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Dog in the Fog


Thursday, July 20, 2006

READ AND WEEP: In a perverse way, I’d like to thank embattled News-Press owner Wendy P. McCaw and her bilious right-hand man Travis K. Armstrong for all the uproar now engulfing the News-Press and the whole town. The sad soap opera unfolding at the De la Guerra Plaza digs of Santa Barbara’s oldest paper has succeeded in diverting our attention — if only a little bit — from the gathering storm clouds of World War III now spreading from Lebanon and Israel. Even for the most defiantly chirpy among us, these are scary times indeed. At least for now we have fodder for distraction. But the people we really have to thank are the News-Press Nine — the brave souls who quit their jobs to protest the wreckage McCaw and company are presently wreaking on the community’s daily newspaper. We can also thank the workers who stood outside the paper’s entrance during last Friday afternoon’s impromptu protest and duct-taped their mouths shut to protest the management’s gag orders to keep them from discussing what’s taking place inside the News-Press. About 250 supporters and well-wishers showed up for that grim exhibition of guerilla theater. This Tuesday, another 500 or so showed up at De la Guerra Plaza to again express outrage at what’s happened to their newspaper.

NP_tape.jpgTuesday’s rally was patched together by all-purpose environmental agitator and media provocateur David Pritchett. Pritchett assembled many of the usual suspects who’d run afoul of the News-Press editorial pages by violating Travis and Wendy’s notions of how the world should work. This included three South Coast mayors. But also included was neighborhood activist Cheri Rae, who always has had Wendy’s wind at her back and Travis’s sunshine in her face. Despite strong support from Travis, Rae took him and Wendy sharply to task for meddling in newsroom affairs. As Rae asked, what good is the News-Press’s support to her — or any community activist — if the paper has zero credibility in the community? Her presence on the podium gave lie to Armstrong’s attempt to dismiss the groundswell of opposition as merely the sour grapes of greedy developers and advocates of high-density affordable housing who are intent on ruining the South Coast’s quality of life over his emphatic opposition. Pritchett riffed on one-time Santa Barbara resident Ronald Reagan’s most famous line, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall,” leading the crowd in a chant of “Mrs. McCaw, build back that wall.” Reagan was referring, of course, to the Berlin Wall, then crumbling during the waning days of the Cold War. Pritchett was referring to the firewall that’s said to exist at any decent newspaper, shielding the news department from the pressures of the advertising department and the whimsical intrusions of the owner. Without such a wall, it’s hard for readers to distinguish advertorials from real news and real reporting from political propaganda. It should be noted that even in the best of papers, this “wall” is the subject of constant pressure, “dynamic tension,” being the preferred euphemism in the trade. But McCaw pretty much leveled the wall at the News-Press when she issued letters of reprimand for anybody in her employ responsible for publishing the address of the vacant lot where former bad-boy movie star Rob Lowe hopes to build his dream Mega Mansion. There was no policy in place at the News-Press against listing such addresses at the time the reprimands were issued. In fact, it was common practice at the paper to publish the address of all properties that were the subject of a heated public debate — as the Lowe property was. But because her reporters and editors did not intuitively grasp that wealthy Montecito celebrities like Lowe — who complained after his address was published — were entitled to preferential treatment, McCaw issued four harshly worded letters of reprimand, threatening to fire anyone who did it again. That was strike three. Strike one was trying to spike the drunk-driving arrest of Travis Armstrong, then the editorial page editor and editorial writer. Strike two was successfully killing the story on Armstrong’s sentencing. (For the record, it’s customary for the News-Press to report on drunk-driving arrests of prominent citizens, as former UCSB Chancellor Barbara Uehling can readily attest.) When McCaw then appointed Armstrong as her acting publisher — giving him exceptional authority to change news reporters’ copy — while she and fiancé Arthur Von Wiesenberger went off to Europe, relations between Armstrong and the newsroom became so toxic that they could qualify as an EPA Superfund site. The newsroom responded accordingly with the bench-clearing brawl we see before us today.

