Jul 1 1987

Reporter Gets Scoop, Then Gets Shafted

Colleagues Stage Byline Boycott

Nuclear reactor (cc photo: NRC)

Ohio’s Perry I nuclear power plant (cc photo: NRC)

Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter Jim Lawless has been on the utilities beat for six years. On May 30, he and colleague Bill Sloat broke the “GE Papers” story for the Plain Dealer, and it soon went national. The secret papers, written by General Electric engineers in 1975, detailed intense management pressure on GE’s nuclear division to rush onto the market a nuclear reactor design inadequately tested and potentially dangerous.

Besides the issue of corporate greed, the story raised questions about Nuclear Regulatory Commission complicity and a consumer rip-off of billions of dollars in cost overruns at approximately 22 reactors based on the defective design. It also raised questions about the safety of those who work at or live near the plants.

A week after he co-wrote the story, Lawless was told by an editor that he was being taken off not only the GE story, but the utilities beat altogether. The parent company of Cleveland’s powerful electric utility, CEI, had complained in a letter to the Plain Dealer managing editor that Lawless was biased and had slighted spokespersons for the nuclear industry. The editor swallowed GEl’s arguments, despite the fact that seven of the 42 paragraphs quoted GE or CEI spokespersons; moreover, the story was based largely on GE documents to begin with, and not one nuclear critic was quoted.

CEI was upset with the GE papers story because it owns one of GE’s defective reactors, Perry I, and is trying to pass on the $800 million cost of correcting the defects to consumers. CEI is a substantial advertiser in the Plain Dealer, Cleveland’s only major daily. “When CEI has problems with the Plain Dealer,” Steve Hatch of the Cleveland Newspaper Guild told Extra!, “they go right to the top.”

Plain Dealer reporters were furious over the maltreatment of Lawless and, with the backing of the
Guild, took action. First they staged a candlelight vigil for the “death of a free press” outside the paper’s offices, and were joined by consumer and environmental activists. Next they launched a “byline boycott”: Dozens of reporters refused to accept bylines and their stories ran without them. The boycott ended after a few days, in partial victory, when Lawless was put back on the nuclear reactor story. But he’s still off the utilities beat.

Cleveland’s venerable columnist and public watchdog, Roldo Bartimole, summed up the moral of the story: “Doing your job too well at the Plain Dealer, when it interferes with the business relations of the management, can be hazardous to your occupational health.”