Jim McNair, an award-winning business reporter at The Cincinnati Enquirer, was summoned to the human resources office at the paper Aug. 16 and fired. Blogs blazed with the news within days.
NewsAche, a local blog devoted entirely to pointing out journalism deficiencies at The Enquirer, suggested he was "fired to placate advertisers." Bill Sloat, a former Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter who writes The Daily Bellwether blog, called McNair a "pain in the ass newsman, who could be a prickly pear and would poke his nose into uncomfortable places -- like the banking industry and homebuilders."
The reporter who, during just a half-dozen years, confronted pension fraud, homebuilders, Check 'N Go, Berkeley Premium Nutraceuticals and Fifth Third Bank (among others) was told by Carolyn Pione, Enquirer business editor, that there had been complaints about him about his tone, attitude and professionalism. He was terminated.
McNair says he wasn't told who complained or the nature of those complaints. While he wouldn't speculate about whether he was fired to "placate advertisers," he concedes his wasn't exactly an accommodating face in corporate Cincinnati.
McNair spoke with CityBeat before his attorney told him not to speak further with the media.
"I've pissed off a lot of companies," McNair says. "The complaints caused them enough consternation that they decided I was more trouble than I was worth. But we never had to correct anything, clarify or retract. It's just that they didn't have the stomach for it."
McNair's letter of termination, he confirmed, said, "In light of recent complaints, our confidence that you could improve in this regard -- to report in a fair and balanced manner -- was severely shaken."
Indeed, in what has turned out to be a prescient piece of reporting, McNair wrote in a 2002 Nieman Foundation report about the lengths corporate America would go to block business reporters.
He cited several examples of corporations going straight to employers and asking that stories be killed or reporters reassigned.
"Reporters who confront corporations might as well be covering the affairs of a medieval king sequestered behind castle walls and a moat," McNair wrote. "Corporations are not like city halls, county courthouses or state assemblies where information is harvested freely by reporters. Efforts to scale the castle wall ... often end in a dousing of scalding water, usually administered by the corporate executive whose job it is to keep the news media in check."
McNair, who is 54 and married with three children, was recruited by The Enquirer from The Miami Herald, where he covered large corporations in South Florida, writing scathing stories about scams and covering white collar crime. In 2001, McNair says, Enquirer Executive Editor Ward Bushee told him, "You can't have a good newspaper without a good business section."
"So I did what they hired me to do," McNair says.
That philosophy changed with a changing of regimes, and the complaints apparently grew louder this year. But those complaints didn't involve a history of inaccuracies, corrections or retractions. There were never any suggestions of plagiarism, fabrication, conflicts of interest or payoffs. There were no intimations of sexual harassment or computer porn. Just "complaints."
The Enquirer wouldn't say why McNair was fired.
"Unfortunately, we cannot comment on personnel decisions," Hollis Towns, Enquirer executive editor, told CityBeat in an e-mail. But Towns did tell Editor & Publisher that the newspaper didn't do it to appease advertisers. He told the magazine that allegation was "completely unfounded. We make news decisions that are completely independent."
Not everyone complained, of course. Mary Benfield, who lives in Pierce Township and is involved in a lawsuit with a homebuilder, says she appreciated stories McNair had done on shoddy home construction.
"He was working on poor house building," she says. "He made me feel like he was somebody speaking up for the common man. We just feel like nobody was hearing us out there, but he was listening. I think it's terrible. We need him, we really do. You need somebody who's willing to do investigative work and not just toe the corporate line."
Nancy Seats, national president of Homeowners Against Deficient Dwellings, a Missouri-based group that promotes better building standards and works with legislators for consumer protection bills in the homebuilding industry, says she works with reporters across the country and has worked with McNair.
"I am shocked but not surprised to hear this," she wrote in an e-mail to CityBeat. "Jim was an outstanding reporter, and I know that he tried his best to report the truth, and yet at the same time tried to be careful. ... This is another example of corporate-controlled media that is getting this country in such trouble. ... I am outraged at his firing and will let every consumer advocate know what has happened."
'Push him down the stairs'
Jon Newberry, who worked as a business reporter at The Cincinnati Post for three years and at The Enquirer for 14 months before leaving two weeks ago, says he considers McNair a "good friend."
"As a journalist, he could be very aggressive," Newberry says. "He could be confrontational. He was very driven to get good business stories. I think he was abrasive with editors when he had disagreements on stories.
"I don't have any inside information on why they fired him. I can only imagine it was a combination of personality conflicts with his superiors and his idea of what a business journalist should do. He doesn't back down when he thinks he's right."
Reactions of commenters on the blogs were mixed.
"Fired?" wrote one commenter at NewsAche. "It's just a shame the editors didn't push him down the stairs on his way out the door."
Talking Biz News, a blog that covers business journalism, carried this comment: "Thank God! Finally! This guy was a real jerk! He was more concerned with creating an entertaining story than he was about reporting facts. I work for a local company that has been the victim of several inaccurate, exaggerated, made-up stories that were written by this jerk."
Others challenged this commenter on those inaccuracies and asked why he didn't ask for corrections.
"McNair is old school," NewsAche wrote. "He is not a proponent of the journalism of hope and didn't want to write about 'good things happening.' He wants to put people in jail. ... McNair's brand of journalism made people inside the paper uncomfortable. The Enquirer has no history of providing this kind of hard-nosed reporting."
McNair is currently talking with an attorney. He says he is not the anonymous blogger NewsAche, who is apparently someone who works at The Enquirer. Some suspect McNair is NewsAche, but he says he was not accused of this when he was fired.
Most of his reporting was gleaned from public records, governmental actions and private lawsuits.
"Did I write fluff pieces?" McNair says. "I've done my share of those. I've written a lot of good stories about companies. It's not as if all I did was terrorize companies." ©