Paul Wellman

A Request for Civil Community Discourse

Steve Amerikaner wants the News-Press to drop the poison pen

The sweltering forum held a couple Wednesdays ago was intended to open a community dialogue on how best to deal with the New-Press‘s apparent indifference to its position of public trust.

Our intent on this website was to continue the dialogue in the hope the weblog format would allow for a better give and take. We have already published a recap of the evening, with two of the more prominent speeches also presented by journalists Jerry Roberts and Lou Cannon.

What follows is the speech by Steve Amerikaner (pictured), which focused on the editorial tone of the News-Press the past few years. —Randy Campbell

A Request for Civil Community Discourse

Presented to the Town Meeting and Forum July 26, 2006, Victoria Theatre, Santa Barbara California

My name is Steve Amerikaner. I have lived in SB for 23 years, and have been a lawyer for 31 years. I served as Santa Barbara City Attorney from 1982 to 1990, and have been in private practice with a local law firm since 1991.

I’m speaking today as an individual, not on behalf of my law firm, not on behalf of the business and charitable organizations that I am involved in.

Over the weekend, I learned a new word on a local blog site: NewsPressMess. For brevity’s sake, I’ll use it tonight.

The NewsPressMess is now three weeks old. In that time, it has been reported in the LA Times, the NY Times, the Washington Post, hundreds of regional and local papers, and overseas. It is reportedly the subject of an article being written for Vanity Fair.

A friend of mine has a grandmother in Spain who has no running water and gets her mail by goat-cart. Right, a cart pulled by a goat. Her grandmother called the other day and asked what all the fuss was about the Santa Barbara newspaper.

Here, it is a fertile source of comment on the Independent’s web site and on Blogabarbara, which for me is a recently acquired habit. And, I sense that it is a topic of conversation at many, if not most, social events. Most days at Jeanine’s I overhear conversations about it.

I’ve been asking myself: Why has this become so big? Of course, journalists in other places are captivated by the conflict between working reporters and management, particularly when there are accusations of ownership interference with news reporting. And, this particular story has additional magnets: a billionaire owner, a movie star, and the ever popular name Santa Barbara.

But, why is the story so big here in our little corner of the world? I have a theory about that.

It seems to many people that I’ve talked to that, over the past few years, the editorial page has become increasingly mean-spirited. The editorials go beyond advocating a position. In many cases, they seem to go out of their way to impugn the integrity or motives of those who assert a different viewpoint.

The editorials go beyond advocating a position. In many cases, they seem to go out of their way to impugn the integrity or motives of those who assert a different viewpoint.

In some cases, the newspaper’s poison pen has been directed at a small group of elected officials, whether local, state or federal. Indeed, the editorial page seems to go out of its way to vilify that select group of officials, often repeatedly and in some cases months after they have left public life.

In other cases, private individuals and groups are targeted. The language is just as intemperate and disrespectful.

Now, I need to say something at this point. In many of the situations I am describing, I find that I agreed with the substance of the editorial’s position on the issue. For example, I believe in private property rights and wish that they received the same kind of care and concern as the right to free speech that we are exercising here tonight. I find myself critical of some decisions and policies of the Coastal Commission. And, I believe that we look to government far too often for solutions to our problems, when private action or public/private partnerships can do the job more effectively.

But, even when I shared the paper’s viewpoint on many of the issues, I found myself recoiling at the gratuitously vindictive tone and language.

There is a second complaint that one hears quite often. I have heard many people complain that the letters to the editor are manipulated to promote certain viewpoints. Most often, you hear people say that their letter was not published, even though the issue was one of community concern and the letter was reasonable and responsible.

I heard that comment again at a party last weekend from an executive of a significant local business.

From these conversations, I have come to believe that there are a lot of angry people in Santa Barbara, and they were made angry by the editorial practices of the News Press. Now, that’s not the same subject that Jerry Roberts is talking about, but I think it is a subject that has received too little attention or discussion.