V FOR VENDETTA: By now much of this is old news. It’s been covered to death by major media outlets throughout the world, including, finally, even the News-Press. The story has legs that just won’t quit, and there’s little sign the attention will let up. This confounds even those caught up in the middle. But there are many obvious reasons for all this attention: You’ve got a rich eccentric owner, Hollywood celebrities, and Santa Barbara itself. Beyond that, there are the broader issues of media ownership. At a time when reporters are getting caught fabricating quotes and making up stories almost as frequently as professional athletes are accused of rape and steroid abuse, the public’s confidence in the press has never been lower. Thirty years ago, in the post-Watergate blip, the public thought reporters were going to save the world from conniving politicians. Today, the public holds reporters in even lower regard than politicians themselves, and often with good reason. In this context, to have reporters and editors quit their jobs — especially in today’s parched and unforgiving job market — in a dispute over journalistic ethics is big news.

McCaw, Armstrong, and their revolving door of spin doctors have provided almost as many explanations for this meltdown as the Bush administration has for the invasion of Iraq. Last Friday, McCaw took to the front page of her paper to blast her newsroom as a hotbed of political bias and personal agendas. People quit, she said, because she would no longer allow those personal agendas to prevail. Before that, we were told the editors who resigned weren’t committed to local news, even though that’s the drum they beat loudest and longest. It’s worth noting that members of the News-Press Nine were responsible for most of the first- and second-place California Newspaper Publishers Association awards the paper just won. Business editor Michael Todd was the guiding hand for the agricultural coverage; reporters Scott Hadly and Dawn Hobbs for the coverage of the internecine food fight that’s destroyed the Sheriff’s Council; Colin Powers for the front-page design. All of them — except Hobbs — have resigned. To be fair and balanced, I must mention that the editorial pages won an award too, even though it’s been the incessantly mean-spirited tone of Travis Armstrong’s editorials — far more than the actual positions he takes — that have so pissed off such a wide swath of the Santa Barbara community.

What McCaw has never understood is how hard her people worked for her, how much they loved the newspaper she bought, and how ferociously dedicated they are to the art and craft of journalism. Most people have never heard of Don Murphy, an intelligent, insightful editor and gentle soul who for 19 years has worked his way up the newsroom ladder. I used to cover City Council and Planning Commission meetings with Murphy back when he was still a reporter. He took such obvious delight in the give and take of Santa Barbara’s democratic process — inane and maddening as it sometimes was — that they could have charged him admission and he would have gladly paid. Few people soaked it in so thoroughly; few people got it so well. Even in small doses, Murphy’s enthusiasm was infectious. Over the years Murphy evolved into the institutional memory of the newsroom, connecting dots that new reporters — always arriving in a steady stream — didn’t know even existed. As an editor, Murphy also understood reporters were not always infallible, and fought to keep the sloppy, the lazy, and the willfully stupid contained, constrained, or out of the newsroom. Now Murphy is gone, the Ft. Knox of local history — at least two decades’ worth — shut down. At age 60, Murphy confronts the very scary prospect of finding a job elsewhere, where none of all that accumulated knowledge will do him much good. His departure is not just his loss. It’s Wendy’s loss. It’s her paper’s loss. But it’s our loss too. As his parting shot, Murphy told the crowd that if he could ever talk to Wendy — which very few people can — he’d tell her that she may have bought the News-Press, but she didn’t buy the people who work for her, and she sure couldn’t buy the news. It’s a good line, and goes to the heart of the matter. For McCaw, it appears to be a simple matter: She bought the paper, so it’s hers and she can do as she pleases with it. The problem is that the newspaper also belongs to the community. And it always will, no matter whose name is on the deed. In this regard, a newspaper is a little like beer. As any barstool scientist can attest, you don’t buy beer so much as rent it. Unfortunately for all of us, McCaw seems intent on pissing it all away.

 — Nick Welsh

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