ESSAY- Spineless sack: <i>Style</i> sacrifices talent for political correctness
Autocomplete wasn't the only thing that screwed Chris Dovi.
Sure, the now-former reporter at Richmond's Style Weekly did himself no favors. Instead of telling a persistent flack "no thanks" when pitched a half-dozen times about an upcoming seminar by blind motivational speaker Will Weeks, he punted to his editor, Scott Bass. Unfortunately, when typing Bass' name into an e-mail, Dovi either didn't notice he'd hit reply instead of forward, or that his Outlook had autocompleted the address to Weeks' PR guy, Scott McCaskey.
Oops. In that e-mail, Dovi said, "He may be the most tenacious flack of all time. He's been calling me about this blind f**ker for four weeks." Later in the e-mail, he says, "He's making me want to claw my own eyes out in the hopes that if he won't just get lost, I at least won't have to look at his press release anymore!"
That was Friday, February 12. McCaskey forwarded the e-mail to his boss, Dean Goldman of Norfolk's Goldman & Associates.
"I thought about it over the weekend," Goldman says. "I really put a lot of thought into this because I felt that the e-mail was discriminatory... I could have easily pushed the delete button. If I just pushed the delete button, that means I would be complicit in this process."
So on Tuesday, February 16, after consulting with Weeks who, he says, was "very offended," Goldman e-mailed Style Weekly's publisher, Lori Collier Waran, its editor, Jason Roop, and Maurice Jones, the publisher of the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, which, like Style Weekly, is owned by Landmark Media Enterprises. Jones, Goldman says, agreed with him that Dovi's words were offensive.
By 3:30pm the next day, Dovi was out. On its Web site, Style published an editor's note that says Dovi used "language that violated the core values we hold sacred at Style. While he was regretful for the e-mail, it showed an unacceptable disregard for one of our chief missions at Style: to honor diversity as a company in all of our dealings with the community, and within Style's hallways."
This is where the bullsh*t gets a little thick for me.
In his three years at Style, Dovi pursued story after story about Richmond's poor treatment of its most helpless citizens, from the city jail saving money by cutting 80 percent of its spending on medications for mental health and AIDS, to the city schools botching the procurement process for ADA-compliant construction, to a piece about Richmond schools' absurd treatment of "problem students."
(As full disclosure, both my wife and I freelanced for Style when we lived in Richmond, so even though I don't know Dovi, this hits a little close to home.)
When I first called him, Roop declined to comment beyond the note on Style's website. "I just can't talk to you," said the editor, referring me several times to the statement. In a follow-up voicemail, Roop says, "We thought this was an important enough issue to involve several levels of management, and they were all involved in the decision. So no, it wasn't my decision alone, but I do support the decision."
Weeks, the motivational speaker, says Dovi's language in the e-mail, which Goldman forwarded to him, "reinforced the notion to me that there's a culture set in place at Style Weekly."
"No one in their right mind," he says, "would forward that to any staff member unless you were good and sure that they were in agreement with that mentality."
But what mentality is that, exactly? Prejudice against people of color? Sure, we've all heard of that. Religion? Well, that's pretty obvious. But who exactly is prejudiced against the blind?
Weeks says he's experienced "prejudices in the public schools system growing up," as well as at work, and that he's been around "people who've said things that were downgrading" about his blindness. And there's no question that from building design to street furniture to crossing signals to our currency, America is miles behind where it needs to be as a society accessible to people with disabilities.
But there's a huge difference between the sting of thoughtless urban planning and the hurt felt by someone left to die in a jail cell because the medication he required to live looked like a cuttable budget line to a reptilian public servant. I'll concede the possibility that there's someone, somewhere, who possesses the Herculean a**hole-ness required to actually hate blind people.
Dovi's words were coarse (though not intended for the dainty sensibilities of someone outside a newsroom). Were they insensitive? Arguably. Were they evidence that he intended avoid writing about someone because he hates people with disabilities? Faced with a PR man's bold new redefinition of the word discrimination, Style's Roop and Waran decided to assuage an awkward situation by cutting off a talented reporter at the knees.
"I recognized that I was rude in my e-mail, but it was not bigoted," says Dovi. "If this man had been a paratrooper, I would have referred to him as that paratrooper f**ker."
When asked about how much of McCaskey's pitch regarding Weeks was about the speaker's blindness, Dovi says, "Nearly all of it."
Goldman insists it wasn't simply the characterization of Weeks as a "blind f**ker" that caused him to act. "It's not just that," he says. "He uses Mr. Weeks' blindness to make what he perceives as a humorous comment," i.e. Dovi's comment to his editor that the press release made him want to "claw my own eyes out."
"My own father is disabled," Dovi points out. "He's blind in one eye. He had a stroke that left him paralyzed on one side." His father, he says, has expressive aphasia and can only answer yes and no.
"The only thing that upsets me about Style Weekly," Dovi says, "is that they never gave me the opportunity to speak to what I was accused of and summarily fired me after meeting for about two hours." Dovi says he did not participate in that meeting.
I asked Goldman about the attention that this has brought to his client.
"We're not charging Mr. Weeks for what we did here," says Goldman, who notes that Weeks is otherwise a paying client. "This was something that occurred that offended us, that offended him. And we acted."
Weeks says the incident feeds into the subject of his Brace for Impact 2010 tour, which included a February 25 appearance at the Holiday Inn at 10800 Midlothian Turnpike in Richmond. "The seminar I was speaking on was about overcoming adversity," he says. "This was just a prime example."
Epilogue: When I spoke to Dean Goldman the day after Dovi was fired, he proudly pointed to the fact that the firm kept up it blog posting about the incident, complete with its negative comments about his company, online. By 9:30pm that day, the page was gone. Meanwhile, the Rehire Chris Dovi @ Style Weekly Facebook page has 263 fans.
Andrew Beaujon is the managing editor of Washington City Paper, the publication in which this essay first appeared.