I guess I’ve been lucky. Almost every time I’ve had to fire someone it’s been a “mercy killing,” someone who just had to go; someone who had no one else to blame for his fate.
Take, for example, the young assignment editor who “borrowed” (of course, without authorization) a marked news car to take some of his buddies drinking one Saturday night.
When state police spotted those happy campers tossing their empty beer bottles onto the interstate, they gave chase. Fortunately, miraculously, no one was hurt when my young employee rolled our news car three times in the median.
Question: how much sleep do you think I lost the night I fired him?
And yet some have said I'm one of the meanest SOBs to ever run a newsroom.
Here’s a good example. The way the story is told, one of my reporters called in sick one day—so sick he couldn’t get out of bed—and I refused to believe him and told him I wanted him to drag his near-lifeless carcass to the bathroom, phone in hand, and flush the toilet so I could hear that he really was home.
Y'know, that’s exactly what happened—sort of.
Truth is, the guy was famous for using sick days to give himself three-day weekends. He was famous for walking away leaving stories with gaping holes in them, with questions yet to be answered (he apparently had an active social life and didn’t want work to get in the way). And “work,” now that I think of it, is a bit generous. He gave 100% effort 50% of the time (or was that 50% effort 100% of the time—either way it worked out the same). On this occasion he had come to me the day before asking for a last-minute vacation day. I checked the schedule and told him I was sorry, that we were already at limit for the number of people who could be off at any one time. I explained that he should have asked a lot earlier; that I would have tried to accommodate him or helped him trade vacation days with someone else. He argued that I should make an exception in his case. It wasn’t possible.
The next morning, you guessed it, he called in sick (or is that out sick, I'm never sure). Anyway, I was in my office with another news manager. When I put the call on speakerphone it seemed my poor, sick little reporter was being rushed to the hospital in an ambulance. He didn't say that, but how else could we explain why we clearly heard the whooshing sounds of tires on pavement! No sirens, just car noise. We rolled our eyes and held back our laughter as he said, in a weak and scratchy voice, that he had come down with the flu and couldn’t make it in. He got indignant when I told him that I was having a bit of a problem believing him. The other manager and I were rolling our eyes and trying not to laugh out loud—when it came to me. It may not have been the most mature move I've ever made, but I couldn't resist. I asked him to go into the bathroom, hold the phone next to the toilet and give it a flush just to prove he was home. He refused. I told him I understood; but that I was worried about him, and that I’d check back on him later in the day to make sure he was feeling better.
The other manager and I had a good laugh. We agreed that while we were both born, neither of us was born yesterday!
Funny. When I called to check on the reporter’s well-being later in the day, no one answered the phone. Gosh, I thought. Golly gee whiz, I certainly hope he’s not passed out somewhere! I was tempted to ask the police to break down the door in case he was in real danger. (Is this the point where a teenager would insert “LOL?”)
You may think I’m a jerk. I think I’m a nice guy. When his contract was coming up, he and I both knew I was going to get rid of him, but I called him in a month earlier than stipulated by contract to tell him it would be wise to start looking for his next job. He wound up with almost three months' notice, my gift to him. It’s always easier to find a job when you have a job, and I wanted to give him the opportunity to save face.
He was successful. He found another job. And when he came into my office to tell me, he looked at me with contempt and sneeringly said, “You know, I’ve been here almost two years and I haven’t learned a thing!”
And I replied, “Yes, I know.”
I guess you can make a case that overbearing, demanding news directors are a major problem in broadcast journalism. Maybe so.
I’m prejudiced, of course, but I think a major problem is no-talent pissants who can’t lead, won’t follow, and have to be forced to get out of the way.
By the way, the picture up top is of Dr. Jack Kevorkian, proponent of euthanasia (“mercy killing”). The title "Youth in Asia" comes courtesy of Miss Emily Litella. If you're under 40 you'll just have to Google her name.