By Michael Miner

Busted at CLTV

It wasn’t Mike Monseur’s idea to create a Web site to champion his cause and call it “I have a hard time saying it,” says Monseur. “It took me aback, and I don’t know why they chose it. But after looking at the Web site, I can get past the name.

“I log on to it from time to time when I get down, and it picks me up,” continues Monseur, a CLTV reporter until he was fired three weeks ago. “I didn’t know if it was proper for me to express an opinion about the title, because I was just grateful they were taking a step forward.”

The site is an elaborate piece of work. The home page sets the stage: “Arab Americans and non Arab Americans are protesting the firing of Mike Monseur by CLTV management on Saturday, Sept. 2. We urge you to join in protesting this firing and in combating what we believe is bigotry and discrimination at CLTV.” There’s a “Law Suit Update Page”–though at this point there’s a lawyer but no suit–a list of CLTV advertisers to remind that “there are more than 150,000 Arab American families in the Chicagoland region,” and boilerplate text for angry letters to station manager Denise Palmer. There’s also an update of “events, rallies and protests” on Monseur’s behalf, an announcement that 26 “Arab American and Muslim organizations” have formed a coalition on his behalf, and a chat board inviting messages to lift his spirits.

The Web site is formally sponsored by the Special Ad Hoc Committee to Protest the Firing of Mike Monseur by CLTV–CLTV being the Tribune Company’s local all-news cable operation. But pungent language like doesn’t come out of a committee. Only one man in town could have coined that URL–Web master Ray Hanania.

A former City Hall reporter for the Sun-Times, Hanania is an independent media consultant of Palestinian descent who’s published the book I’m Glad I Look Like a Terrorist: Growing Up Arab in America and an E-novel, Deir Yassin, about the village southwest of Jerusalem where some 250 Arabs were slaughtered by Israeli irregulars in 1948.

Hanania, who’s married to a Jew, has a keen sense of grievance and as keen a sense of theater. “This is going to be one of our issues,” he tells me. “This is a spin-off of what happened in Palos Heights [whose city leaders tried to keep Muslims from establishing a mosque there]. It’s almost like we’re ghosts walking around the city. We get called names–people don’t want to work with us, don’t want to hire us. They get mad when we get involved with community stuff. We’re lying in the street and a policeman comes up and writes us a ticket for blocking the road. That’s how we feel.”

Monseur was a weekend anchor toiling in CLTV’s considerable obscurity when Rob Feder put a spotlight on him last December. Feder’s column in the Sun-Times described how Monseur had dropped 85 pounds and kicked smoking, and it identified him as “one of very few Arab-American broadcasters in local television.” Monseur, the son of Lebanese immigrants, had a story about that; he told Feder that back in Texas his first TV news director had tried to change his on-air name to Mike Gonzalez.

Hanania read the piece and fretted. He says, “I called Mike up and said, ‘I’m really surprised you allowed him to go public with the fact you’re Arab-American. It could cause a problem.'”

In fact, says Monseur, news director Jim Disch had read Feder’s piece and immediately asked, “Are you an Arab?” Monseur tells me that Hanania’s call, on the heels of Disch’s startling question, left him so worried that he went back to Disch and asked if there was a problem. “He said no, but he said no in such a tone I knew something was up.” In early March, Feder wrote about Monseur again. The gloomy news this time was that Disch had stripped Monseur of his anchor duties and “Arab activists” were taking up his cause. The one activist Feder quoted was Hanania.

From then on, says Monseur, CLTV kept him on such a tight leash that he had to produce a doctor’s note every time he called in sick. “If I said or did anything I felt it would be used against me.” He contacted the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, and at the suggestion of Hanania and Saffiya Shillo, executive director of the Chicago chapter of the Arab American Institute, put his story down on paper. He wrote three pages in which he introduced himself, described the prejudice he’d encountered growing up, noted the Mike Gonzalez incident in Texas, and dwelled on his travails at CLTV.

“After bouncing around the country I finally made it to Chicago,” he wrote. “Wow! What a step. I was so happy and I loved the station.” But after a change of managers, “things started going down hill. I saw some of my coworkers becoming targets of unexplainable actions.” A Hispanic reporter “was threatened with her job.” Other reporters Monseur respected were “treated poorly.” Soon a coworker Monseur identified only as Bob took him aside and asked him to support a union drive. “You see I was considered a leader in the newsroom. I was well liked. I told Bob I would look into it and get back to him. I did and said I liked the idea of representation especially now, considering what was going on with my coworkers. Keep in mind at this time I had no problems. I just wanted to help my friends.”

So Monseur joined the fight to establish the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists as the employees’ bargaining agent at CLTV–he was “way out in front,” says an AFTRA official. Any attempt to organize the smallest nook or cranny of the Tribune Company is sure to run into heavy resistance, and this campaign was no exception. The company brought in King & Ballow, a Nashville-based law firm that specializes in helping media corporations repel unions (“Those guys don’t fuck around,” says a former CLTV supervisor who sat in on some of the meetings), and in spring 1998 AFTRA was duly repelled. Two elections were held, and the station’s technicians actually ratified AFTRA by an eight-to-seven vote. But AFTRA organizer Sheryl Plotkin Beck says the top organizer soon lost his job, and the union’s position at CLTV became so untenable that it pulled out.