And, I’m not talking about the same kind of chronic, low grade griping about the News Press that I’ve heard since moving here in 1982, when the paper was owned by the Taylor Family or later on when it was owned by the NY Times. The anger that has emerged over the past few years is much sharper and deeper than the traditional complaints.

The interesting thing about that anger is that it is shared by people with very different politics. Conservative and progressive, Democrat and Republican. And they are angry about different events. Each of them has a particular source of their aggravation.

What they have in common is a sense that the News Press is not promoting a civil discourse on community issues. Instead, by demonizing those with whom it disagrees, it treats those people as enemies.

The interesting thing about that anger is that it is shared by people with very different politics…What they have in common is a sense that the News Press is not promoting a civil discourse on community issues.

This has been accomplished with one editorial at a time, one letter at a time. With each one, another hot spot has been set in Santa Barbara, another individual or group has been angered. Over time there have been dozens, maybe hundreds of those hot spots created.

So, when the tropical storm arrived three weeks ago in the form of the resignations of News Press Nine, that tropical storm picked up all that energy from all those hot spots and turned into a Category 4 Hurricane. Hurricane Wendy, you might call it.

Now, some will argue with me and point out that the acerbic and disrespectful tone of the News Press is echoed in at least some of the postings on the local blogs. However, I agree with a friend of mine who noted that there is a big difference between a blog and a community newspaper of record. The latter should not descend to the level of the former under any circumstances.

Now, some of you are thinking that this is turning into a weak-kneed plea: “Can’t we all just get along?” No so.

I think a robust community debate is terrific. I think we ought to have very large and vibrant arguments about the Gaviota Coast, about 4 story buildings in downtown Santa Barbara, about the City budget and police salaries, about the County budget and finding new sources of revenue, about a vision for the Goleta Valley, about how to clean up our creeks and the ocean. We have a lot to discuss, a lot to argue about.

But the people on the other side are not our enemies. They are our neighbors. We can disagree with them, and still treat them with respect.

Respect. As I see it, that’s what’s missing here.

When the News Press events first broke, the management made a series of classic blunders that seemed to display a lack of respect for its employees and the community.

First, you remember the letter that appeared on the front page of the paper from the Interim Publisher? It denied that there was a problem. Said that every family has its little spats. Everything is fine. Don’t worry. Be happy.

People shook their heads and rolled their eyes.

The approach changed a few days later, when the owner wrote a letter on the front page. In that remarkable missive, she accused the people who left the paper for violating journalistic standards. In essence, she said that the reporters and editors who resigned to enter an uncertain job market were to blame for the paper’s problems.

So, first the head in the sand. Then the finger of blame. It was positively Nixonian or, for you Republicans out there, arguably Clintonian.

Perhaps I’m just naïve, but I really thought that most American businesses had learned how to confront corporate problems without resorting to denial and scapegoating. After all, most business schools now have classes that teach crisis management.

Finally, finally, the paper hired a PR firm with some sense. We can only hope that the paper does not continue to avoid and accuse, but instead displays a willingness to engage in the kind of community discussion that is needed.

People are talking about starting an on line local newspaper; others are talking about the LA Times or the Ventura Star opening a Santa Barbara bureau and going head to head with the News Press for advertising and subscriber dollars.

I haven’t been asked for my advice about how the News Press can survive. And I don’t imagine that, after tonight, I will be. I’ll offer it anyway. I think the paper can survive, but only if it makes some radical changes.

I do not believe the community’s faith in the News Press as a source of information and opinion will be restored until the editorial page practices and vocabulary are changed. And that will require putting a new editorial page editor in place and putting the editorial content in the hands of an editorial board with a different approach.

Without very substantial internal reforms, I believe that many in this community will continue to harbor doubts about what they read in the New-Press.

Lastly, and most importantly, the News Press management needs to treat its employees and the Santa Barbara community with respect. Without that, this venerable institution cannot survive.

Thank you.

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