There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
United Press International (UPI) could have saved itself some trouble if it had given photographer Ricardo Watson some decent camera equipment. Watson had been shooting images at UPI for about five years when the company decided in the summer of 2000 to go hi-tech. It bought state-of-the-art digital equipment for all of its Washington photographersexcept Watson.
The dis put Watson in a professional hole, he claimed. While his colleagues could now produce computerized pictures in an instant, he had to go through the laborious process of developing conventional film. Stuck at the end of UPI’s photographic pecking order, Watson stayed home from the big news events, like the Democratic and Republican nominating conventions. At the January 2001 inauguration of President Bush, Watson stood in the rain getting pictures of protesters while his co-workers, equipped with digital machines, shot the breaking-news images of luminaries.
After six months, Watson finally got upgraded. But in January 2002, UPI again went shoppingnew camera bodies and lenses for all. Except, again, for Watson.
Cutting Watson out of the technology loop wasn’t a serial administrative slip-up, according to the photographer. Instead, he alleges in court documents, it fit a pattern of racial discrimination and retaliation at UPI. Jeers and professional slights of all sorts, Watson alleged, came his way because he is a Panamanian-born African-American, according to court files. The alleged mistreatment appeared to end this past July, when UPI paid $300,000 to settle the discrimination claims that Watson had brought in 2000.
Yet the case of Watson v. UPI lives on, thanks to a continuing spat over digital camera equipment.
The case’s court file documents life at the bottom level of the org chart at one of the country’s most cash-strapped news organizations. “This whole experience with UPI has been one of the cases where, if you had written it as a script, no one would believe you,” says James Middleton, a former UPI photographer.
Quality photography isn’t the first notion that comes to mind these days when you think of UPI. That would be chaos, mediocrity, and Helen Thomas, the storied UPI White House correspondent who resigned after the company fell into the hands of News World Communications, the division of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church that also owns the Washington Times.
Yet UPI does have a storied shutterbug history. From 1960 to 1980, the company hauled in seven Pulitzer Prizes for photography, mostly for enterprising shoots in strife-ridden foreign locales such as Vietnam and Cuba. In recent decades, though, the service’s photo shop disintegrated alongside its reportorial counterpart, a fellow victim of cost-cutting, bankruptcy proceedings and four different owners.
In 1995, UPI brought Watson aboard to recapture the photo department’s glory days. Watson’s mission was to rebuild the reputation that UPI had lost as a purveyor of sharp and timely photography. Heavy mandate notwithstanding, Watson was hired as a stringer.
In the beginning, his assignments were prestigious, covering Capitol Hill and eventually the Clinton White House. And after UPI laid off its photography staff in 1996, Watson literally had the whole D.C. beat to himselfas well as a host of administrative tasks at the understaffed shop.
For most of his tenure, Watson’s boss in UPI’s photo pod was Claude Salhani, a reporter and photojournalist with a specialty in overseas enterprise. In 1998, Salhani published Black September to Desert Storm: A Journalist in the Middle East, an eyewitness account of two decades of Middle East turmoil, including the Iranian revolution and Operation Desert Storm.
A profile of Salhani posted on the Web depicts him as a brash, swashbuckling type. A list of fun facts about Salhani reads, in part: “Favorite bra: without.” And a photo of him against a desert backdrop features this caption: “They call me Stormy Desert Claude.”
Salhani brought his stormy nature right into the UPI newsroom, according to court records. A couple of years into Watson’s employment, the photographer alleges in his suit, Salhani taunted him with racially loaded language. And he allegedly used a stick to get his point across.
The UPI newsroom had a bank of TVs for reporters and photographers to keep up on the news. Trouble was, the remotes didn’t work. So workers fashioned a throwback remote of sorts, a 3-foot stick handy for changing channels.
According to Watson, Salhani used the stick to manage more than electronic equipment: The supervisor often walked around the area, slapping the stick in his hands, saying, “This is what I use to whip Ricardo into shape,” according to the court file.
Workplace slights reached a boiling point when the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke. Watson was scrambling around town getting shots of the story’s principals, such as President Clinton and Vernon Jordan. Salhani, however, scolded Watson because he hadn’t zipped over to the Pentagon to retrieve a photo of Lewinsky. Civility broke down quickly, and Watson complained that he was being verbally abused.
“I can talk to you black guys any way I feel like,” responded Salhani, according to court files.
Shortly after that exchange, Watson was elevated from stringer to a fully vested UPI staffera move that didn’t put a stop to racially offensive conduct at UPI, according to the court docket. In 1999, a TV newscast blaring in the UPI newsroom reported that the president of Ghana had offered dual citizenship to African-Americans.
“Good, now they can start taking them all back,” Salhani commented, according to the Watson court file.
Salhani declined to comment on the allegations brought by Watson. In court filings, Salhani and UPI denied the racial-discrimination claims of Watson’s civil action.
UPI also turned down an interview request for this story and refused to provide even basic facts about its operations. Marc Oram, who handled press calls but insisted he was not a spokesperson, said he could not provide the “exact number” of staffers at UPI.
Watson declined comment, as well.
