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A Sick Day

Henry Norr, a columnist covering high-tech issues from spam to Palm Pilots for the San Francisco Chronicle, and a former editor of MacWeek, was fired on April 21. The 57-year-old’s transgression? He was one of the 1,400 demonstrators arrested in San Francisco’s financial district on the first day of the war in Iraq. Norr was interviewed by L.A. Weekly correspondent David Bacon.

 

L.A. WEEKLY: What made you go to the protest and engage in civil disobedience?

HENRY NORR: In the 1960s I was in the anti-war and civil rights movements, and the war was the central issue in those years. Then I got immersed in the tech stuff, and didn’t do much politically. That gradually changed, because I watched my children become activists, and they inspired and challenged me.

 

You first began having problems when you wrote a column about Intel’s plant in Israel.

I went to Palestine on vacation in May of 2002, after the Israelis launched their incursion into the West Bank and the attacks on Palestinian cities. I began doing research on the Intel plant when I came back, and found out that the site on which their large, $2 billion factory sits is located on land with a disputed legal status. It’s in Israel proper, but in 1948, although the Israelis agreed to guarantee the rights and security of the two villages there, the Israeli army pushed all the people out. It was a compelling story, with a solid technology angle. It generated a flood of e-mail, and my editor said it was a good column. But I found out later that local Zionist organizations and the Israeli Consulate demanded a meeting with the publisher, where they denounced the column. I wasn’t invited. I was called in by the business editor and informed that this topic was not appropriate, because I’d gone to Palestine and participated in the International Solidarity Movement.

 

You don’t think that should have caused a problem?

Absolutely not. No matter how much journalists like to rattle on about objectivity, people bring their own values, experience and passion with them. A story is always an exercise in selection, but you can be accurate and give people a chance to fairly state their case. I did that.

 

What made you decide to participate in the demonstrations against the war?

It just seemed obvious that it was the right thing to do. Even after September 11, I didn’t think they could get Americans to go along with this adventure, without some stronger arguments. After the big march in November, I wrote a memo urging the paper to pay attention to what I felt was a broad and deep anti-war sentiment, with activity all over the Bay Area. I didn’t get a direct response, but they put Joe Garifoli on the beat. I think they decided it was a big phenomenon, and wanted to be on top of it.

But then they put a story about International ANSWER and the Workers World Party on the front page, and another about conflicts in the peace coalition over inviting Rabbi Michael Lerner. I sent another memo saying that the stories were accurate so far as I knew, but they were minor sidelights in the life of any political movement. The managing editor said it was an intelligent comment — I was trying to help the paper do a good job.

 

Since you were writing these memos, your editors were aware you were going to these demonstrations. Did you feel this was going to cause problems?

Maybe I was naive. I didn’t think I was sticking my neck out at all. There were a number of Chronicle people who went to those anti-war marches, and one columnist wrote about his participation. It wasn’t against the Chronicle’s rules at that time. But one Saturday in early March, my wife and I went to a march in Sacramento during the state Democratic Convention, and I was interviewed by a CBS reporter. I heard later that the managing editor heard me on the radio and said, “This guy ought to be looking for a job somewhere else.” That was a clue I was getting into more than I anticipated.

 

It does sound like you took a step up from marching to get arrested. Why did you decide to do that?

This war could be a turning point in America’s relationship with the rest of the world. The doctrine of pre-emptive war, the willingness to use force without threat or provocation, represents a real difference even from George Bush Sr. and Bill Clinton. I thought that politically and morally I really needed to do something.

It seemed obvious that the war was going to happen, and that there would be civil disobedience against it the next day. I’d been arrested a number of times in the 1960s and 1970s, and it seemed the right thing to do. My whole family had the same idea. My two daughters are both involved in the anti-war movement, and they’ve been arrested several times. I’m proud of them for that.

 

The Chronicle also charges you with falsifying a time card for taking the day you were arrested as a sick day.

They could have just handed me the card and told me to change it. In fact, my termination letter goes on to say that even if I hadn’t falsified my time card, they still wouldn’t let me back into the newsroom.

After firing you, the Chronicle issued a clarification saying that any participation in anti-war protests was prohibited. It says: “Our responsibility as journalists can only be met by a strict prohibition against any newsroom staffer participating in any public political activity related to the war.” Is this an effort to maintain the credibility of the paper?

The big East Coast papers — The New York Times, the Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal — all have policies that prohibit reporters from taking part in any kind of political activity except voting. The notion that you can control what employees do outside of work, and that that’s a meaningful standard, is a new idea. It’s also a uniquely American concept. In other countries, codes are written by journalists to defend their rights. The codes here are written by management to tell reporters what they can’t do.

 

What about the 25 people in the Chronicle newsroom who signed a notice protesting your denial of free speech?

It took a fair bit of courage. Unfortunately, there are 500 people who work at the Chronicle. A lot of people had the opportunity to sign and didn’t. A lot of people who went to previous demonstrations chose not to go after this new policy came down. My case made very clear what the consequences would be. I’ve been told people are guarded in what they say in the newsroom now, and wary of crossing management. People don’t often get fired at the Chronicle. I think it’s definitely had a chilling effect.

 

So do you regret getting arrested?

If I had it to do over again, I wouldn’t do anything differently, except maybe taking a vacation day instead of a sick day. But I probably would have been fired anyway.