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Published on August 6th, 2010 | by Michael J Smith


Can NASCAR Pressure News Companies To Fire Writers?

After writing my article, Frequently Asked Questions About NASCAR’s Fines, I was contacted regarding the question, “What’s next, fining the media?” and was told to look into a couple of cases where NASCAR allegedly got writers fired. I was pointed in the direction of two writers in particular.

One NASCAR.com (which is owned by Turner Sports and Entertainment Digital, not NASCAR itself) writer was covering a dust-up between a crew chief and a driver back in 2005. Seeking comment for a follow-up story, the reporter contacted the crew chief. The crew chief wasn’t pleased with the attention story was getting, and called it a lie. He also said he would contact NASCAR, presumably to complain about the story.

The reporter was later fired for violating the company’s email policy. Many contend, however, that issue with the crew chief was the reason for the firing.

The other writer worked for a media outlet that was purchased by an entity owned by International Speedway Corporation, a company founded by NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. The writer was vocal in his criticisms of the sport – this was also back in 2005 – and was let go for reasons that don’t appear to be publicized. Many contend, however, that he was fired due to his criticisms and the company’s NASCAR-affiliated ownership.

I can’t say with any certainty whether or not those firings were due to NASCAR pressure, no matter how much it appears like that is the case. But, let’s say, for the sake of this article, they were. Is it illegal?

Simply put, no, it’s not illegal. CBS News featured an AP article discussing what recourse private-sector employees have if they feel they’ve been wrongfully terminated. Charles Craver, of George Washington Law School, said, “Private-sector employees don’t have rights.” They can be terminated for any legal reason (assuming there is no employment contract expressing otherwise). Illegal reasons include whistleblowing and discrimination (race, age, sex, disability, etc.)

To win a wrongful termination suit for an illegal reason, the burden of proof is on the plaintiff, and you need hard evidence to prove that the firing was wrongful. In these two cases, there is nothing to indicate that the firings were illegal, which probably explains why no suits were filed.

In the case I used in my other article, Korb v. Raytheon, Korb’s firing did not violate public policy because he was not fired for speaking out on issues in which his employer had no interest, financial or otherwise. In his case, Korb spoke out against issues in which Raytheon had substantial interest; his comments came at Raytheon’s expense. And, in the case of these two writers, both of their employers have substantial interest in NASCAR.

Despite not doing anything particularly egregious, the reporter in the first case – assuming that the firing was due to the complaint – is unlikely to win a suit based on Korb. In Korb, two Navy officials, an official from the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Air Force officials complained, resulting in his termination. That’s not much different than a crew chief complaining to NASCAR officials, who then complain to the media company. So, it is unlikely that NASCAR’s pressure – if it existed — to fire the writer would change the outcome in a suit.

In the second case, when ISC purchased the media company, it could conceivably be assumed that the writers were no longer independent journalists. Under the new ownership, it can be assumed – without making a claim as to whether it is right or wrong – that they are now spokesmen for the sport, even if the ties to NASCAR were not direct.

From a business perspective, what sense would it make for an organization to buy a media company if the goal wasn’t to shape the product (the news) into what they wanted? At the very least, the media company would protect NASCAR’s interests. And, as far as I know, that’s not illegal.

Note: Without going into too much detail, the way media companies are owned and operated, it’s virtually impossible for any media outlet to be 100% free of any bias, as most that are independent still rely on advertising. Do you think an advertiser would continue to pay a company in which its employees (writers) continually badmouth its products and/or services?

If that’s the case – that the writers became spokesmen for the sport – then being critical of the sport is speaking against their employer’s interests. NASCAR has a financial stake in not letting that happen. And, with the media company now being owned by a NASCAR-affiliated entity (plus the changing focus of the company – from news organization to NASCAR-owned organization), it could be argued that the reporter is no longer effective at being a NASCAR spokesman, which means the employer has the right to fire the employee because there is no public policy preventing an ineffective, at-will employee from being discharged.

This doesn’t mean that the reporter in the second case is not entitled to his opinion; he certainly is. But, he can’t criticize NASCAR at NASCAR’s expense, much like the court ruled in Korb. And, by being an employee for a NASCAR-affiliated entity, his comments came at NASCAR’s expense.

I’m not indicating one way or another whether or not the termination of these two writers is right or wrong, or that NASCAR’s pressure had anything to do with the firings.

While I do think that journalists should have the right to express their opinions, I also realize that it is an employer’s right to punish its employees if they speak out against its interests. And, it isn’t illegal to do so.

If a journalist is employed by a company owned by NASCAR, it shouldn’t be surprising if they are reprimanded for being critical of the sport. If an employee is critical of their employer, they can and should expect repercussions. Companies are well within their rights to punish those who work for them and speak out against their interests.

I said in my earlier article, drivers are agents for the sport, journalists are not. But, there is a caveat: when journalists work for an organization that is directly affiliated with NASCAR, they are agents for the sport, and are probably going to be treated as such. Again, I’m not arguing whether this is right or wrong; it’s just the way it is.

