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Monday, May 16 2011 06:33 PM

Weatherman's stand against story costs job

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    By Alex Horvath / The Californian

    Former KERO TV weather man Jack Church.

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BY COURTENAY EDELHART, Californian staff writer cedelhart@bakersfield.com

Jack Church insists he's not the type to wear his Christianity on his sleeve. He's never gone around "thumping Bibles in the newsroom," as he put it.

But the former TV weatherman had a choice to make last month. In his view, it came down to his job or his faith.

Church chose his faith, and now the former chief meteorologist at ABC affiliate KERO-TV Channel 23 is out of a job and being hailed in some Christian circles as a hero.

"I'm not angry with the station," Church said Monday. "I don't judge them for what they did. I just had to make the right choice for me."

At issue was an April 29 segment by KERO reporter Cris Ornelas called "Dancing Around the Economy." The story was about strip clubs doing well despite the economic downturn.

Church didn't think it was appropriate material for a 5 p.m. newscast, and worried that delivering a weather report during the same broadcast implied he endorsed or agreed with the story.

A few days before it aired, Church asked station executives to reconsider the piece or at least move it to a later time slot when children were less likely to see it.

The station refused, so Church asked if he could take a day off when it aired.

But the story was scheduled to air during sweeps week, when Nielson Media Research Company records the number of viewers a television station draws. That number is used to set advertising rates, so it's an extremely important time period.

Church said he knew that his contract forbade taking time off during sweeps, but he decided to do so, anyway. After Church missed work, KERO told him he had breached his contract and would be terminated, he said.

KERO confirmed that there had been a breach of contract dispute, but declined to go into further detail about the circumstances of Church's departure.

News director Todd Karli did say, however, that he believed the story at issue was perfectly appropriate for the 5 p.m. time slot.

"We were very careful to approach the story, not as any kind of promotion for the business, but straightforward.

"We even went to the trouble of interviewing a psychologist who talked about how stress makes people spend more money on their impulses, not just strip clubs but all vices, smoking, alcohol, all of that."

The piece ended with the psychologist's opinion that there are better ways to cope with stress.

But Church, whose two children include a teenage daughter, said he thought the story came off as an ad for Deja Vu, one of the clubs featured in the piece.

"I just thought about the young mom who's sitting at home out of work watching that and thinking, 'That's how I can ride out the recession, go work at a strip club.' It just sent the wrong message."

Journalists are trained not to let their biases interfere with work, but reporters are human and conflict is inevitable, said Melissa Lalum, a journalism lecturer at Cal State University Northridge.

"Sometimes, that's just what it comes down to. Your conscience or your job," Lalum said.

She cited the Santa Barbara News-Press, where several journalists quit or were fired after accusing the paper's new owner of imposing personal opinions and agendas on news coverage.

That said, there are times when reporters simply have to do things they find distasteful, Lalum said.

"News is news. It's not always going to be pretty," she said. "In fact, it's often not what you want to hear, but our job is to put the information out there and let readers or viewers judge for themselves."

The law demands reasonable accommodations to avoid religious discrimination in the workplace, but how far employers are required to go is a source of frequent litigation and cultural debate.

Jewish Major League Baseball players Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax kept their jobs after they famously refused to play in critical games that fell on a sacred Jewish holiday, but some fans never forgave them for it.

The workplace should be no different from the United States military, which allows for refusing to serve in certain instances, said Glen Stassen, professor of Christian ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena.

"We are a nation that respects conscientious objectors," Stassen said, adding there was great irony in the meteorologist's dismissal.

"It was a story about the cultural effects of too many people being out of work, and now there's another person out of work," he said.

Church's predicament is being picked up as a cause in Christian publications. There's even talk of a boycott. The Rev. Ken Armstrong of Calvary Chapel of Bakersfield is hoping to organize one.

"I always counsel people to be the best employee they can possibly be, first, so that they have leverage to appeal to the boss or the boss' boss when something like this comes up," he said. "That's your first defense as a Christian, to do the best job you can for your employer. But if that doesn't work, and your appeal is unsuccessful, you may have to leave. Some things, like pornography, are non-negotiable."

Church said he doesn't feel he was discriminated against in any way because the language of his contract was perfectly clear. He just couldn't be a part of "pushing the line on decency," he said.

Judy Muller, associate professor of journalism at the University of Southern California, said she didn't see the issue as a religious matter as much as "pure tackiness." Every reporter has a line they won't cross, Muller said.

"The station absolutely had a right to fire him, but he also had a right to quit," she said. "You just have to ask yourself, if this is a station that wants to put gratuitous strippers on the air, is this really a place I want to work?

"If not, go get another job."

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