Union files grievance over firing of Star editorial writer: Editor stands firm in swift action following racial slur

November 19, 2007

The Indianapolis Newspaper Guild Local 70 filed a grievance Nov. 9 on behalf of fired Indianapolis Star editorial writer RiShawn Biddle.

Guild officials expect to meet with Star management this month to discuss Biddle's dismissal. Biddle was fired Oct. 31 by the Star for using a racial slur in reference to City-County Council President Monroe Gray in an online blog.

"We're acting to protect the contract, and due process," said Abe Aamidor, a Star reporter and guild president. "We're not defending RiShawn's blog post."

Guild members will argue that Biddle's actions were not "just cause" for his termination.

"We're being very legalistic," Aamidor said. "According to the terms of the contract, we don't see just cause."

The pejorative line that got Biddle into trouble was: "[Monroe Gray's] act, more Zip Coon than honorable statesman, epitomizes the lack of seriousness some black politicians show in their work; it's just inexcusable."

The blog posting also ran under the headline, "Didn't coonery end with slavery?"

The term "Zip Coon" refers to a song dating back almost two centuries that was often depicted being performed by a black-faced character.

"What we're asking for is a progressive disciplinary response," Aamidor said.

Star management isn't likely to give up any ground on Biddle's firing.

"We feel we've handled the matter appropriately," Star Editor Dennis Ryerson said. "We're very confident of the actions we took in dealing with this."

Biddle said in three years at the Star he was never before disciplined and always received positive annual reviews and pay raises.

"While I regret my use of a certain comparison and will be more judicious in my choice of words in the future, the piece which led to my no longer working for the Star was no different in tone and stridency than the numerous other pieces I had written over the past three years," Biddle told IBJ. "My role, after all, was to call attention to the problems facing this city, especially the black community ... ."

Joseph N. Boyce, a retired senior editor with The Wall Street Journal, who now teaches journalism at IUPUI, thinks the Star overreacted.

"If it's true there had been no other disciplinary action taken against [Biddle], I would go along with the union's point," said Boyce, who is black.

Boyce thinks Biddle should have been suspended two weeks without pay. After that, Boyce said, Star editors should have met with Biddle to assure he understood the seriousness of his mistake.

Boyce also said Star management bears some responsibility for not more closely scrutinizing staff-generated postings before they go online.

Guild officials are also unhappy that Ryerson discussed the matter at a Nov. 1 news conference called by the Marion County Democratic Party and attended by Mayor Bart Peterson; state Rep. William Crawford, D-Indianapolis; and other elected officials and leaders from the city's black community.

"That's a professional issue," Aamidor said, but not one the Guild plans to raise formally.

Boyce thinks Ryerson's actions at the news conference were inappropriate. He said Ryerson should have dealt with the matter in-house first, then written about the issue and corrective measures in the newspaper before discussing it elsewhere.

"You know a lot of people will see that, and think, 'We got this sucker under our thumb,'" Boyce said. "What RiShawn did was not right, but by making a public statement in a situation like this, you make yourself vulnerable as an editor.

"The newspaper is supposed to serve the community, not be run by the community."

The guild is prepared to ask to have Biddle reinstated to his position. A more likely scenario would be to cut a deal to get Biddle a severance package.

If guild officials and Star management can't come to an agreement, the union has the option of requesting binding arbitration.

Biddle, 33, formerly worked for Forbes Magazine and the Los Angeles Business Journal.
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