The Huffinton Post features a slideshow of instances where employees were fired for criticizing their employers or customers via social media.

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About the Author

Michael J. Smith is a NASCAR enthusiast and blogger. In addition to founding this website, Michael is a journalist with over a decade of experience writing for prestigious media organizations.

7 Responses to Can NASCAR Pressure News Companies To Fire Writers?

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Can NASCAR Pressure News Companies To Fire Writers? | Lead Lap's NASCAR News -- Topsy.com

  2. Dan says:

    Here’s a bigger question in my opinion.

    Can NASCAR pull the credintials of a reporter if they don’t like what he is saying?

    This seems to be a bigger question among fans. Because this is why we don’t see the criticism of some of the moves that may be obvious to the fans from the reporters. Such as, why do cautions for the mysterious debris always come out when Junior goes a lap down? Or why are driver like Denny Hamlin pointing our that these cautions are thrown soley for the purpose of bunching the field up?

    These subjects seem to be taboo for the reporters and really should be addressed, but yet they never are. So can NASCAR pull the press pass of writers, and if so have they?

  3. C.C. says:

    Nascar is headed to one of those obscure channels no one every hears or sees. They need to face the fact that in America people do have opinions and until that changes, they can either pick up their toys and move to another play ground. I bet Dale Sr is rolling in his grave watching how Nascar is headed right down the drain.

  4. Michael J Smith says:

    Thanks for reading and for commenting, Dan.

    The one thing people tend to forget is that NASCAR press credentials are not only issued by NASCAR, but they are a privilege granted by NASCAR to allow media members to cover the sport. Because NASCAR issues the credentials, they can also revoke them. So, theoretically, they could revoke the credentials of a reporter if they don’t like what s/he’s saying. Has that happened? If it has, I haven’t heard of it.

    I do recall (and this is secondhand so take it for what it’s worth) that NASCAR got really strict about issuing press credentials a few years back after someone sold theirs to a fan. Whether or not that’s true, I don’t know. But, I’ve never heard of someone having them revoked for being critical of the sport.

    If they did/do, however, it wouldn’t make them unique. The Kansas City Royals revoked the credentials of two reports after they asked Royals GM Dayton Moore confrontational questions in 2006. Also, UFC revoked the credentials of Sherdog.com in 2005 and they were re-issued last year. Why? No reason was given other than an “executive decision.”

    The reason credentials are issued is because an organization sees value in having press coverage. In most cases, they think of it as a de facto PR arm for the promotion of their product, and there’s nothing wrong with that. They can and will credential whomever they want and no one can tell them otherwise. Likewise, they can pull the credentials of a reporter if they desire. It’s their world.

    The main problem (which is what probably keeps them from doing it) is if they selectively grant, withhold, or withdraw credentials so critique is not allowed, then people will view all coverage with skepticism and will simply view it as propaganda.

    With the level of access fans have with the press through Facebook, Twitter and blogs, I don’t think NASCAR would pull the credentials of a reporter just because they were critical of NASCAR because of all the bad exposure that would bring. 20 or 30 years ago, they might have been able to without much flak because it would be easier to “bury” the story. But now, not so much.

    Again, thanks for reading.

  5. Michael J Smith says:

    Thanks for reading and commenting CC.

    I don’t think NASCAR is going down the drain. It is struggling, but with the way things are going what sport isn’t struggling? Even the NFL is struggling, so NASCAR’s problems are not unique.

    In their defense, they’ve also done a lot to improve the quality of racing and to show that they are listening to fan complaints and criticisms.

    I also disagree that NASCAR is headed to an obscure channel. I think the sport is in a tough spot right now, but the situation is not as bleak as some would make it out to be. Fans aren’t coming to the track, you can’t deny that. Viewership on TV is also down, and you can’t deny that. But, they are working to remedy that.

    And by fining drivers, they are trying to minimize the damage they can actually control. There isn’t anything wrong with that. Drivers as ambassadors for the sport, and therefore have to consider what they say because their comments carry more weight than the media.

    With all of that said, however, you’re entitled to your opinion, and I sincerely appreciate that you took the time to share it.

    Thanks again for commenting.

  6. shep says:

    having been through 20 years of covering nascar — as reporter, columnist, and television “talent”, i am somewhat qualified to speak. i can say without doubt that nascar has control of some content presented. nascar obviously could not control what newspapers presented in terms of news, hiring and firing, but as the field became restricted, and magazines, web sites and obviously television became more and more dependent on nascar-related advertising, the cold wind of nascar control was in the air at all times. i can not say definitely that nascar had final say in jobs i held and lost, but i could see very clearly how the machinery worked.

    there is much less “independent” commentary on the “sport” than there was before, say, 2000. i would point to speed tv as the most obvious dependency, its existence being entirely due to nascar content and advertising.

  7. Michael J Smith says:

    Thanks for reading and for commenting, Shep.

    Well said. I agree with what you said.

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