After Refusing to Write About Minor Pledge of Allegiance Conflict at City Council Meeting, Reporter Gets Fired

This is a story about not standing for the Pledge of Allegiance… and it has little to do with atheism.

Last week, Tom Casey, a reporter for the Hudson (NY) Register-Star, attended a city council meeting and wrote up a report on what happened. Lots of budget stuff. Nothing most of us outside of Hudson (and probably many inside of Hudson) really care about.

Tom Casey

After Casey submitted his report, his editor inserted two paragraphs into the end of the article. Casey didn’t want them in there because they contained what he felt was irrelevant information. His editor thought otherwise and put them in anyway:

At the start of the meeting some in the audience were upset over Third Ward Alderman John Friedman’s decision not to stand for the pledge of allegiance. While Hudson City Code does not require council members to stand for the pledge, Fifth Ward Alderman Robert Donahue, who had complained about the matter at a previous meeting and asked Friedman why he did not stand, was visibly upset.

No comment could be reached from either party concerning the matter, and it did not interfere with the meeting.

Basically, someone didn’t stand for the Pledge. Someone else grimaced at that gesture. And then they went on with the meeting. As much as I want to make a bigger deal of that story, Casey’s journalism instinct took over and he didn’t think it was particularly newsworthy, considering all the other things that happened and considering that the Pledge wasn’t the focus of further conversation at that meeting. It’s a reporter’s job to distill an otherwise-dull city council meeting down to the stuff people need to know. If the Pledge kerfuffle was just an insignificant sidebar and not the main event, then I don’t blame Casey for thinking it wasn’t worth covering in a recap of the meeting.

After his editor inserted the paragraphs into the article — supposedly to lay the groundwork for a future editorial on the subject — Casey asked that his name be removed from the byline. He didn’t want to be associated with an article that included paragraphs he didn’t think were worth including.

Then he was fired.

That led to a chain reaction of epic proportions. Three colleagues have resigned in support of Casey. Other editors and colleagues wrote a letter of protest to the publisher and executive editor requesting that Casey get his job back. The publisher and executive editor responded with their own statement that just makes things worse for them:

Still another reason given as to why this wasn’t news was because the initial exchange only took a few seconds. So does murder.

“Like murder”?! What the hell… that’s like one step below Godwin’s Laws.

Let’s take the pledge out of this. What if a council member stood the entire time the meeting was conducted or if they were late to every meeting? Or if they held a sign up during the meeting that read “ask me about my grandkids”? What if every meeting for decades started with singing “Happy Birthday” or “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow”? If one, some or all officials suddenly stopped that tradition, surely that would warrant the asking of “why?”

Now, back to the refusal to say the pledge. While there are those who disagree with the stance — including the Common Council member who first asked why and those who were in the audience at the following meeting (according to the reporter’s own observations) — we imagine that there are also those that agree. Why shouldn’t they know that an elected official holds forth the same beliefs?

We just don’t understand why a reporter would want to hide this, seemingly protect a public official or censor the news. And to be frank, that is exactly what happened here.

As someone who writes a lot of stories about city council invocations and religion in government, I’ll be the first to admit that not every instance of someone breaking tradition and not saying the Pledge is of utmost importance. If it leads to further discussion on the Pledge’s irrelevance or an attempt to get rid of it altogether, ok, great, let’s talk about it. But sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Casey is a reporter who didn’t find that exchange meaningful, so he left it out of his article. If he didn’t think it was important, then I have no problem with the fact that he didn’t cover it.

That said, I’m not a city journalist. I’m an atheist blogger and I’m fascinated with the details of what happened at this meeting. Yesterday, I contacted Alderman Friedman to find out his position on the Pledge, if there are invocations at the meetings (and if he stands for those), why any of it is said before meetings, and whether it might be stopped.

Here’s what he told me (via email):

… I don’t refuse to stand for the pledge. Sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t. I simply don’t like the government telling me when and where to say it. I’m not really sure what an invocation means in this context [but] if you are asking if I’m an atheist all I can say is I believe we live in a random universe so I guess there could be a (or several) supreme beings — I just don’t believe that a supreme being would take attendance… Finally, the decision as to how to open a council meeting is, I think, the bailiwick of the presiding officer limited by the Constitution… While that officer can decide that he or she wishes to begin the meeting with the pledge he or she can’t force anyone else to participate. Likewise a rule banning recitation of the pledge would be unconstitutional.

Now, can the newspaper please hire back Tom Casey?

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • http://www.dougberger.net Doug B.

    Love this line from the Alderman and will steal it for a tag line

    “all I can say is I believe we live in a random universe so I guess there
    could be a (or several) supreme beings — I just don’t believe that a
    supreme being would take attendance…”

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/ Kevin_Of_Bangor

      From the Big Bang Theory:

      Amy Farrah Fowler: I don’t object to the concept of a deity, but I’m baffled by the notion of one that takes attendance.

