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Lawsuit is latest in list of tough hits for Billboard

When Keith Girard became editor in chief of Billboard magazine in April 2003, the venerable bible of the music industry had been buffeted by a recession rippling through the record business. After he and senior editor Samantha Chang were fired this May, the 110-year-old publication had another problem on its hands.

Charging that they had been unfairly terminated, in a manner designed to do maximum damage to their reputations and "emotional well-being," Girard and Chang filed a $29 million lawsuit against Billboard's corporate parent, VNU, painting a damning portrait of the magazine's culture.

The suit alleged, among other things, that they had faced a hostile working environment tainted by sexual harassment, internal office sabotage, and the sacrificing of "editorial integrity for the sake of financial interests."

On one level, the lawsuit, filed in late June, is salacious tabloid fodder. It claims VNU fostered a workplace in which philandering managers had sexual encounters with female employees. The lawsuit alleges that executive editor Ken Schlager "frequently and repeatedly made inappropriate remarks to Chang of a sexual and/or erotic nature" and accuses him of showing Chang a vibrator he kept in his office. The plaintiffs also say Billboard's offices percolated with false rumors that Girard and Chang were having a sexual relationship and that the gossip spread "throughout the music industry."

On another level, the litigation involves questions of journalistic standards that are grist for media ethics watchdogs. The complaint says that in order to meet his mandate of revamping the magazine's editorial direction, Girard received assurances he would have full independence. But the suit charges that after Billboard published a cover article detailing legal problems facing a music executive, publisher John Kilcullen told Girard not to publish anything that would anger major record companies and demanded the right to review and approve cover headlines, photos, cartoons, and editorials.

"The complaint sets forth a fairly sordid story of sexual harassment, discrimination, and breaches of promises and editorial integrity," said Kyle Bisceglie, a lawyer representing Girard and Chang.

VNU spokeswoman Deborah Patton says the suit is groundless. "We feel the charges are without merit, and we will resolve them through the legal system," she said. Kilcullen and Schlager, both named in the suit, declined comment.

The complaint could be a black eye for VNU, an international conglomerate with 38,000 employees. A subsidiary, VNU Business Media, publishes 52 magazines, including Adweek, Editor & Publisher, The Hollywood Reporter, and Billboard.

Girard, a former reporter for The Washington Post, was hired at Billboard after a stint as editor of InvestmentNews. Chang, who has a law degree, worked for Girard as assistant managing editor at InvestmentNews before he brought her to Billboard in September 2003. According to their suit, things then soured.

The defendants have responded with a motion to dismiss some counts in the lawsuit, primarily those that accuse management of reneging on promises to give Girard full control and tampering with content to curry favor with advertisers. "The complaint . . . does not really set forth claims that a court would accept regarding the allegations of editorial integrity," said the defendants' lawyer Alan Koral. "And for that reason, we have moved to throw those claims out at this early stage of the litigation. However, if we were forced to litigate the issue, we believe we could show that they have no factual foundation, which is our position with respect to the claims of sexual discrimination and harassment as well."

In interviews with The Boston Globe, the fired editors expressed disappointment at the turn of events. "I wish VNU had been more amenable to taking some of these claims more seriously before we filed the lawsuit," Chang said. "It's very unfortunate it turned out that way."

With the case raising the question of whether the boundary between journalism and the bottom line had been breached at Billboard, the legacy of Timothy White looms over the litigation. White, the Boston-based Billboard editor in chief who died in 2002, was recognized for his commitment to journalistic principles. This year, in fact, American Business Media unveiled its Timothy White Award to honor the journalist whose work epitomizes "courage and integrity."

"I think Billboard certainly under Tim White had a great reputation in the industry and was known for its editorial integrity," said Geoff Lewis, editorial director of Folio magazine. "The biggest problem for Billboard is the change of the industry. . . . Their traditional advertisers are not advertising."

The lawsuit comes at difficult time for the magazine, which has felt the effects of a dramatic slump in the record business driven largely by the digital downloading revolution that provided new sources of music. Billboard, which was once owned by The Boston Globe's parent company, has a circulation of about 22,000, compared to roughly 30,000 at the end of 2001. Asked about declining revenues, VNU's Patton said "the entire music industry has transformed itself. Our business reflects the markets it served."

Samir Husni, a journalism professor at the University of Mississippi, said, "No matter how great the bible of the industry is, if there are no worshipers, you're preaching to an empty hall." 

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