AOL Playboy Controversy Deepens

June 7th, 2009 9:57 PM

Early Saturday morning new developments arose in the controversy surrounding AOL News' decision to fire liberal writer Tommy Christopher. As first reported by NewsBusters many believed that the evidence pointed to Tommy Christopher's critique of Playboy writer Guy Cimbalo's attack on conservative women as the catalyst for his firing. However, though NewsBusters has still received no response to our repeated attempts to contact both Time Warner and AOL Politics Daily Chief Editor Melinda Henneberger, Henneberger has released this statement to Jason Linkins of The Huffington Post:

Does it make a lick of sense to you that I would fire anyone for standing up for women, or for taking on that disgusting story in Playboy? The bloggers for the old AOL site, Political Machine, weren't retained for the new site, Politics Daily, which has only been in existence for the last five weeks, and which we're just staffing up. Sorry so dull, but there's nothing more to it than that.

Tommy Christopher has posted a response at strongly disputing Henneberger's claim that she supported his coverage of the Playboy story:

Y’know what?  She’s right!  It doesn’t make any sense!  I wish she’d get in touch with the editor who fired me, and set this thing straight.

You know who I’m talking about, the editor who deleted my story from Politics Daily (when no editor had ever deleted any story ever in the history of the site), fired me minutes after hearing a pitch for a new story about the Playboy article, and forbade site partner Media Lizzy from posting a poll question about the Playboy article (also completely unprecedented).

That editor must have had priorities other than standing up for women, or taking on Playboy.

NewsBusters has obtained several emails which seem to refute Henneberger's claim that Christopher's firing was part of a planned series of firings. The emails indicate that less than a week before Christopher's firing and before his coverage of the Playboy controversy Henneberger had set up a meeting with him to discuss expanding his role at Politics Daily. In the same email Henneberger said "you're really doing a great job for us".

Several other emails indicated that Henneberger believed Christopher was doing "an awesome job" and just wanted "more of same" less than a week prior to his firing. In fact the emails reveal that she had asked to be personally introduced to him and had been personally assigning him stories to cover up until his attempt to criticize the Playboy attack. Other emails cast further doubt on Henneberger's explanation for her decision to fire Tommy Christopher.

In an email exchange between Christopher and his new editor, whom had been assigned to Christopher only a day before he was fired, indicates that the editor was still under the impression that Christopher would continue writing for Politics Daily even four hours after Henneberger had fired him. However, while the editor was unaware of Christopher's firing he was aware that Henneberger, in regards to the Playboy controversy, wasn't "interested in this piece in any form for Politics Daily". 

In a further development, today Henneberger has published an article accusing NewsBusters, among others, of several breaches of journalistic integrity. Henneberger claims that NewsBusters made no attempt to contact her or those above her:

The piece also claimed that I had not responded to an email seeking comment, but I never received any such email. And it concluded that since I hadn't denied the story, it must be true: "It seems highly unlikely that AOL fired him for lack of performance and it is important to note that nobody has claimed that as of now.''

However, NewsBusters can confirm that it attempted to contact Henneberger through this contact form provided in her biography and through this tweet on twitter. Similarly NewsBusters used the contact information on Time Warner's website to attempt to contact it's corporate communications department by phone. NewsBusters was able to contact the office of Time Warner vice president of corporate communications Keith Cocozza but despite being assured that we would receive a response, we have not.

Henneberger also claims that she had never read Christopher's article regarding the Playboy controversy and implied that she was not, in fact, the one who deleted it from Politics Daily:

I never even read the Playboy post I supposedly fired Christopher for writing. It was killed because the editor who handled it said it contained profanity, which Christopher had been asked not to use in his work. (To be perfectly precise, what the editor wrote was, "Hey chief, whole lotta f*** in this Christopher piece; that OK?'' And what I replied was: No, it isn't.)

However, NewsBusters has obtained a screen shot (edited to remove unrelated parties' names) which confirms that it was Melinda Henneberger who deleted Tommy Christopher's Playboy story from Politics Daily (click to enlarge):

Though Henneberger addresses several of the issues raised in NewsBusters first report on the story she has yet to comment on the email between AOL editor Michael Kraskin and Elizabeth Blackney in which Blackney was informed that AOL News had made an "internal decision" not to cover or comment on the Playboy controversy. Similarly she has yet to respond to Caleb Howe's claim about Christopher's firing, that "it would be absurd to think that the timing is coincidental".

She also does not discuss how her use of "f***" in her latest post on Politics Daily differs from Christopher's use of "f***" in his Politics Daily post (the copy on Christopher's personal site include updates with uncensored curses that were not included in his Politics Daily post) that was deleted. Both posts use the censored term "f***", Christopher's post uses the censored term five times where as Henneberger's uses the censored term once, neither used the uncensored f word. Henneberger deemed Christopher's use of the censored term as inappropriate but her own use of the censored term as acceptable.

If Henneberger makes further comment on these issues NewsBusters will be sure to update.