By Michael Miner

As the Newspaper Guild girded last month for a strike against the Sun-Times, a martyr fortuitously emerged. Guild leaders posted his saga on their bulletin board to inspire the troops.

A few days after Dwight Biermann’s doleful story was told the two sides came to terms. Management made the agreement possible by finally taking off the table its intolerable demand for an open shop–a newsroom whose employees would belong to the union only if they wished. “Freedom of choice” had been the corporate catchphrase, but Biermann’s fate made it laughable. When he chose the side of labor he lost his job.

Biermann, who’s 29, was a systems coordinator at the Saint Joseph, Michigan, Herald-Palladium, a daily paper owned by the American Publishing Company, a division of Hollinger International, which also controls the Sun-Times. He ran the Herald-Palladium’s computers and occasionally was assigned for brief periods to other papers in the American Publishing chain.

On Wednesday, November 12, he says, publisher David Harrison called him into his office. Harrison told Biermann a Hollinger paper was facing a strike in Chicago. In the event one was called, trained reinforcements would have to step in to keep the paper going. Harrison wanted Biermann to spend Friday, Saturday, and Sunday in Chicago learning to run the Sun-Times computers.

Scab! thought Biermann. “I asked him point-blank if I had a choice,” he says. “He said he himself wouldn’t fire me, but he couldn’t tell me what the repercussions from above him might be.”

Let me know by five o’clock, Harrison said.

“It sucked!” says Biermann. “I saw it in front of me as big as a house. It was clear the end was near.”

He’d been aware of Hollinger’s reputation as a corporation that didn’t like unions. But the Herald-Palladium was a nonunion shop, and push never came to shove. Now, totally out of the blue, he heard Harrison telling him to toe the company line or clear out.

It was a lousy choice, but to Biermann a clear one. “My parents were both prounion, my mom especially. My parents never talked politics to me very much. But it seems where I was taught the line between right and wrong divides, it leaves the union side on the good-guy side.”

He went home without getting back to Harrison. When he arrived at work the next morning the publisher’s executive assistant handed him a memo telling him when to report to Chicago and which hotel he’d be staying at. Biermann sat at his desk, typed a response, and took it in to Harrison. “There was a brief pause while he conferred with some people”–Biermann saw Harrison talking with department managers and presumes he consulted with American Publishing superiors by phone. Then Harrison called Biermann back in and told him his “no” was his resignation.

The next day the South Bend Tribune’s reporter in Saint Joseph told Biermann’s story, and the article quickly made its way to the Sun-Times bulletin board. Intrigued by Biermann’s situation, Ken Edwards, general counsel to the Chicago Newspaper Guild, stepped in on his behalf. “If we’d had pickets up at the Sun-Times already and Dwight said, ‘Hey, I’m not going to cross this picket line,’ that’s pretty well covered. He’d in effect become a sympathy striker. In this case he said, ‘I’m not going to go train to become a strikebreaker.’ It’s one step removed from what I found in the law–it’s a novel issue, I think.”

The guild filed an unfair-labor charge with the National Labor Relations Board, and last Friday Biermann testified before an NLRB agent in Grand Rapids. This week it was the paper’s turn to testify. A decision by the NLRB on whether to refer the issue to an administrative law judge is expected in January.

Harrison, the Herald-Palladium’s publisher, declined to comment to me, saying he’d like to but can’t because the matter’s in litigation. But he’d also declined to speak to South Bend Tribune reporter Jennifer Martin, whose article appeared the day after Biermann was bounced, when litigation wasn’t a speck on the horizon.

“The only reason I agreed to talk to the South Bend Tribune,” says Biermann, “was because I naively thought that if I told the newspaper and they published the story, it would make the American Publishing Company think twice about canning anybody else over this.”

Nobody else was canned.

“Actually, Dave Brown, the managing editor, volunteered to go,” Biermann says. “In my eyes, although he ended up having to play scab-in-training, it was a pretty noble gesture on his part.” He thinks Brown went to Chicago to protect people under him from having to face Biermann’s choice. “He took the mental lumps from doing that, and he got to keep all his staff. It was both self-defense and a preemptive strike. I know him pretty well. I know how he thinks. He’s a good human being. I certainly don’t think a decision like that came easy to him.”

