“They who work in the mills ought to own them,” Noam Chomsky wrote in a high-minded rant against corporate propaganda in the fall 1995 issue of Covert Action Quarterly (CAQ). That’s the kind of pink tinge that characterizes many stories in the D.C.-based publication, which started out as a CIA-watchdog newsletter but has evolved into a quietly respected, if tendentious, investigative magazine. For the past 19 years, CAQ has been an unapologetic champion of the worker and merciless critic of corporate tyranny. In a nation of Niketowns, it’s a pretty lonely franchise.

But last week, the publishers of a magazine that has built its reputation on exposing corporate malfeasance fired its own workers with no notice, sliding crisp envelopes under the doors of their homes early on a Sunday morning and changing the locks to the 1500 Massachusetts Ave. NW office.

So those who worked in the mills not only do not own them, but they can no longer even show up to toil there. Publishers and founders Ellen Ray, Louis Wolf, and Bill Schaap yanked the press from the hands of the proletariat in one quick grab. Their timing sucks by any objective standard—the magazine swept this year’s Project Censored Awards for undercovered stories for the second year in a row. Other investigative journalists say that Terry Allen, the (now unemployed) editor of CAQ, rescued the publication from fringedom and turned it into a credible outlet for investigative journalism through a stern reliance on actual facts.

“Frankly, I think it’s indispensable,” says writer Jason Vest, who occasionally cursed CAQ for beating him to print on investigative projects he was working on for U.S. News & World Report. “[For the staff] to be terminated in this manner is really, really, really ironic,” Vest says.

In a May 14 e-mail memo to various writers and affiliates of the magazine, editor Allen, associate editor Sanho Tree, and support staff member Barbara Neuwirth said the personnel change “smacks of monstrous arrogance.”

“They did it with a smarmy exploitation of the legal niceties of capitalism that would make the Dulles brothers blush,” the banished threesome wrote. Allen, Neuwirth, and Tree say they repeatedly clashed with the publishers over journalistic ethics. They maintain that their reluctance to put ideology before facts was what ultimately brought down the axe. “The first and most important [reason] was our refusal to be bullied by Wolf, Ray, and Schaap into publishing whacko-conspiracy theories and articles that served their agenda but failed to distinguish between facts and political fairy tales,” wrote the three staffers in the May memo. “Among those [ideas] championed by one or another of the publishers was a proposal to expose Hitler’s current hideout in Antarctica.”

But the troika of publishers claim the firings had nothing to do with the content of the magazine. In a terse statement released on Monday, the publishers insist the schism grew out of interpersonal clashes and “absolutely intolerable” conduct.

The incident that both sides agree sparked the meltdown was hilariously petty, as is often the case with office brawls. On her cubicle wall, Neuwirth had tacked up a picture of a man with his head up his ass. Underneath, she had added the concise caption “Publisher.” When the real-life publishers strolled into the office, they took the joke rather badly. And that day pretty much marked the demise of friendly relations. “This is so yucky and silly and absurd,” concedes an embarrassed Allen.

In their termination letter, the publishers say the poster incident “is in no way the cause of this action. It was, however, the catalyst that caused us to review the situation seriously and in great depth.”

Now that Allen is out of the picture, look for CAQ to head back to the margins of public discourse. “CAQ was long considered to be sort of a nutty, conspiracy-mongering magazine,” says Ken Silverstein, co-editor of CounterPunch newsletter, who’s been reading CAQ on and off for about a decade. “If you look back at some of the old issues from 10 years ago, it was just the most simplistic, stupid, immature magazine around,” he says. But Allen, who Silverstein admits is a friend of his, “has made it a very respectable magazine.” And he says she did it with no help from publishers Ray and Schaap, whom he calls “the most dogmatic, idiotic, left-wingers you’re ever going to find.”

Vanity Fair columnist Christopher Hitchens expressed a similarly odd mixture of ho-hum surprise in response to the firings. He saw no reason to alter what he found to be a perfectly tidy little rag. But knowing what he does of its publishers, Hitchens says of the firings, “I’d have to say I find it believable and depressing.”

In Washington, dismissive treatment of low-paid editorial types is nothing new—it’s endemic to many publications’ MO. In CAQ’s case, the irony is just all the more raw. “It always depresses me when so-called leftists act like people from the Fortune 500,” says Alexander Cockburn, columnist for New York Press and co-editor of CounterPunch. “CAQ isn’t the only one.”

Publisher Schaap says he and his colleagues will not comment in detail on the firings. He denies that the terminations were as outrageous as the staffers describe but refuses to elaborate. “It’s making a mountain out of a molehill, really,” he says.

At home in Vermont, ex-editor Allen is left to contemplate the ruins of the molehill she spent nine years of her life cultivating. She has yet to make sense of it. “We believed that things had to be documented,” she says, sounding dazed. “We believed that articles had to make sense.” But so much for that. Now Allen’s just one of the masses, and her future plans are vague. “I think I’m gonna mow my lawn,” she says. —Amanda Ripley

#E-mail Paper Trail at dcarr@washcp.com or call (202) 332-2100.