"You should refund this overpayment of $105,240.00 within 30 days."
March 9, 2002
Since September 11, several journalists have been canned for expressing views that were critical of George W. Bush. One was Dan Guthrie of Oregon, who had previously received an award for being the best columnist in that state. A lot of good that did him.
Now another prize-winning journalist has been given the heave-ho.
His name is Tim McCarthy, and for the last seven years, he's been the editor of the Courier, a weekly newspaper in Littleton, New Hampshire, owned by Salmon Press.
Last year, he won the "Editorial Writer of the Year" award from the New Hampshire Press Association, and previously he'd won that award from the New England Press Association.
But on February 13, he was fired.
McCarthy cites two factors in his dismissal: His repeated editorializing against George W. Bush's recklessness, and his defense of a cartoonist who was under the gun for a controversial panel criticizing the President.
On September 19, McCarthy wrote an editorial entitled "Curbing the Rush to War," which began: "The dust has barely settled at Ground Zero in New York. The ruins still smolder. Thousands are still missing and almost surely dead. So it is easy to understand the anger, the will toward revenge. But there is a deep, even vital need for caution in this apparent rush to war."
He urged Bush to abandon the "Wanted: Dead or Alive" rhetoric and "to limit the scale of our retaliation." And he expressed concern that "we will kill a lot of innocent people."
The next week, he wrote another editorial, this one entitled "Someone Has to Keep Watch." Here's the gist of that one: "Sometimes it is necessary to rally around the flag. But it is also dangerous. Someone has to keep watch, someone has to sound the alarm should all the flag-waving slip from an expression of grief and anger to a reignited patriotism to a dangerous jingoism."
He also warned that "someone has to make sure that this war is not waged at the price of our civil liberties. . . . Any increase in federal police power must be viewed with extreme caution. Once it has been given, it is hard to take back, and who knows how it might be abused somewhere down the road."
On Thanksgiving week, his editorial was "Giving Wartime Thanks." In it, he wrote: "Should we be thankful that the Bush Administration is usurping some of our civil liberties in pursuit of this create-it-as-you-go war, both here and abroad? No. Here we have a bone to pick, and it has little to do with leftover turkey."
After that one, McCarthy heard from Rich Piatt, the publisher of The Courier.
"Tim, after reading this week's editorial, 'Giving Wartime Thanks,' I'm convinced we need to change gears on editorial topics," he wrote in an e-mail McCarthy shared. "You've made your opinion on the war known, and many of our readers have done likewise. It's time to move on to another topic, preferably something of local interest."
McCarthy e-mailed back the next day. "My feeling is the war is definitely of local interest," he wrote to his boss. "Nearly everyone I hear is talking about it, and it seems to be on everybody's mind. In that sense, I think it would be irresponsible not to write about it. . . . More broadly, I don't subscribe to the old dictum that a local paper has to willfully limit itself to provincial isolation."
And that's where the exchange ended, at least for a while. "I did hold off, more or less," says McCarthy.
Then came Bush's "Axis of Evil" speech, and McCarthy could not keep biting his tongue.
"His characterization of Iran, Iraq, and North Korea as an "axis of evil" was grossly irresponsible," he wrote. "It was also stupid. Iran and Iraq spent much of the 1980s slaughtering each other by the tens of thousands. North Korea is an isolated regime far more intent upon preserving its almost psychotic sense of itself than on exporting terrorism. All told, that hardly makes for an axis of anything."
McCarthy also dared to take the bloom off the U.S. victory in Afghanistan. "Given the size and technical proficiently of the forces involved, this country's much-vaunted victory in Afghanistan was the military equivalent of beating up your grandmother," he wrote.
And he praised the work of the international peace group Women in Black, which had protested in Littleton that week about the need for Israel to withdraw from the Occupied Territories. He ran a news story about the protest, as well.
On top of all this was the dispute McCarthy had with his publisher over cartoonist Mike Marland, who draws for nine papers in New Hampshire, including the Courier and the Concord Monitor.
In early February, Marland drew a cartoon for the Concord Monitor that depicted Bush flying a plane into two towers, one labeled "Social" and the other labeled "Security."
The Monitor was inundated with angry mail, and the editor of that paper quickly apologized for running the cartoon, and Marland himself fell on his pen.
(This, in itself, is worthy of a little "McCarthyism Watch" item. Mike Pride, editor of the Concord Monitor, wrote a column on February 10, entitled, "Why we shouldn't have run Marland's cartoon." Pride said he had mistakenly assumed that "enough time had passed for the wounds of September 11 to heal and for the terrorist attacks to take their place in the long history of political satire." On February 14, Marland wrote his own mea culpa in the Monitor: "I must agree with critics that, yes, a less jarring image would have done the job." He added: "It was not my intention to desecrate the memory of those who died that day. Nor to add to the anguish and sorrow of their loved ones or the city of New York. I am remorseful. I am regretful. To these people, all I can say is how profoundly sorry I am.")
Back to Tim McCarthy and the Littleton Courier. Shortly after the cartoon controversy erupted, McCarthy got an e-mail from Rich Piatt saying he was canceling Marland's cartoon for financial reasons.
"My immediate reaction was that this was political, and that they were worried about the controversy," McCarthy says, even though the cartoon never ran in the Courier.
So McCarthy e-mailed his boss back: "Rich, Mike Marland got his start with this newspaper more than twenty years ago at the age of nineteen, right after he graduated from Lisbon High School," McCarthy wrote on February 11. "His work is one of the highlights of our publication . . . so I'm going to continue to publish his cartoons. I'm going to ask him to bill me directly, and I will pay for them out of my own pocket. It is that important to me, to this newspaper, and to this community. If money is the only issue involved, this should satisfy Salmon Press."
The next day, Piatt sent McCarthy an e-mail to meet him at the office on February 13.
Piatt called him in. "He was poking his finger at that news story" about Women in Black, McCarthy recalls, and Piatt said: "I'm terminating you as of now,"
"I asked him why," McCarthy says.
"I don't have to give you a reason," Piatt said, according to McCarthy. "If I had to give you a reason, it would be insubordination. You're finished. Leave the building."
Piatt gave McCarthy a letter, saying:
"Today is your final day of employment with Salmon Press. You will be paid through Friday, February 15, 2002. In addition, you will be paid for unused paid personal hours through February 15, plus vacation."
Those benefits amounted to $209.96.
Piatt refused to return four phone calls seeking comment.
At 63, McCarthy's been a working journalist for four decades.
But no longer.
"I would love to, but there's a lot of discrimination against old farts," he says. "Right now, I'm consulting with a couple of political candidates. Just trying to survive here."