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Can a Journalist Have a Different Opinion than Her Publisher?

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Can a journalist have an opinion different from her publisher and keep her job? Not in Miami these days, if the case of Trisha Posner, Ocean Drive's monthly "Health Watch" columnist is any barometer. Trisha, a journalist -- and my wife -- committed the fireable offense by appearing for 45 seconds in an 8 minute video shown before the Miami Beach Planning Board, supporting the notion that her South of Fifth neighborhood was a residential one, and that a loophole allowing large hotels and entertainment complexes should be closed (the video is on YouTube).

The video, directed by Emmy-award winning documentarian, Robyn Symon, was the opening of a contentious meeting in which dozens of local residents squared off against a phalanx of real estate developers, high powered attorneys, some of the town's best lobbyists and publicists, and representatives of the hotel and entertainment industry. Trisha did not speak at the event, but in the video, introduced herself. "Hi, I'm Trisha Posner. I'm a journalist and columnist for Ocean Drive magazine. I am married to Gerald Posner, the author."

A publicist for a large hotel complex, waiting for Planning Board approval, called her counterpart at Ocean Drive. That hotel advertises in the magazine. What was somebody working there doing advocating restrictions on how fast and large the entertainment industry could expand? Ocean Drive, an oversized, glossy lifestyle magazine is the weight of a good doorstop. Its hundreds of pages are crammed with ads for hotels, nightclubs, dance parties, restaurants, and luxury real estate developments. The idea that a columnist, even a freelance one, might say something that could affect an advertiser, sent the magazine's publicist into frenzy. She ran up and down the aisles of the magazine's Washington Avenue headquarters looking for Powers, who was already at home.

When she reached him, he rushed to City Hall (the only time veterans there ever recall him making a public appearance on any political or development issue). The hearing on the zoning reform was long over. But he enlisted the help of a former mayor, Neisen Kasdin, to get him before the microphone, where Powers told the Planning Board that Ocean Drive was "in favor" of entertainment and hotels in South Beach. And as he stormed out of the room, he looked at the president of a local homeowner's association, and said, "And Trisha Posner is fired!"

No one from Ocean Drive told Trisha. But when several people at the hearing called to tell her of what had happened, she called her longtime editor, Eric Newill. He informed her that while her September column would run, as it was already printed, her already submitted and accepted October column was cancelled. Moreover, her services were no longer needed. Editor-in-Chief, Glenn Albin, later confirmed to her that she was dismissed.

When a Miami Sunpost reporter called Ocean Drive for a comment, Powers, Albin and Newill all refused. The next day, when Richard Johnson of the NY Post's Page 6, also sought a comment for a piece he was writing, no one from the magazine returned his calls.

Powers finally made his first public statements to Miami Herald's Joan Fleischman, writer of "Talk of the Town." He protested that he had not fired Trisha because of her opinion, but rather that she had used the Ocean Drive logo in the video. He's wrong, it was never used. "I didn't even know what the issue was," he claimed to Fleischman, "it was something about the development of restaurants and hotels."

"I never knew it was verboten to say who you work for," says Trisha. "Powers took a pinhead and made it into a volcano. I guess you can't work at Ocean Drive if you have a social conscience."

In an era of ever increasing corporate consolidation of the media, dismissals like that of Trisha Posner are stark reminders of how low on the totem pole freelance writers are often considered by their publishers. If advertisers are bothered by what a writer says, and the publisher backs the advertiser over the reporter, it sends a chilling message as to the fragility of the first amendment when it comes into direct conflict with bottom line profits.

Could a journalist for CBS say something that bothered advertisers of Viacom, its parent company? Or a Wall Street Journal reporter keep her job if she wrote a column that irked an advertiser for Rupert Murdoch's New York Post?

In Miami, a place where land developers and the tourism industry rule the town, Powers' decision might not make a big stir. But in the rest of the country, particularly New York, it is viewed as another sign of the gutting of journalism at the expense of business.

Posner, meanwhile, just landed a new writing gig, a monthly one at just launched Miami magazine. The president there is Leslie Wolfson, who for ten years had been Powers' co-publisher, until the two had a not very pleasant parting in 2005.

"I am a social activist," says Posner. "And I'm politically involved as well. But in this instance, I was only saying my neighborhood was residential. I'm not sure what is so controversial about that. But in any case, I'm going to continue to speak out about those matters I consider important. Ocean Drive can fire me, but they can't muzzle me."