Xpress management should admit its mistake and support David Forbes

For a long time, Mountain Xpress has been my kind of paper. The stories are, in my opinion, the ones that should be written and engage our local community in thoughtful discussion on who we are and who we want to be. So many in the Asheville area view Mountain Xpress as our community paper because we feel that it covers the issues we care about. It allows us to connect with community issues and with each other in ways that help us create a better community instead of covering the news from the stand point of institutional or big corporate interests and viewpoints.

Recently, however, I have been deeply troubled by the actions of the leadership of the Xpress.

At BeLoved Community, we are working people – day laborers, blue-collar, fast-food, custodial, and, construction workers to name a few. In our American context, workers continue to struggle with a minimum wage so far under what the costs of survival actually are. Workers are too often exploited. The exception has been workers who have banded together, organized, and collectively worked for their rights. Much of the rights and protections we enjoy today in the workplace come from workers organizing particularly through worker unions: the 8 hour work day, weekends, sick leave, and ending child labor, for example.

On the eve of May Day, where people across the globe celebrate workers, I am deeply troubled that Mountain Xpress has not only turned a deaf ear to its workers but has fired one who sought to organize them. This is a sad day when I feel that I can no longer support what I considered to be “my paper of choice,” one of our most community-oriented papers along with the Urban News.

This past week, I was asked to share about our collaborative work at BeLoved through the non-profit edition of the Mountain Xpress. The best I can do is to share with you how we pour out our blood, sweat, and tears to love our neighbors (including and especially workers) and create better living conditions for those who struggle. This is the heart of who we are.  I found that morally I was unable to participate in that story at the exclusion of what has happened at your paper.

So I write this letter to the editor to say that we support David Forbes, an excellent reporter, who has embodied the justice we work for daily. Instead of being heard and praised for his efforts to support his co-workers and build a stronger paper, he was fired. David has a big community following because he is so community-oriented. So for many of us this feels like the firing of one of our own, a neighbor truth-teller.

And I write to say that we unequivocally support the workers at Mountain Xpress. To spotlight our work of building community and seeking justice while turning a blind eye to the workers at the Xpress is impossible for us. Our integrity and conscience will not allow it. We call on the owners and managers at Mountain Xpress to change course, admit their mistake, stand by one of their finest reporters, support their workers, and again become the paper that we have been proud to support over the years.

Rev. Amy Cantrell

Publisher Jeff Fobes responds:

Thanks, Amy, for your heartfelt comments and for valuing the kind of journalism we have been producing for almost 20 years. I agree that organized workers in this country fought for decades to establish the rights and working conditions we take for granted today. But I disagree that Xpress has turned a deaf ear to its workers. We have paid a living wage to everyone for years. We have a long history of being responsive to the people who work here, and we encourage initiative and collaboration on the part of all staff, at all levels and across departments. My door remains open to everyone at Xpress.

I would not normally discuss personnel issues publicly, but because the termination of David Forbes has already been made public by him, I will address the concerns you express. We did not fire anyone for trying to organize Xpress workers. David Forbes, who we did fire in April, was let go for two separate and independent reasons: (1) He took copyrighted material belonging to Xpress and self-published it without authorization, and (2) he published disloyal and damaging comments about Xpress, the publisher and the managing editor while in the employ of Xpress. Forbes was paid as an employee to research and develop the article that he subsequently published on his own. It went through editorial review, he refused the guidance we provided, and we told him we would reassign the story to another reporter. Before we could do so, he published the story on his own on the Internet. I view this as theft of company property, copyright infringement and gross misconduct. Secondly, while I respect a person’s right to voice their opinion, Forbes’ public assertions — that Xpress and its management lack ethics and have betrayed the core purposes of journalism — bear no relationship to whatever labor issues he may have and they are patently disloyal and damaging to Xpress. Inasmuch, his comments constitute grounds for termination, independent of his self-publication of company property.

None of this should suggest that Xpress opposes unions. As to Forbes’ union-organizing activities, he had complete freedom to pursue his campaign at Xpress for five months. Our working relationship, however, dissolved when he took company materials and made his disloyal comments. The right to engage in union activity has never been interpreted to encompass the right to appropriate employer property for one’s personal use or to publicly defame the employer’s product.

You needn’t fear that Forbes’ departure will hold back Xpress workers’ ability to organize. If they want to do so, they certainly will. They’re an extremely sharp and self-motivated group of individuals. That’s why we hired them. If they decide that a union is the best route, I’ll back them up. As to my personal opinion, I think a union is not necessary at Xpress, but that’s a separate debate.

