy in a very difficult, emotional situation. Saslow didn't show any respect for this. I have to say, I find this kind of conduct by a reporter is scandalous.

Posted by: Gray62 | August 22, 2009 7:47 PM | Report abuse

"The Art of How NOT to Let Employees Go"!
Exactly, honestyma. And both the library managers and the reporter have to be blamed for this. Shameful.

Posted by: Gray62 | August 22, 2009 7:50 PM | Report abuse

Dionne is not (and will never be) ready for her position. Too much of baggage to carry. Larry and 99% of third floor of this unfortunate org are simply INCOMPETENT. It was good that Cooper was removed, but without real change in leadership and functioning BPL will continue to deteriorate. Hope Larry is a dead man, but doubt they will be able to select a better replacement. Poor BPL!

Posted by: verycurious1 | August 23, 2009 1:56 AM | Report abuse

Don't blame Saslow, blame Larry the man who works half days and makes a bundle. He is the epitome of just what BPL doesn't need.

He is as close to a no show you can get for a full time employee. He is probably still staring at his blank computer.

Posted by: honestyma | August 25, 2009 5:03 PM | Report abuse

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