As part of my penance for attending a journalism school in the hinterlands and for occasionally trashing the entire enterprise, I do my best to show the j-school young’uns a good time during their annual trip to the Big Apple. Last year’s group included a lad named Acton Gorton, who made such an impression on me that I had no recollection whatsoever that he was in the group at all. But, as it turns out, he may have been the most likely to succeed out of all of them, at least in this particular media fishbowl.
Gorton, you see, was the editor-in-chief of the Daily Illini who unilaterally decided, along with his Opinions editor, to publish several of the Danish cartoons depicting Muhammad which major newspapers, including The New York Times and The Washington Post wouldn’t touch. Their decision touched off campus demonstrations and counter-demonstrations, and landed the pair in very hot water. They’ve been suspended without pay, Gorton has hired a lawyer, and he’s told the Chicago Tribune that he expects to be fired when what he implied was a kangaroo court was finished with him.
While all of this would appear on the surface to be a case of political correctness run amok, DI alumni (I’m not ashamed to say I helped launch its Website a decade ago) received an update this afternoon from publisher Mary Cory, who accused Gorton of behavior not terribly unlike, say, Judy Miller’s:
“The problem we’re addressing is the inability of the editor in chief to be honest with his staff and with me. His actions and statements over these past weeks (his tenure began Jan. 1) demonstrated a lack of respect for his colleagues and a total disregard for the need to collaborate or communicate honestly in the newsroom. His focus, as expressed directly to his staff and myself, is for the media attention he is receiving personally for his courageous move in being first (second/third?) to run the cartoons in his paper, not for the need to publish an excellent newspaper worthy of its reputation.
“The night editor (shift position responsible for final page approval on deadline) who approved the Feb. 9 opinions page on Wednesday night recounts how the cartoons made it to press (full account available on his blog: thenextfrontier.net): “I was alerted by both the Editor in Chief and the Opinions Editor about the content that would be published for Thursday. I was told the very few people knew about it. I was told to keep it quiet and ensure that it got printed, and if complications arose, to contact them immediately.”
“The editor in chief intentionally kept knowledge of his plan to publish the cartoons from his executive team and editorial board, and had no plans in place to deal with any reader reactions once they were published. He was unable to involve his other editors in any type of response or coverage of the situation, because he purposefully kept them out of the communication loop on this issue. The chaos that has ensued here since then because of his reckless actions has been damaging to the paper’s reputation and unworkable for the staff.”
You can guess what happened next. There were staff meetings with the publisher present; a “cooling-off period” before anyone was ousted, and a “task force” has been assigned to figure out who knew what, and when they knew it. Gorton has quite a bright future ahead of him.
[UPDATE:] Gorton and his lawyer have apparently issued a press release claiming that Cory and the Illini Media Co. have defamed him. (And based on what I posted and the rest of the letter, that isn’t much of a stretch.) From the release: “Publisher Mary Cory and the management of the Illini Media Company are waging a concerted campaign to defame and malign Acton Gorton, the Editor in Chief of the Daily Illini. This is taking place at a time when Gorton has been restrained by the Illini Media Company from speaking out about the events prior to, during and immediately after the publication of the Prophet Muhammad cartoons on 2/9/06… Gorton’s attorney, Junaid Afeef, has submitted a letter to the Illini Media Company’s board of directors demanding that the defamatory statements cease immediately and that policy and procedure materials of the Daily Illini be turned over as well.”