The impetus for a union at Xpress came, I believe, from internal dissension last year about who would control the paper’s editorial direction — not about working conditions. Everyone who lived through that period will agree it was not a pleasant time. But we’ve come through that and I believe we are stronger now. There’s always room for improvement, of course. And for that, my door remains open. Producing a good community paper requires a respectful, synergistic workplace, which requires team spirit and two-way communication. I am committed to maintaining, and will defend, these at Xpress.




Thanks for reading through to the end…

We share your inclination to get the whole story. For the past 25 years, Xpress has been committed to in-depth, balanced reporting about the greater Asheville area. We want everyone to have access to our stories. That’s a big part of why we've never charged for the paper or put up a paywall.

We’re pretty sure that you know journalism faces big challenges these days. Advertising no longer pays the whole cost. Media outlets around the country are asking their readers to chip in. Xpress needs help, too. We hope you’ll consider signing up to be a member of Xpress. For as little as $5 a month — the cost of a craft beer or kombucha — you can help keep local journalism strong. It only takes a moment.

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6 thoughts on “Xpress management should admit its mistake and support David Forbes

  1. darbs

    Rev. Cantrell, thank you for this well written piece. So happy to see this.
    Jeff Fobes, this is textbook boss talk. If your door is really open, then rehire the workers you fired and take a neutral stance during an election. I definitely thought better of the Xpress.

  2. avlmama

    The views expressed by Amy are shared among many people in Asheville and the surrounding area. David Forbes is not the first person to leave the Xpress in the last six months. Whether people left voluntarily or were fired, it seems clear that the direction of the Mountain Xpress has been changing and for many people in this community, not for the good.

    This statement really is misleading: “You needn’t fear that Forbes’ departure will hold back Xpress workers’ ability to organize. If they want to do so, they certainly will.” In a right to work state and an at will state, organizing a union is extremely difficult. I assume that David was out front on the organizing because he made a conscious choice to do so and recognized the risk. While other employees may share David’s concern, they may not be able to risk losing their job. They just watched an organizer be fired. This sends a clear message to employees. If Xpress has good working conditions, they need not fear a union, and if Xpress really supports the right to organize, then help facilitate that, recognize the union and negotiate a great contract. It doesn’t have to be union vs. employer, it can be ‘let’s work together to negotiate a fair contract so everyone is happy and so the powers that be don’t intimidate workers out of asking for fair conditions.’ Of course Jeff Fobes doesn’t think Xpress needs a union–bosses never do.

    In regards to journalistic content of the Xpress, it is generally perceived that recently the Xpress is caving, in a way, to corporate interests and the direction the paper seems to be taking is not the direction that this community has come to know and respect. I read the story that Jeff Fobes says David Forbes was fired over releasing and I thought it seemed very consistent with stories Xpress has printed in the past. The Xpress used to be a paper that seemed to understand the difference in power structures and that there already is a platform for corporate and institutional interests. Running stories about the working class, voices that are rarely listened to, are a big part of the reason Xpress built such a positive reputation amongst the people I know. The direction of the stories being published seems to be shifting.

    I don’t want to boycott the Xpress. I, too, have loved the Xpress and was in awe when I moved here of how many more people seemed to read the Xpress than the other papers. What I want, and what I think Amy and the community wants, is for Xpress to recognize what made it great in the first place and to be that paper that we trust. I want Xpress to listen to the talented and great staff that they have without intimidating them. Facilitate the organization of a union. Xpress could talk with CWA about how best to do that. Xpress could remember that journalism is not supposed to be just free advertising for companies and institutions that hold power in the community and sometimes you are going to make people uncomfortable bringing things to light. Xpress should consider what this community and what the readers want, respect, and appreciate, because the advertising dollars will fall off if the readership falls off. I don’t want to see the Xpress go away, I want to see the Xpress be the paper that I respect.

  3. Dionysis

    It’s just possible that Mr. Forbes was dismissed for the reasons Jeff Fobes stated; that he published his employer’ work product without permission, and while on the payroll, publicly disparaged his employer. If this is true and was not simply a pretext for dismissal for legally protected actions (organizating a union), then the termination was appropriate. I would have no hesistation in firing someone for such behavior.

  4. MX should realize what a crafty yellow journalist they had in David Forbes and bring him back into the fold. Otherwise, I look forward to Forbes running for local office. The Bothwell seat would be a good fit.

    • Dionysis

      Perhaps you should consider offering to be his campaign manager, with your track record.

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