Reporter Fired After Criticizing Dealer Ad, But No One Wins

Ken Hart was a 25-year newspaper reporter for Kentucky's Ashland Daily Independent, until a few weeks ago. He was fired, because he criticized a local dealership ad on his personal Facebook page. And the weirdest part is that the dealership didn't even want him gone.

Hart took issue with the ad from Fannin Motors because of the way the children were speaking, telling Jim Romenesko:

"It appeared to me [that they] were being coached to talk like babies because it was 'cute,'" says Hart. "I [wrote on Facebook] that making them do this was likely to get them teased unmercifully in school."

Hart was fired the day after posting it. The publisher of the paper wouldn't give Hart a reason for his firing, but his former supervisor told him it was because the owner of the dealership, Chris Fannin, called the newspaper, and had an angry conversation, threatening to pull his company's ads from the publication's pages.

But Fannin explicitly said he didn't want Hart to lose his job:

"Interestingly, my boss also told me Fannin had made the statement 'Now, I'm not calling to get him fired or anything' during the course of the conversation."

On the one hand, this sounds like a tempest in a tea cup, or like it's easy to cast a villain here. But we do get into issues of journalistic freedom, and a small newspaper's relationship with its local business community.

As a journalist, maybe I'm supposed to rail against Fannin for even calling up the newspaper, and threatening anything. But on the other hand, I can understand how this could be perceived as an attack on his own children, and how that could piss him off.

And then Hart kind of comes across as a jerk, too, and even he acknowledges that, telling Romenesko that he probably shouldn't have criticized those children in public (and your personal Facebook page is public, no matter your protestations). He doesn't go on to say why he shouldn't have done that, but I can proffer a multitude of answers, starting from "dude, they're just kids, chill out," to "it's a local car dealership, they don't exactly have Apple's marketing budget."

But we've all gone overboard with criticism. I know I have, and I'll be the first to admit it. Does that mean he should've lost his job?

Hart says no, and I absolutely agree with him. A critical eye is one of the main requirements of being a journalist – otherwise, you're just writing press releases. And though he wrote a public message, he wasn't doing it under the banner of his newspaper. Plus, the guy's got 25 years of experience as a local newspaper reporter. That should stand for something.

So it looks like the real jerk here is probably the paper itself, for going way overboard and firing Hart. But really, it just completed the cycle of making everything worse.

Okay, so it's not the best ad in the world, but so what? Hart probably should've picked his battles, and continued to go after the Hobby Lobby marketing department instead of the ad from a local family-owned dealership, and specifically, the children of the owner.

Fannin probably should've picked his battles, too, and not made an angry call to the newspaper, getting Hart fired, which made Hart go to media journalist Jim Romenesko, which spurred us to write about it here, thus making this little nothing of a spat become much more public (see: the Barbra Streisand effect).

And the publisher of the newspaper shouldn't have fired Hart, because the dude's a journalist. It's his job to write, and yes, sometimes criticize. If you disagree with his criticism on his personal Facebook page, there are ways to handle it that don't involve making him lose his livelihood of the past 25 years. I understand that it's a small newspaper, and small newspapers are struggling financially, so when a local advertiser comes calling your first reaction may to be panic, but the advertiser specifically didn't want any heads rolling here, so what is your excuse here?

But this is why a lot of reputable media organizations maintain a wide gulf between their editorial and business sides. Journalists should be free to write what they feel is appropriate, and the money side should know that.

Anyways, enough of the moralizing and learning. It's a murky gray area in many respects, and the only firm answer we seem to have arrived at is that Hart shouldn't have been fired. Here's the ad in question:

Yeah, it's not going to win any awards, but I've seen much worse.