Biermann moved to Lansing, Michigan, and found a job on computers with the independent student-run daily at Michigan State University. He says he doesn’t want his job back at the Herald-Palladium. “I agreed to let the Chicago Newspaper Guild file with the NLRB because Edwards seems to believe that there may be precedent-setting potential. There’s the possibility down the road that people placed in the same shoes I am can tell the company to pack sand up their ass. What do I expect to get out of this? Zip. Well, not zip. This is my 15 minutes of fame, isn’t it? If they end up taking it to court, and it goes all the way and becomes precedent–is it going to happen? I don’t know. I have my doubts. But I wish them the best of luck.”

Us and Them

Some grousing Daily Herald reporters–I don’t know how wide or deep their resentment goes–think their paper’s advertising department has given aid and comfort to the enemy.

A photocopied page from the in-house “Daily Herald Update” arrived the other day in the mail. A note scribbled at the top asserted, “D.H. Reporters are none too happy about the Marketing Dept. putting this out.”

An arrow pointed to the page’s offensive feature, which was a list of 15 helpful hints under the heading “Be prepared for media interviews.”

“Never Lie!” the list begins. It continues, “Tell the good news enthusiastically.”

So far I found this advice unobjectionable. But farther down the list I came to the suggestions my anonymous informant had underlined, the ones that apparently stick in reporters’ craws, the ones whose point is to throw a newshound off your scent.

“Don’t allow yourself to be put in a defensive position.”

“Know your ground; don’t be sidetracked.”

“The tougher the question, the shorter your answer.”

“The more the pursuit, the calmer your demeanor.”

“Paraphrase the interviewer to suit your purpose.”

“Never speak ‘off the record’–it doesn’t exist!”

That last pearl of wisdom was also decorated with stars. My correspondent apparently considered it astonishing.

“Daily Herald Update” turns out to be a newsletter the paper’s advertising (not marketing) department sends to Daily Herald advertisers. David Fesler, the national sales rep, puts the newsletter together each month, and the list, which he published in the November issue, is something he said he found on the Internet. There’s nothing remarkable about it; vast sectors of our society perceive the media as the common enemy, and handsome livings are made by consultants who teach private people who’ve wandered into the public eye how to survive with their dignity.

Fesler’s relationship with the newsroom is anything but cozy. Whenever the Daily Herald runs an article ripping one of his advertisers, he winces. “I can’t imagine why you’d pick on the people paying your revenue,” he told me. “The advertisers complain, ‘Why do you run an article like that?’ I’ve had people looking seriously at [canceling] their advertising.”

What do you tell them? I asked Fesler.

“That we’re like church and state,” he said. “We can’t dictate to editorial people what to put in their columns. All we can do is bitch about it, basically.”

But when Fesler published his “be prepared” list, he clearly–in the minds of at least some editorial people–went beyond mere bitching and flirted with treason. I called editor John Lampinen and asked what he made of it.

“I think we can look back at it and say all of us make mistakes from time to time,” Lampinen said. “Our heart was in the right place, but it was a mistake to send it out to advertisers exactly the way it was.” He was sorry Fesler printed the list “without giving it a lot of thought or running it by me.”

But why would Fesler run it by the editor? Shouldn’t the wall that shields editorial from advertising also shield advertising from editorial? “To some degree, you may have a point with that one,” Lampinen said. All the same, he said, “I think that had we had a chance to look it over, we might have helped them refine their tips. I would never discourage people from being as open as possible with reporters. And I wouldn’t counsel people to not trust reporters or to not trust reporters with off-the-record comments. I think we hold it sacred that when someone says off the record it’s off the record!”

If the newsroom had been given the chance to refine Fesler’s list, the first item on it might have read, “Be open and trusting. The reporter is your friend.” I can understand why Fesler would have preferred to grind his ax without the newsroom’s assistance. And while Lampinen is quite correct that it’s a point of honor among journalists to keep a confidence, in another sense–one that might be more easily understood by Fesler’s wary advertisers–“off the record” is an empty abstraction.

Could Nixon have stanched the Watergate bleeding by calling in Woodward and Bernstein and telling them, “This is off the record, so you can never use it. But I’m guilty as hell”? I don’t think so. Tell a reporter something off the record, and whether he uses it or not he knows it. And because he knows it, it’s sure to shape his reporting from that day on. If you don’t want someone to know something don’t tell him.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Dwight Biermann photo-uncredited.