"You are not the kind of person we want in this newsroom," the editor was telling me.
Stunned, I pressed on, asking for some sort of rational explanation as to why I was not being hired, when I knew there were three openings for general assignments reporter and I knew I was qualified. In fact, I had written for the San Antonio Light in the past as a free-lancer and was currently employed by another Hearst daily.
"You just wouldn't fit in in our newsroom," the editor continued.
When I tenaciously pursued the phone conversation to ask specifically what "kind" of person I was, I was told brusquely, "I don't have to give you any reasons. It is a judgment I have made based on a number of things... a personal judgment that you are a confrontational person."
Had he contacted any of my references or current co-workers to make that determination? No, he didn't have to; it was, again, a "personal judgment" based on my "history" with the Light.
That history, it turns out, was my series of articles written for the San Antonio Light op-ed page in 1985, 1986, and 1987 on the state of Israel and US policy in the region.
Our conversation ended without going into what I already suspected to be the real reason behind the startling series of events that began the last week of July 1989, when I first learned of three openings. I determined to give management every opportunity to provide a more informative justification for the events, thinking perhaps I was overreacting to my rejection.
It became apparent in subsequent weeks that I was not, as the only thing I ever received in writing from the Hearst corporate offices (nothing from the Light) confirmed.
To retrace those events is to focus attention on a little-discussed skeleton in the closet of American journalism.
If someone had told me five years ago that First Amendment rights to freedom of expression are a dangerous thing to claim in the American newsroom, I would have scoffed at the notion and assumed the person to be some sort of radical scalawag out to discredit the profession of journalism.
If anyone had told me that qualified reporters could either lose their jobs or be denied advancement because their editorial opinions—whatever the subject—went against that of this nation's most powerful special interest lobby, I would not have believed it.
Today I not only believe it, I am prepared to testify to it.
Let me begin at the beginning.
In 1984, on a trip to Egypt, I was repeatedly queried by those I met and interviewed—from bellhop to government minister—as to why my country so unreservedly supported the state of Israel. Questions were asked for which I had no answers and allegations made which I had never heard. Though I had lived many years in Iran, the Iranians are not an Arab nation and, as a reporter, I had never dealt with the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Returning to Texas, I began to research it.
The result of my inquiry was to discover that many of these allegations were true. This suggested that there might be a great deal more to the subject than I, or most Americans, realized, based upon what we read and heard from the US news media.
The '60s and '70s in this country shook up a lot of American institutions and beliefs and traditions; we began to question many of the old values and systems that had been sacrosanct for so long. But one we did not question seriously until the intifada was the rightness of the state of Israel.
Unfortunately for my job prospects, I began to question it too soon. Headlines on some of my articles published in the San Antonio Light are now mute testimony to the "confrontational" nature of my "history" at the newspaper, referred to by editors Ed Rademackers and Jeff Cohen, who blocked my job opportunity at the Light: "American problems in the Middle East are linked to US support of Israel;" "Misconceptions can only worsen Middle East discontent;" "Israel is a theocracy, not a democracy."
The intent of the articles was to provide a seldom-presented side of the story in a little-known region of the world that was having tremendous impact on our own nation. They were attempts to inform the general public while satisfying my own interests in the topic.
Mail response ranged from agreement and appreciation for the fresh viewpoint to outrage, and was sometimes downright nasty.
The more I wrote, the more I was warned: "You had better go easy... you should be careful, you know," and, just as surprisingly, praised: "You're so brave," or "It took a great deal of courage to write what you wrote."
Bravery? Courage? This attitude shocked and alarmed me. I felt certain that the people who expressed such ideas were deluded about the power of the Israeli lobby and supporters of the Jewish state to create problems for me, personally.
Nothing I had written was slanderous; everything was backed up by documentation, quotes were accurate, attribution was given. Furthermore, they were all editorial/opinion pieces and presented as such. How could I have known to what extent they would come back to haunt me?
Despite my years of experience in media, including print, I continued to be side-stepped for staff employment at the Light although my application, resume and samples of city-side work were on file there during the time I free-lanced for the paper.
Thinking perhaps my years as a maverick free-lancer and PR agent were working against me and I should at all costs get back into the newsroom routine, I accepted a position with another Hearst daily as a city reporter.
On a community newspaper this means covering some half-dozen beats. It has been excellent retraining ground. As such, and because both dailies are Hearst publications, I felt confident, when openings occurred, I would be in good shape to be considered by the Light.
In fact, I was considered. Hearing of the three openings in late July, I was told to contact an editor who now filled the "screening" position recently vacated by Jeff Cohen, who had risen to the position of managing editor. After a phone conversation, I mailed samples of my current work for review and was asked to stop by for a personal interview.
The interview, on Aug. 10, went well, I felt. I was introduced to the assignments editor and asked if I could arrange to come in for a three-day trial run, a usual procedure, the screening editor said, before hiring. The assignments editor expressed delight at having another reporter on Monday, because, she said, they were so shorthanded and she had such a heavy calendar that day.
In the bag? Hardly.
Upon my return at the appointed time on Monday, the screening editor uncomfortably called me into his office and intoned that he had some bad news: "There will be no trial run."
"And why is that, can you tell me?"
"Because Ed Rademaekers and Jeff Cohen told me not to give you one."
"Did they give you any reason for that?"
"No, they didn't."
As I mentioned above, the single letter I have to explain my 11th hour rejection is a slender piece of correspondence from the general manager of newspapers for the Hearst Corporation.
In it, he offers but one reason, thereby disposing of any other possibilities, such as sex or age discrimination, lack of qualifications, bizarre or unruly behavior, attire, or questionable personal habits.
"It is our understanding from San Antonio management that prior to your present employment... you did free-lance work at the Light. Based on this prior experience at the Light, I am satisfied that local management had a sufficient basis to reach the conclusion that your employment would not be in the best interest of the San Antonio Light."
Since all of my free-lancing for the Light was on the Middle East, an area I was attempting to develop as a specialty, and focused predominantly on the Israeli-Arab question, it makes clear to what the editors objected. Had wisdom rather than prejudice prevailed, Light management would have recognized the irrelevance of my op-ed writing on Mideast affairs to the question of my performance as a general assignments staff reporter, covering local events.
One final observation: while free-lancing for the Light, I never worked with either of the two editors who made such harsh, but admittedly personal, judgments about me. The editor I did work for, who now edits a paper in California, says, "I didn't even know they knew you."
The real irony of my two-month odyssey with the San Antonio Light lies in the title of my July 27, 1986, article published on the Light's Viewpoint page: "The difficulty of dissenting against Zionism in America."