Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Anchorage Press Abruptly Fires Editor Brendan Joel Kelley Over Unfavorable Review Of Slippery Salmon Restaurant

Update November 27th: Brendan Joel Kelley has now been hired by KTVA Channel 11 News.

Update October 23rd: Post updated to include a reference and link to former Press publisher Nick Coltman's statement, which implies Brendan Joel Kelley was fired for chimping out after the fact rather than the restaurant review itself.

In a completely unexpected development, the Anchorage Press abruptly fired editor Brendan Joel Kelley on October 17th, 2011. Kelley, who's actually known as Brendan Joel Kelley-Hellenthal as a result of his recent marriage where he decided to append his wife's maiden name to his own, was terminated over an unfavorable review of the Slippery Salmon Bar & Grill in Anchorage published on October 13th. The review has since been removed from the Press website, but is still available in the print edition (also published on Urban Spoon). Since the Anchorage Press is a weekly newspaper, it has not yet published its own explanation of the termination, but will undoubtedly do so by Thursday October 20th upon publication of its next edition.

Press reporter Susy Buchanan, who used to write for the Southern Poverty Law Center, visited the Slippery Salmon. While she liked the smoked salmon pizza, the service and the overall vibe, she apparently panned a sandwich she received, allegedly describing it as the "remains of which neither her son nor dog would go near", and also referred to an unseemly item (used condoms) spotted in the restaurant's parking lot. The sandwich in question was called a blue moose sandwich which was supposed to consist of roast beef, blue cheese, red onions and a light horseradish sauce; instead, Buchanan got was an ice-cold bun containing a slab of beef, one sliced onion, and a big blob of the blue cheese dressing. Her review was subsequently published on October 13th, but because it was published 12 days before the three-month anniversary of the grill's opening, an employee of the grill complained to the Press. Publisher Steve Abeln took down the review from the Press website on October 15th. This resulted in a shouting match between Abeln and Kelley, in which Kelley proposed that the review should remain up, accompanied by a note that the restaurant would be revisited in six months.

The review is still published in Urban Spoon, dated October 17th under the byline of Michael A. Kocher.

No soap. On October 17th, Kelley, who had been the editor since August 2010, was greeted with an envelope outlining the terms of his firing, which apparently did not include severance pay. Kelley posted a brief message of reaction on the Anchorage Press Facebook page, writing ..."They pulled a mildly negative restaurant review from the website without telling me (the editor), then lied about it, then forced it to get pulled again, pretended we'd have a conference call this morning regarding journalistic ethics, then handed me an envelope terminating my job"; in a follow-up comment, he wrote ..."the Press, it ain't Alaskan. Not no more". A number of comments supporting Kelley have also been published.

Interestingly, Jonathan Teeters says he wrote a letter to the CEO of Wick Communications protesting the firing, and got back a reply stating "Thank you for your note, Mr. Teeters. You do not have the full story." This could explain why the Press reacted in an extreme fashion. And a statement by former Press publisher Nick Coltman, who still consults with the current editor, seems to confirm that Kelley was fired over his reaction rather than the review itself. In part, Coltman stated "Brendan had worked himself into a lather over the issue and proceeded to send a series of progressively angrier emails to subordinates, co-workers and upper-management around the company throughout Saturday and Sunday. It was the tone and content of those emails that led to Brendan leaving the Press. No matter how appropriate his outrage was, the way he dealt with it made his continued employment impossible".

Anchorage Downtown Assemblyman Patrick Flynn, who is a personal friend of Kelley's and who hosted his wedding, also weighs in. Flynn considered Brendan to be fair and effective at engaging folks on all sides of issues, and now questions the editorial integrity of the Press. His premise is that if advertisers can influence editorial content of a news organization, what’s to stop them from pushing coverage that reflects him (Flynn) in a negative light? He believes this could set a trend of editorial attacks masquerading as neutral reporting.

Flynn is right about Kelley's journalistic integrity. Despite the fact that Kelley is a hard-line progressive, his stories, for the most part, called it straight down the middle. While he was there, the Press developed a reputation for incisive, comprehensive, and balanced reporting of those stories it chose to cover. Before each municipal election, the Press was usually first out of the box with candidate profiles; for some of the more obscure candidates, it often was the only coverage of their campaigns.

However, there was one epic fail of objectivity. On December 2nd, 2009, the Anchorage Press published an article written by Kelley before he became the editor, entitled "FAIR play? A controversial D.C.-based anti-immigration group organizes in Alaska", which was basically a hit piece regurgitating SPLC propaganda about the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). In fairness to Kelley, he did publish a response from FAIR on December 9th entitled "A response from FAIR", in which Dan Stein characterized the original Press article as as "a vicious ad hominem barrage against FAIR", further saying that "no fact checking was done and the paper relied entirely on unsubstantiated allegations by non-credible sources that function as attack machines intent on driving the open border and amnesty agenda". Kelley would have preserved his credibility had he published both articles in the same edition to facilitate a side-by-side comparison, the way it was done on October 13th, 2011 when the contrasting opinions of both John Aronno and Mike Dingman about Occupy Wall Street were presented in the same article.

The Bottom Line: The Anchorage Press overreacted in firing Brendan Joel Kelley. This illustrates how unforgiving the corporate environment has become; a mistake like this made a decade ago would have only resulted in a suspension. Too many employers are abruptly terminating employees merely for making honest mistakes. A two-week or one-month suspension would have been more proportional. However, Kelley shouldn't remain unemployed for long; either Alaska Dispatch or the Anchorage Daily News might pick him up. He'd probably be a better fit at Dispatch, where two former Press reporters work.


  1. Interesting that the Anchorage Downtown Partnership was able to post a favorable review of the restaurant a week after it opened with no comments...


  2. Brendan is an alcoholic bitch.