A Farce in Four Acts

According to one PiPress staffer, the newsroom drama that led to theater critic Jayne Blanchard's firing was "like watching an auto accident happen in slow motion. You could see a way out for everyone. But things just kept getting more and more bloody."

Last month the St. Paul Pioneer Press joined the growing list of local media organizations facing a high-profile gender-based lawsuit. The PiPress is headed toward a courtroom drama with its deposed theater critic, Jayne Blanchard, who was fired on May 16. Sex discrimination and violation of free-speech rights are the issues cited by Blanchard in her legal action, most of which was filed shortly before her firing; her attorney also claims the termination was an act of vengeance stemming from her lawsuit. PiPress counsel Laura Davis argues Blanchard was dismissed for "proven dishonesty." According to one newsroom staffer, the entire episode was "like watching an auto accident happen in slow motion. From Jayne's first suspension to the time she was fired, you could see a way out for everyone. But things just kept getting more and more bloody."

Both sides agree on this much: In early March, Blanchard had a one-on-one story meeting with freshman Arts and Entertainment Editor Bob Shaw. After cranking out reviews for over four years, Blanchard said she was feeling stagnant, so she proposed to produce a local play, keep a journal, then write a piece about the process. PiPress attorney Davis concedes Shaw tentatively approved the idea, provided that the play be staged in an unaffiliated warehouse space and that Blanchard avoid financial involvement with the local theater community. He also believed the story would never get done. "Jayne has a reputation for saying things and not following up," Davis says. Shaw would later call the idea a "lark."

Blanchard's version of the meeting is similar. She says she left with the impression Shaw liked her idea enough to run it by PiPress Editor-in-Chief Walker Lundy. A couple of days after the meeting, Blanchard says Shaw gave her the thumbs-up sign, indicating he had received consent from on high. Davis denies Lundy's approval was sought or communicated to Blanchard. Either way, it appears Shaw did little as an editor to clarify the status of the assignment.

In the meantime Blanchard charged ahead. After borrowing $6,000 from her 401K plan and another $1,000 from friends, she decided to produce The Obituary Bowl, a one-woman play by D.C.-based writer Barbara McConagha. She concluded that renting a warehouse space was impractical, however, so on April 1 she cut a deal with the Jungle Theater in Minneapolis. For use of the Jungle's space, Blanchard would pay for everything up front, then split the box office. Blanchard says she informed Shaw of these developments repeatedly. Davis says Shaw had no idea what was happening until very late in the game. On April 17, the day before rehearsals were to begin for The Obituary Bowl, Shaw told Blanchard the project was a conflict of interest. The next day, the PiPress ran Blanchard's review of the Jungle's production of Eugene O'Neill's A Long Day's Journey Into Night. Titled "Journey is, Indeed, Long," Blanchard's review was savage. "No matter what I would have written about that awful production, it would have been seen as pandering one way or the other," Blanchard says. "That's why I told Bob to send a freelance writer. But he didn't listen."

On April 30, Blanchard was suspended for a week and a disciplinary letter pointing to the alleged conflict of interest was placed in her personnel file. By that time, the seeds for her second suspension had already been planted. On April 27, Blanchard published a fluffy, innocuous Sunday feature about the manners of audiences at local theaters; one of the sources she quoted was local actress Nancy Bagshaw Reasoner, who happened to be the star of The Obituary Bowl. Reasoner was one of many sources, but because of her connection to the play Blanchard was producing, the critic was once again cited for a conflict of interest. Her second week in exile started on May 7. On May 12, Blanchard's complaint was filed in Ramsey County District Court, alleging gender discrimination at the PiPress.

The seven-page complaint is not exactly a bombshell. It mainly seeks to establish "an intimidating, hostile and offensive working environment for the Plaintiff and other women" by coupling Shaw and Lundy with a series of sexist comments. On April 17, when Blanchard asked Shaw why he didn't take her project seriously, Davis admits Shaw replied by saying, "Well, you said you were getting married this year and you're still not married, are you?" When a female editor approached Lundy to arrange maternity leave, Davis concedes the editor responded with the unfortunate question, "Do you know who the father is?" The PiPress attorney maintains, however, that neither of these comments is relevant; the first because it wasn't a gender-based criticism, and the latter because it had nothing to do with Blanchard. Davis denies flatly the most bizarre section of the complaint, which alleges Lundy told a pregnant reporter who was arranging for maternity leave he "yearned for the day when women birthed their babies in the field, bundled them up and continued picking crops."

A few days before the suit was filed, Blanchard sealed her fate by appearing on KSTP-AM with Barbara Carlson, who was filling in for Joe Soucheray that day. During the May 9 segment, which has been transcribed by both Davis and Blanchard's attorney Jeff Anderson, Carlson repeatedly wonders out loud whether Blanchard's suspension is the result of a sexist double standard at the paper. She then repeats an anecdote about a reporter working at the Pioneer Press who, after purportedly being arrested on Lake Street for receiving oral sex in a company car, was given a two-week suspension.

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