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Much-loved computer columnist Henry Norr has been suspended by the Hearst Corporation - owners of The San Francisco Chronicle - for expressing political views on his day off.

Along with two thousand other citizens, including the former head of the Pacific Stock Exchange, Norr was arrested in San Francisco last week as he was protesting the US-British invasion of Iraq. He emailed the paper to say he would be late the next day. But the cowardly Chronicle insisted on calling creating a time card dispute, and Norr is currently suspended without pay.

"This is a bogus, after-the-fact cover for an act of political retaliation and an attempt to intimidate other employees," Norr wrote in an email to Jim Romensko.

That his employer should take on the role of policing what employees do in their own time is a remarkable act of corporate coercion.

Norr doesn't even do political reporting. "I write about things like (e-mail) spam," he told Reuters.

Don't be so modest, Henry. His Monday tech column Tech 21 is a rare beast: the former MacWeek editor completely eschews the kind of gushing, techno-utopioan advertorials that are now the norm for mainstream publications in favor of a gentle and wise, and hugely-well-informed skepticism. He also breaks stories. In other words, he one of the paper's best assets.

But the punishment lasts for a "minimum" of two weeks.

Norr's shabby treatment highlights one of the absurdities of the US media: it requires its staff to behave like eunuchs. This strange hangover from the days of the Puritan ducking stool baffles visitors, but keeps a mini-industry of "Journalism Schools" and ethics committees busy.

Which is why, after the long editorial filleting process of removing anything that might cause offense to anyone has been completed, you end up with newspapers that don't have any news in them.

"Total objectivity is an illusion," Norr eloquently explained yesterday. "Everybody has views on important issues, at least most people do."

"Objectivity" - a word you only hear in the USA - isn't just an illusion, it's a metaphysical impossibility. Although your tolerance for "objectivity" is bound to be highly selective. Clear Channel Communications - which dominates commercial radio in the USA - recently sponsored pro-Invasion rallies and yesterday a Fox News Channel anchor opened a news segment with the words "800 Iraqis ... and we pasted them!" But you know that these voices are human, they may be slanted, that owners exert influence, but hey - you're grown up adults. Take your pick.

"The best journalism comes from people who are engaged in the world around them," added Norr, who are not just blinkered scribes who sit there at the keyboard and write stories, but people who have passions and feelings and engagement."

The ducking stool treatment meted out to Norr by the Hearst Corporation, which owns the Comical, has already rung alarm bells in the Macintosh community, where where Norr is widely respected:-

"Punishing him at work for expressing a political view on what he thought was his own time is a dangerous way to proceed in a democracy," writes Applelinks' John Farr.

Yesterday, San Francisco citizens made their own protest at their city paper's anodyne coverage of the Invasion - no pictures of civilian casualties, but lots of light, "color" pieces from embedded correspondents - by dumping fake blood at the newspaper's offices.

Reporters without Borders, an international organization which tries to measure coercion against the free press, ranks the USA at17th in its estimation of press freedom - behind Costa Rica. ®

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