  • Artor

    This is less an issue of whether neglecting  the Pledge is important or not, and primarily an issue of journalistic integrity. The editor wasn’t there & the reporter was. If the editor wants to write the story the way he likes, the journalist has every right to insist that his name not be on something his editor wrote. The editor’s reaction was entirely uncalled for and probably illegal. If I were a reporter at that paper, I’d feel uneasy about working for an editor who needs to inject his perspective into my stories like that. I hope the reporter gets his job back & the editor has to update his resume, with a “fired for cause” notation included.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/ Kevin_Of_Bangor

    Is this editor trying to win the Asshat of the Year award?

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    I get the impression that this editor has been unpopular with much of the staff for a while, and now things are finally boiling over.  Perhaps the tension is because he’s more interested in getting his way than in getting things done ethically, or working cooperatively with his staff.

    If the editor really wanted to start trouble for Friedman with an issue about the pledge, that’s his prerogative as editor, but he should put his own name on an article just about that, and not make the reporter have the by-line. But it sounds like his ego pigheadedly decreed, “My way in every detail or the highway,” so he lost four good reporters and pissed off much of the rest of the paper’s employees.

    I’ve had to work with someone like this, who would rather be in control of a crappy situation than relinquish control and have it be a much better situation. 

    Whoever owns the paper needs to start looking for a new editor.

  • starskeptic

    Non-starter as standing for the pledge wasn’t even required…

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_QIOCTUX55ZX6IP6OYWJGP4IAYI Ruth

    Of course they won’t hire the guy back, he has been talking about the firing all over the internet and complaining about the paper.  So, no way to come back.  But it was still wrong and the response by the paper was nonsensical.  They say no one was fired for disagreeing with management.  Huh?  That is exactly what he was fired for. 

  • SeekerLancer

    Tom should just take all the attention he’s getting from this and use it to get hired by a more reputable paper that doesn’t have editors with obvious political agendas.

    Seriously, fired for asking to have your byline removed because the editor politicized your article? That’s absurd and the fact that the publisher is siding with the editor is even more ridiculous.

  • Foster

    The ironic thing is that by publishing this article, Hemant, you are rewarding the editor for firing his employee.  All publicity is good publicity, particularly in the newspaper business.  Why would the newspaper hire the reporter back when he won’t obey orders from his boss?  If their creative styles don’t mesh then it is best that they part ways for both parties involved.

    • 3lemenope

      “All publicity is good publicity” is an outdated and inapplicable saw from a time when streams of information to the average consumer were quite attenuated. Many companies behaving badly have found, much to their chagrin, that in the Age of the Internet bad publicity can be devastating.

  • Levon Mkrtchyan

    I hope that some other newspaper will hire Tom Casey.  The Hudson Register-Star doesn’t sound like a good place to work, so I doubt that getting hired back would be that good for him.

  • Levon Mkrtchyan

    Ignoring bigotry doesn’t work.  I have to wonder whether this post is just concern-trolling.

  • Jillianmd

    So glad that editor is looking out for us!  It’s that kind of attention to detail that will let me know when someone in attandance picks their nose, since that only takes a couple seconds too!

  • jdm8

    How did the editor know the incident with the pledge even took place?

  • http://twitter.com/PirateFroglet Cathy McGrath

    Need more pictures of Tom Casey! He’s quite the looker!

  • TinnyRay

    The weirdos are the ones who stand for the Pledge. The Pledge of Allegiance was the origin of the Nazi salute and Nazi behavior (see the work of the historian Dr. Rex Curry). Only losers enjoy robotically chanting a socialists that was written as a ritual for kindergartners that they never outgrew. It was adopted later by German socialists.

    • http://twitter.com/MaryWakulik Mary

       It was originally the Roman salute.

      • TinnyRay

        Thanks for the response. Actually, though, that is a debunked myth. What is interesting though is that Francis Bellamy was from Rome, NY (not Italy) and people there (then and now) sometimes refer to themselves as “Romans.” That was part of the origin of the Roman salute myth.

        • Quintin

          The salute originated in Italy with the fascists.

          • TinnyRay

            Thanks for the comment but the USA was doing the stiff-armed salute for the socialist Bellamy’s pledge for three decades before the socialist Mussolini gained power and before German socialists picked it up.  The USA was doing the salute from 1892.  The Pledge of Allegiance was the origin of the Nazi salute and Nazi behavior in the USA and elsewhere.

            • midnight rambler

               It originated in Imperial Rome centuries ago, and both Mussolini and Bellamy took it from them.  Look at the painting “The Oath of the Horatii”.

              • TinnyRay

                No it did not originate in Imperial Rome that is an old debunked myth. And no the socialists Mussolini and Bellamy did not take it from them. And no the painting you refer to is not from imperial Rome. The salute originated from Bellamy beginning the Pledge with the military salute and the military salute was then extended outward to point at the flag.

                • midnight rambler

                  You’re right only in that David is credited with inventing it in the painting.  But it’s from 1784, and it was continued in Europe for a long time before Bellamy adopted it, consciously or not.
                  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_salute

                • TinnyRay

                  No David is not credited with inventing it in the painting, and it was not used in Europe for a long time before Bellamy adopted it, and Wakipedia is an anonymous bulletin board. geez. 

  • KeithCollyer

    As editor, it seems it was well within his authority to insert the extra paragraphs. It was also the reporter’s right to ask that his name be removed. But then firing the reporter seems harsh. No doubt there is more to this than at first appears, but…


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