The reporters, producers, and camera crews–Monseur’s group–rejected AFTRA by a vote of 24 to 19. Ten months later Monseur lost his anchor duties. Disch replaced him with Lee Ann Trotter, an African-American woman. According to Monseur’s statement, Trotter believed she’d been chosen to undermine any discrimination claim Monseur might make. Monseur wrote that “she was offended that her race would be used in such a way.”

He went on to assert that “management has been instructed, and some of my friends are managers at the station, not to acknowledge me, to make me feel as uncomfortable as possible. Upper management wants me to leave.” Last May 2 he E-mailed this essay to a couple of former colleagues with a note asking for their reaction. Later he sent it to Hanania and Shillo.

It’s a mystery to Monseur how a copy fell into the hands of CLTV management. But armed with Monseur’s own words, Disch and human resources director Sue Marines summoned him on September 1 and suspended him, and the next day Marines called him at home and fired him. The letter of dismissal she wrote begins “Dear Mike,” and goes on to offer the closest the station will come to a bill of particulars. “The e-mail you sent contains information that is not true, detracts from CLTV’s reputation and states you were feeding information to protestors of CLTV,” Marines charged. “In addition, you have told us in previous meetings that you have done nothing to damage CLTV’s reputation. Those statements to us were obviously false.”

Marines warned Monseur that if he showed up at the station, security had instructions to throw him out. But she reassured him about future job references: “CLTV will release only your dates of employment and job title.”

Marketing director Carrie King was the one person in CLTV management willing to answer a phone call about the station’s Monseur problem. And King–who didn’t know existed until I told her to take a look–refused to say anything at all beyond ardently insisting that “we absolutely do not discriminate against any person or ethnic group for any reason.”

But one CLTV employee did have a conversation with me–reporter Bob Arya. Arya’s the Bob who, according to Monseur, got him into the AFTRA campaign to begin with. They used to be friends, but the campaign ended the friendship.

“Mr. Monseur, in my opinion, went a little too far with his heavy-handed tactics in his attempt to convince and force people to go along with his thinking,” says Arya. “If he can’t get past things and pick up his life, I’m sorry for him. I’m not going to nitpick an old fight. These aren’t stone tablets from God here. This is Mike Monseur pissed off by what happened to him. Nothing more and nothing less.”

I called Arya because he’d been identified to me by some of Monseur’s allies–but not by Monseur–as a renegade who’d lured Monseur into a lost cause and hung him out to dry. At the height of the battle, Arya went over to management. Monseur, referring to him only as Bob, would write in his narrative for Hanania and Shillo: “As it turns out he was setting me up and his life right now at CLTV is very good needless to say.”

Don’t be misled, Arya told me. “None of us here was opposed to a union per se,” he said. “We were opposed to the heavy-handed tactics used by Mr. Monseur and others–to wit, intimidation and harassment.”

I asked Alicia Bettes, who was a CLTV producer during the labor wars, how to take Arya’s version of history. “I would say with a grain of salt,” she replied. “If anything, Bob was a little more harassing and intimidating. He was very vocal and nasty and rude to people when he found out they were union supporters. At several meetings the company pulled us into, he was the one saying, ‘You guys are stupid.’ Mike never attacked anyone verbally like that. Mike was like, ‘Here’s the information. If you don’t want to talk to me, here’s people you can talk to.'”

Bettes, I must add, is one of the two former colleagues to whom Monseur sent his three-page statement for a reaction. She tells me she was busy and never got back to him.

The thing to remember about Monseur’s labor activism is that however great or small a role it might have played in getting him fired from CLTV, it’s not what drives “The Tribune Company really does not care if it’s known as antiunion,” says Sheryl Plotkin Beck. “They wear that as a badge of honor.” But no one and no company enjoys being accused of bigotry.

Seven Arab papers are published locally, Hanania told me, and he’s trying to see to it that they turn away from the Middle East long enough to cover Mike Monseur. He said the weekly Al Mahjar is the largest, and that it has already put Monseur on its front page. As a sideline, Hanania publishes an English-language monthly of his own, Arab American View, and he’ll be giving Monseur the full treatment next month.

Abdelghafer Al-Arouri, president of the Palestinian American Community Center in Burbank, is coordinator of the ad hoc committee. Al-Arouri, when we spoke the other day, knew nothing of Monseur’s union activities. He knew only that his children watched Monseur on TV and liked him and “are saddened by the fact he was fired. He is a role model for a new generation of Arab-Americans.”

I asked Al-Arouri if “cltvsucks” struck him as a little counterproductive.

“No, not really,” he replied. “This is the only way to grab attention. What other name could be as attractive to the viewers or to people who look into Web sites? If it’s–in a word–antagonistic, what do you call firing somebody for no valid reason?”

News Bites

Fans of Bernie Lincicome have been surprised and amused to find him still showing up in Chicago–in the pages of the former competition. The Daily Southtown alertly published the first piece the longtime Tribune sports columnist wrote for his new paper, the Rocky Mountain News–on the Broncos-Rams football game a couple of weeks ago. And last Sunday the Southtown’s Hollinger sister, the Sun-Times, picked up Lincicome’s take on Bobby Knight.

Lincicome’s available to the Tribune’s competitors through the Scripps Howard News Service. Phil Jurik, the Southtown’s sports editor, says, “We can and will continue to use him when it makes sense.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.