Whose Press Is It?
It was standing room only at a town hall forum on journalistic ethics, in which a group of seasoned raconteurs—reporters, publishers, a business lawyer, and a Teamster organizer—speechified on journalistic integrity and the future of the Santa Barbara News-Press. The nine reporters and editors who recently resigned in a dispute over control of the newsroom, as well as current News-Press staffers engaged in union organizing efforts to protect their jobs, received a standing ovation as they walked to their seats in Victoria Hall. The forum was sponsored by the progressive organization Santa Barbara County Action Network (SBCAN), and moderated by UCSB professor emeritus Dick Flacks, who was a founding member of the radical Students for a Democratic Society in the 1960s.
Former News-Press chief editor Jerry Roberts—who was among the first to resign—kicked off the forum by quoting chapter and verse from the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, which he said safeguarded the newsroom’s integrity during his reign there, but which has now been violated. At first glance, he acknowledged, the issues that sparked this conflict—the publication of a celebrity’s address and the suppression of a story on acting publisher Travis Armstrong’s drunk driving conviction—may seem trivial compared to the debates on war and patriotism convulsing the nation, but he insisted they are “anything but.” At stake here, he said, is the key principle of the wall of separation between a newspaper’s business interests and its journalistic duty.
Reagan biographer and veteran Washington Post reporter Lou Cannon urged the crowd to offer financial assistance to the “magnificent nine” journalists who left their jobs, as well as those who are risking them. “Their fight is our fight,” he said. Regretfully recalling a time when he stood by and allowed a story of his to be changed to satisfy a publisher’s interests, Cannon labeled community support for the News-Press journalists “an affirmation by those of us who believe in the preciousness of facts.”
Several speakers considered the blurry line between a journalist’s duty to report the truth and a newspaper owner’s free speech rights. “I guess she’s thinking that buying a newspaper is like buying a yacht,” Vanity Fair’s Anne Louise Bardach said of multimillionaire News-Press owner Wendy McCaw.
Santa Barbara Independent publisher Randy Campbell introduced himself as “the reclusive thousand-aire who owns The Independent”—although, as a Santa Barbara homeowner, he is more accurately a millionaire. Campbell came down on the side of the owner’s right to free speech, but noted that McCaw was a fool to sabotage her reporters’ integrity. “That paper’s credibility is not coming back,” said Campbell, who was among several to declare that trustworthiness sells papers.
Former Santa Barbara City Counsel Steve Amerikaner—now in private practice primarily representing major land developers—noted that for the most part, News-Press editorials by McCaw and Armstrong support the same pro-private property positions he supports; he finds little joy in that, however, because the editorials lack the spirit of civil discourse. Although the crisis at the daily has received worldwide attention, Amerikaner pointed out that iconic names like Rob Lowe and even Santa Barbara itself have helped give the story legs, but its real impact is peculiar to Santa Barbara. At the level of the paper’s actual readership, the fact that the publisher will not publish dissenting opinions even in the letters section jeopardizes local democracy.
After Teamster organizer Marty Keegan reported to the crowd that McCaw has hired a legal team called Ogletree Deakins, which specializes in union busting, current News-Press reporter Melinda Burns took the mike, asking Santa Barbarans to cancel their News-Press subscriptions on September 5 if the paper does not satisfy its reporters’ and editors’ demands for union representation and journalistic integrity. “We believe that with your help,” she said, “we can turn the News-Press around.” But, she acknowledged, “We will be asking for a lot of help.”
Wednesday night’s forum (7/26/06) was sponsored by SB CAN (Santa Barbara County Action Network) and its sister organization SBCORE (Santa Barbara Council on Research and Education). SB CAN is a countywide, grassroots organization dedicated to promoting social justice and preserving our community’s environmental and agricultural resources. SBCAN advocates for the passage of progressive policies; educates and organizes the public; and actively works to elect leaders who will promote progressive public policies in office. We actively encourage and insist upon opportunities for public involvement in the development of public policy at all levels of local government. SB CAN has nearly 400 dues paying members throughout Santa Barbara County, and a full time executive director, Mary O’Gorman. We now have a substantial base of active supporters in Santa Maria, Lompoc, and the Santa Ynez Valley and throughout the South Coast. As a result there is a great deal more voice for alternative perspectives on many issues in these communities, and the emergence of serious progressive challenges for local office.
SB CAN is the primary citizen watchdog for county government, and actively monitors city governments in Santa Barbara and Santa Maria. Several past board members are now elected officials. Our election forums have been important events in recent election campaigns.
SBCORE is a 501c3 organization that supports community education and policy research relevant to SB CAN’s program.
Photos by Paul Wellman