Detroit Free Press Editor Peter Bhatia never wanted to fire Pulitzer winner Stephen Henderson, but the paper's parent company, Gannett, insisted on it, according to several sources familiar with the situation.
Henderson, 47, was fired in mid-December as managing director of opinion and commentary for "misconduct" involving two women staffers about four years ago. But following an internal investigation, Bhatia told several people inside the paper that he didn't believe the incidents warranted a dismissal, insiders with first-hand knowledge tell Deadline Detroit.
Gannett, based in northern Virginia, overrode its Detroit editor. Gannett has owned the Free Press since August 2005. It previously owned the The Detroit News, but sold it to Denver-based MediaNews Group.
Bhatia announced the firing in his paper Dec. 15 and Gannett issued a statement:
"Effective today, Stephen Henderson will no longer be employed by the Detroit Free Press. The decision was made after an internal investigation was conducted which uncovered credible allegations that Mr. Henderson’s behavior has been inconsistent with company values and standards."
Many people inside the paper, while saying they didn't know all details of Henderson's encounters with two unidentified women, felt the 18-year employee was unfairly treated and shouldn't have lost his job. Henderson continues to host "Detroit Today" each weekday morning on WDET and "American Black Journal" on Detroit Public TV. Both broadcasters and gave Henderson the green light following internal investigations.
Henderson, who is divorced, won the Pulitzer Prize, journalism's top prize, in 2014 for his columns on the financial crisis plaguing Detroit. At the time, Essence magazine wrote that he was one of seven other Black journalists to win in the commentary category since 1970.
Henderson became one of a number of men across the country to be fired or suspended for improper behavior toward women in recent months.
In its discharge coverage, the Freep reported:
At a Dec. 6 news conference, Detroit minister W.J. Rideout III mentioned Henderson and two other members of the local media as individuals who had engaged in acts of sexual harassment. Rideout did not cite any evidence or specifics about Henderson and this week the minister’s radio show (on 910 AM Superstation) was suspended over that lack of evidence. The Free Press immediately launched an investigation and subsequently uncovered examples of inappropriate behavior by Henderson with female colleagues dating back several years.
Three days later on his first WDET show after being booted, Henderson issued this statement:
The newspaper’s review of my ten years in management at the Free Press found instances with two female employees in which my interactions, in social situations outside of work several years ago, were deemed inappropriate. One situation involved sexually themed conversations with an employee; I had encouraged that employee to disclose this interaction. In the other situation, a co-worker who was a manager in another department reported two rejected advances that she said made her uncomfortable.
Neither of the co-workers involved had come forward or filed a complaint before the outside allegations were made against me. There are no other allegations. I have maintained professional friendships and good working relationships with both of these colleagues. The Free Press told me that neither of the two women want to take any action.
The newspaper and its corporate owner, Gannett, decided to end my employment, saying my conduct violated the company’s standards. I disagree with that decision and outcome, and I am exploring legal action.
Freep Editor Bhatia responded Thursday via email: "Nothing to say beyond what I said at the time."
Henderson said comments should come from his attorney Deborah Gordon, who specializes in employment and civil rights law. She did not return two phone calls for comment. A Gannett spokesperson didn't provide a requested comment.