Gehrke: Over filet mignon, KSL bosses warned lawmakers that noncompete bill could harm reporting — and I have the tape

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune The Salt Lake Tribune staff portraits. Robert Gehrke.

Could getting rid of media noncompete clauses — which prevent broadcast journalists from leaving one station and going to work for another for up to a year — turn the virtuous KSL into money-obsessed materialists?

That’s the concern expressed by Keith McMullin, a former general authority for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the current president of Deseret Media Corporation, the church’s media arm, which owns KSL, the Deseret News and other outlets.

During a private meeting Wednesday at the Joseph Smith Building, Deseret Media treated about 20 lawmakers to a filet mignon lunch and laid out the company’s argument about why getting rid of noncompetes would be a bad idea.

Fortunately, another bill the LDS Church was pushing — one that would require all parties of a conversation to consent to a recording of the discussion — did not pass and I was able to get a recording of the Deseret Media meeting and you can listen to excerpts below.

‘Monitors of mammon’

In the meeting, McMullin says KSL employees are “trusted colleagues. We do not view them simply as people we invest in for a moment and then to be laid aside. We like to enlist them in the cause. Our mission and cause is to be trusted voices of light and truth.”

If KSL loses its right to use noncompete clauses, those noble relations “are reduced to money… I think it is harmful to the corporate citizen that businesses represent themselves to be, who then turn into the monitors of mammon instead of the measurers of good people and how to cultivate them.”

Mammon is a term from the New Testament associated with wealth or greed.

So evidently, if those employees are able to seek out a better job at another station, it’s no longer about goodness and virtue, it’s about greed. And as long as KSL can keep those people locked into a contract, then they can continue to be “trusted voices of light and truth.” I’ve already written my case for why noncompetes are bad for all employees, including my friends in broadcast.

A free press (except not free to leave)

During the meeting, Jeff Hunt, a media lawyer representing Deseret Media, lays out the viewpoint that banning noncompete clauses for media could violate the First Amendment.

The argument is that, because the law targets only the news media and could impact the bottom line of the news businesses it could be viewed as impeding the ability to gather and disseminate news and be deemed unconstitutional. Hunt draws on a Minnesota case where the court ruled a tax on newspaper inputs — ink and paper and such — was struck down on First Amendment grounds.

Hunt suggests strongly that passing the law could open the state up to a lawsuit. Hunt is a smart guy. But there does seem to be some inconsistency with statements made earlier by McMullin and others that KSL hardly uses noncompete clauses. Just about 30 of its employees, less than 10 percent, have them and in many cases the company is willing to not enforce them. Noncompetes are not important to the company, except they’ll go to court to protect them.

It’s also more than a little ironic to hear these executives posturing as if they’re free-speech crusaders while they’re quashing coverage of the noncompete bill and telling their employees not to talk about the issue.

So important we don't use them at all

Along those same lines, Doug Wilks, the editor of the Deseret News, told lawmakers the news media desperately needs noncompetes because the news media is under attack and the future of journalism and the ability to produce the kind of quality news coverage readers have come to expect depends on keeping noncompetes.

“Allow us to keep journalism alive in this area. We want Salt Lake City and Utah to have great journalism, but don’t handicap us from doing that,” Wilks said.

Then there was the kicker: One lawmaker asked Wilks how many Deseret News employees are under noncompete clauses. He sheepishly admits there isn’t a single one — although, he says, there could be some in the future.

Not only does Wilks blow up his own argument, he basically torpedoes the other arguments, as well. The Deseret News functions fine without noncompetes, so getting rid of them would not really be adverse to the news gathering. It really wouldn’t impact the First Amendment freedoms. And it really wouldn’t make Deseret Media the “monitors of mammon” — unless Wilks thinks that’s what the Deseret News already is.