Connie Schultz: Editor fired, but not silenced, over the NRA

Five days after the shootings in San Bernardino, California, Jan Larson McLaughlin sat down in her home office on her day off and wrote her weekly editorial for the Sentinel-Tribune, circulation 9,000, in Bowling Green, Ohio.

McLaughlin has worked for the newspaper for 31 years, the past 2 1/2 as editor-in-chief. She usually writes her editorial in the newsroom, but this one required special care. She was taking on the National Rifle Association, and she was doing it in Ohio.

Her editorial began: “It is time for reasonable gun owners to take back control of the association that supposedly represents them.

“We as a nation are still mourning one mass shooting when the next occurs. Yet the NRA refuses to discuss any type of gun control, any form of background checks, any type of study that might lead to some answers.

“Instead, when legislators consider measures to reduce gun deaths, the NRA and its tentacle groups assign them failing grades and label them as anti-gun.”

She then focused on the Buckeye Firearms Association for its “blasted criticism” of Bowling Green State University faculty members, who had written to state Rep. Tim Brown asking that he not support legislation to allow concealed carry of firearms on Ohio college campuses. Brown voted for it.

The gun group used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain the list of faculty members who had written to Brown. It published their names and email addresses, singling out geology professor James Evans for special retribution by publishing his photo, too, because he called the NRA a “terrorist organization” in his email to Brown. McLaughlin described the rush of threatening emails to Evans from members of the firearms association. (Evans confirmed this in an interview Tuesday.)

After defending the faculty members, McLaughlin ended her editorial with a plea:

“We’ve tried arming every citizen who is so inclined. It hasn’t solved the problem. So let’s look for other solutions, ones that reasonable gun owners can support. But that will mean responsible gun owners are first going to have to take back control of their national organization, which seems more concerned about the gun industry than the average gun owner.”

Early the next morning, McLaughlin sent her editorial to Publisher Karmen Concannon, whose parents own the broadsheet, which publishes Monday through Saturday. McLaughlin also sent the editorial to three of her six staff writers. This is her practice in the small newsroom so that they can catch errors and offer criticism.

McLaughlin described what happened next: That Tuesday evening, the publisher told her she had killed the editorial, with little explanation. On Wednesday, the six staff writers submitted a letter to Concannon, asking her to reconsider. She refused to read it.

The next day, McLaughlin walked into the publisher’s office, asking for an explanation, but Concannon said she didn’t owe her one.

The following Monday morning, Concannon told McLaughlin she was fired and ordered her to surrender her keys before being escorted out of the building. She was allowed to return to the newsroom that evening to empty her desk.

McLaughlin’s termination letter stated that she was fired for insubordination – for doing what she always does, which is to share her editorial with staff writers. The publisher’s explanation doesn’t pass the straight-face test, which may be why Concannon has refused multiple requests for interviews.

Hours after McLaughlin’s firing, my Gmail and Facebook inboxes began filling with messages from upset readers and fellow journalists. Many McLaughlin supporters tweeted the hashtag “istandwithjan.” Someone, she doesn’t know who, leaked the killed editorial, bringing it back to life on social media and, later, on the Toledo Blade’s website.

You could reasonably ask, “Why should I care what happened at a small-town newspaper in Ohio?”

I suggest a different question: How often is this happening in our communities?

Earlier this month, it was great to see the front-page editorial in The New York Times under the headline “The Gun Epidemic.” Lots of policymakers surely saw it, but most Americans – most constituents – don’t read The New York Times.

Editorials such as McLaughlin’s matter because they reach the rest of America and can embolden citizens to pressure elected officials for gun law reform. Silencing the Jan Larson McLaughlins in this country emboldens only the NRA.

On Tuesday, McLaughlin was still reeling.

“I’m still kind of stunned,” she said. “I love the Sentinel-Tribune. I care about the staff. This is all I’ve ever wanted to do.”

On Wednesday, she heard there were plans for a rally to protest her firing. Such outpouring of community support moves her. “It feels good that people recognize the value of the work of the Sentinel-Tribune.”

Still, it worries her, too. “I don’t want people to cancel their subscriptions,” she said. “Our writers make so little, and they work so hard. I don’t want them to lose their jobs.”

McLaughlin said that before she left the building, the publisher offered her a severance package.

For her 31 years of service, the paper was willing to pay Jan Larson McLaughlin $5,000 – but only if she agreed not to talk about what had happened.

To the benefit of all of us, she declined.

Email: con.schultz@yahoo.com.

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