Controversial newsroom remarks, moreover, were the mere trimmings of Watson’s beef with Salhani and UPI management. Watson claimed that he was frequently ordered to clean a photo-processing machine, a task that required handling toxic chemicals in an unsafe area. It was only after a white photographer refused to clean the equipment that the company hired an outside firm to do the task, according to court documents.
And Watson alleged that UPI ignored him in its search for a director of photography, awarding the position to a white candidate with fewer qualifications. In fact, Watson never even applied for the position, in part because UPI left him out of a globally distributed e-mail advertising the vacancy.
On top of all that, Watson faced a lot of race-neutral nonsense at UPI, according to his deposition testimony. For starters, the photographer claimed that in the mid-’90s, he and his peers were coached to “lie” to investigators from the Internal Revenue Service, who were reportedly probing whether UPI was properly classifying them as stringers. Watson also stated that Salhani forced him to report no more than 40 hours on his time sheets, even if he worked overtime. And during a three- to five-month period in 1997, Watson wasn’t paid at all.
The photographer’s discrimination claims spanned two UPI ownership groupsa Saudi-owned company named Worldwide News as well as the Moonies, who bought the company in May 2000. Worldwide News reached a settlement with the plaintiff in May 2001, but the Moonies continued litigating the matter, insisting that Watson had no valid discrimination case. “It’s one of the saddest cases I’ve ever seen of a company shooting itself in the foot. They probably spent more money litigating this than it would have cost to settle in the first place,” says Middleton.
The Moonies’ case hit a snag in June 2002, when U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly ruled that Watson had “provided sufficient triable issues of material fact related to his claim for discrimination in the promotion, and related to his claim that the terms and conditions of his employment were affected by UPI’s failure to provide him with a digital camera.”
In a sworn deposition, UPI Executive Director Tobin Beck suggested that there just wasn’t enough money to accommodate Watson. “[T]here was a request for purchase order that was submitted that included all of the requested camera gear, including a digital camera for Ricardo. That was sent back downstairs with a notation this was too much to request all at once. It was too expensive basically. That’s all,” said Beck.
A year later, UPI finally settled with Watson, agreeing to shell out $200,000 to him and another $100,000 to cover his legal costs.
The settlement features a rigorous confidentiality clause barring the parties from disclosing its terms. And, no doubt, the agreement would be a secret today, if not for one problem: It contained a provision requiring UPI to give Watson new camera equipment by Aug. 11 of this year.
UPI, again, didn’t come through with the goods, according to a new employment retaliation suit filed by Watson’s lawyers this summer. The new suit contains a copy of the confidential settlement as well as a list of all the camera equipment that UPI allegedly failed to deliver, including two Canon digital camera bodies and a Canon 550 EX flash.
Under the settlement, Watson must officially resign from UPI by the end of the year, even though he hasn’t been in the office since spring of 2002. Salhani is currently UPI’s international editor.
News You Can Lose
The Washington Post this year spilled a great deal of ink on the sniper-book ordeal of former Montgomery County Police Chief Charles A. Moose. With each update on Moose’s battles with the county ethics board and other critics, the Post was careful to include conflict-of-interest disclosures, like this one from a July story: “Moose’s book is one of several in the works about the sniper case, including one by reporters at The Washington Post, also scheduled for publication in September.”
After a while, readers started wondering whether the Post was using its serial disclosures to subtly promote its own book, titled Sniper: Inside the Hunt for the Killers Who Terrorized the Nation.
Unlikely. After reading Tuesday’s edition of the paper, readers now know what a real Post promo piece looks like. It gets prime real estate in the paper, has little-to-no news value, and reads in places like an ad. The book, says the Post’s page A2 article, “offers an inside view of an exhaustive investigation that transfixed the country and was, by turns, heroically efficient and cripplingly chaotic.”
Reading through the Post’s account, you might suppose that the new book contains explosive scoops on the sniper manhunt. For example, the Sept. 30 story begins with an anecdote from the book about how a car driven by sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad got stopped for a traffic violation in the District right in the midst of the sniper rampage.
The officer ran the car’s tags as well as Muhammad’s driver’s license. “[T]he computer reported all was proper with the car,” reads the book by Sari Horwitz and Michael E. Ruane, as quoted in the Post story.
Wow: The cops actually checked out Muhammad’s Chevy Caprice but didn’t know enough to haul him in?
Oops, we already knew that. Last November, the Post reported that “several times during October, police in the region spotted Muhammad’s Caprice and did nothing. Because the old car looked suspicious, police ran computer checks of its New Jersey license plate. But the vehicle had not been stolen, and there was no record of it being wanted in connection with a crime.”
Horwitz and Ruane’s traffic-stop lead does add detail to the previously published narrative. Yet even Post Metro editor Jo-Ann Armao concedes that the revelations in the Tuesday story aren’t stop-the-presses material. “Some of the details in and of themselves weren’t newsworthy,” says Armao, who notes that when the book’s authors came across stunning revelations, the Post printed them immediately.
“This book is definitely part of the Washington Post’s journalism on the sniper case,” says Armao. “If we were publishing a book with new details on the case, we thought that our readers would be interested in those details.”
But those readers were going to get a mouthful of details with or without the promo story: Next week, the paper will publish a four- to five-part series of book excerpts. Erik Wemple