The Ethics of Moonlighting

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For the last few months, the Houston Chronicle has transfixed the city with an internal fandango that seems like a mashup of La Dolce Vita, Federico Fellini’s nod to journalism, and Miss Lonelyhearts, Nathanael West’s brilliant take on the Fourth Estate.

A Chronicle reporter was covering Houston high society until the feisty Houston Press revealed that she had been working as a stripper. High-profile feminist attorney Gloria Allred recently joined the fray, representing the reporter, who was apparently fired by the newspaper for not indicating her other work on her employment application.

At the center of this story is a sticky ethical conundrum that keeps labor lawyers gainfully employed: Do the past—and extracurricular—activities of journalists have anything to do with their “day gigs” as news providers?

For a decade, the Houston Chronicle has been looking for an heir to the legendary Maxine Mesinger—easily the most famous chronicler of high-and-mighty society in Texas. For almost 40 years, Mesinger subtly mocked and unabashedly celebrated Houston’s power circles. The columnist’s self-referential catchphrase was “She Snoops To Conquer.”

When she died in 2001, some feared a desperate Chronicle would eventually import fizzy tabloid gossip gatherer Lloyd Grove, who honed his craft at the Corpus Christi Caller-Times and The Dallas Morning News. Others wanted Douglas Britt, the Chronicle’s respected art critic and part-time society writer, to do a full-blown, post-modern column about the guarded Houston elite.

But last year, Britt left the paper and then blogged that he had once been a male escort. He still writes at Reliable Narratives, as “an artist, critic and gay sex worker—an escort and occasional adult-video performer—I’m the visual arts editor of Arts + Culture Houston magazine and the former art writer and society reporter for the Houston Chronicle.”

Following Britt, Sarah Tressler, an adjunct professor of journalism at the University of Houston, was entrusted with doing some of the Chronicle’s coverage of society functions. In March, the Houston Press reported that Tressler was the anonymous author of the “Diary of An Angry Stripper” blog and had worked as an exotic dancer. A week later, she was fired from the biggest newspaper in Texas.

New York magazine, Radar, The Huffington Post, The New York Daily News and The Los Angeles Times picked up the story. Tressler hired attorney Allred, who said:

“Most exotic dancers are female, so to terminate an employee because that employee had previously been an exotic dancer would have an inverse impact on women, since it’s a female-dominated occupation. Terminations like this would also discourage women from trying to improve their lives.”

Tressler has filed a gender discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In her one-page document, she says she was canned “because my prior activity as an adult dancer was not disclosed when I applied for the job [at the Chronicle]. I believe that the stated reason for my termination was pretextual in that I answered the questions that were put to me truthfully in connection with my application for employment. The true reason for my termination was discrimination on account of my gender.” She maintained she was an independent contractor, an entrepreneur.

The newspaper has refused media inquiries about Tressler. A brisk, dutiful May 11 story about her complaint read, “The Chronicle declined to comment.”

That article also noted that Tressler was very pleased to be working with Allred– who is well known for tightening the screws on everyone from Rush Limbaugh to Tiger Woods to disgraced Congressman Anthony Weiner.

“Couldn’t ask for anyone better by my side… So grateful,” Tressler tweeted on May 10.

Clearly, journalism still doesn’t pay much. (Britt has astutely blogged about this subject.) There is little job security. Today, editors everywhere are telling reporters to be fiercely entrepreneurial at work; build “brands” through Facebook and Twitter; develop high profile, public platforms; seize any multimedia opportunity and, well, do several jobs at once.

In the end, an inherent hypocrisy creeps in: The very institutions pushing for all those aggressive, new ways to monetize the news sure as hell don’t want their journalists to be too entrepreneurial in their private lives.