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X-Dogs: The Last Stand

It appears meltdown is just moments away — one beloved and respected high-ranking News-Press editor has just been effectively fired


Thursday, July 6, 2006

GET ME REWRITE, GUT THE PRESS: Back when I was still a recovering Catholic, the story of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden used to infuriate me beyond belief. It seemed incredibly unfair that every human born since those two would come into the world indelibly stained with Original Sin just because Adam and Eve disobeyed the Almighty and ate the apple. Under this scenario, we’re all born with three strikes against us; we don’t even get a chance to screw up. But now that I am a fully recovered Catholic and these matters no longer get under my skin, I see the wisdom in such theological pessimism. Its basis — from which all else follows — is the infinite perversity of the human species. The original-sin scenario recognizes that even if we have within our grasp everything we need to be perfectly happy, we’ll mess it all up the very first chance we get.

Wendy McCaw
Click to enlarge photo

Paul Wellman (file)

Wendy McCaw

This inescapably pathetic fact of life is now playing itself out behind the scenes at our daily newspaper, the Santa Barbara News-Press. From the outside looking in, that paper should be a journalistic Garden of Eden. In an era of corporate chain journalism, the News-Press enjoys the distinction of being locally owned — by reclusive billionaire Mrs. Wendy P. McCaw. Its executive editor Jerry Roberts, a former star with the San Francisco Chronicle, has put together an impressive team of talented and hardworking reporters. One might think life at the News-Press would be so hunky-dory that Mrs. McCaw could spend most of her days collecting and polishing awards for journalistic excellence. Those awards have, in fact, been streaming in, but they haven’t prevented life at the daily from degenerating into a living hell. It appears meltdown is just moments away. In this case, the straw that broke the camel’s back looks more like a heavy metal I-beam. For violating a policy that did not exist — specifically, offending Montecito movie star Rob Lowe — one beloved and respected high-ranking News-Press editor has just been effectively fired. For the same violation of the same non-existent policy, two other editors and one reporter have been seriously chastised, with letters of reprimand placed in their personnel files. It’s widely expected that when Jerry Roberts returns from vacation this week, he will either quit or be fired. Barney Brantingham, columnist-at-large since before forever, has reportedly already quit, depriving the News-Press of its most publicly recognized face and voice. In addition, as many as three other senior newsroom staffers are rumored to have written their resignation letters or have resigned already. In other words, it’s a self-inflicted blood bath.

Adding considerable insult to all this injury, Mrs. McCaw just appointed Travis K. Armstrong — the poison pen who infuses the paper’s editorials with so much caustic contempt — as the latest publisher. In addition, it appears Mrs. McCaw may have given Armstrong — who faithfully reflects Mrs. McCaw’s peculiar blend of environmental, libertarian, animal rights, and let-them-eat-cake antigovernment politics — unprecedented and exceptional authority. As publisher, Armstrong has reportedly been given the explicit right to edit and change news articles as he sees fit. It’s a given in any newspaper that publishers — who represent the paper’s business interest — are on occasion tempted to mess with news. Safeguards to prevent this sort of meddling are supposedly built into the system; to the extent these safeguards fail, papers lose credibility. Given the exceedingly bad blood between Armstrong and the news department (which had the temerity to publish a story on his recent drunk-driving arrest, though he managed to squelch the subsequent article about his guilty plea and sentencing), this new arrangement promises to be especially poisonous.

While trouble has been brewing at the News-Press for many moons, this latest episode began on June 21, when the Montecito Planning Commission narrowly approved Lowe’s request to build a mega mansion on a vacant parcel of land he bought for $8.5 million at 700 Picacho Lane. After a Hollywood career of successfully fusing the very cute and the very nasty, Lowe has settled down in Montecito, where, like everyone else, he got the itch to build his dream house. With all the bells and whistles — including pool houses, cabanas, garages, and guesthouses — it weighs in at about 15,000 square feet. Even by Montecito standards, that’s large. Lowe’s immediate neighbor Fred Gluck complained that the 24-foot-high fence Lowe proposed to construct for privacy purposes would substantially diminish the scenic views he now enjoys. Gluck, by the way, is no lightweight. After stints at Bell Labs and Bechtel, he’s become a major rainmaker for one of the world’s premier management consulting firms, even issuing a now-famous report on how the Catholic Church is on the fast track to nowhere if it can’t quell its feudal management culture. After settlement efforts by Gluck and Lowe’s attorneys went nowhere, Gluck appealed to the Planning Commission. There he argued (correctly) that Lowe’s plans exceed Montecito build-out guidelines by about 20 percent. But then it turned out, so did Gluck’s. Ultimately, the Montecito planning agency concluded that since everybody in Montecito is building castles these days — mansions are apparently the luxury homes of yesterday — it would be unfair to say no to Lowe. Aside from the wealth and celebrity of the players involved, this was a typical Santa Barbara land-use story. Certainly, News-Press reporter Camilla Cohee wrote it up as one, and that involved listing the address of the proposed development. Lowe was upset his address was mentioned and complained to the News-Press, presumably Mrs. McCaw or Mr. Armstrong. As a rich celebrity, it’s easy to imagine Lowe being concerned about his privacy. But the fact is, his address was listed on a vast quantity of public documents relating to this permit struggle. At the June 21 hearing, Lowe himself spoke, and I noticed he mentioned many of his neighbors by both name and address. At the public hearing, anyone who cared to watch — it was broadcast on government-channel, public-access TV — saw maps of the Lowe property from every conceivable angle.

Still, whatever outrage Lowe felt, Mrs. McCaw shared. (Notoriously media-shy herself, Mrs. McCaw nearly walked away from buying the News-Press from the New York Times five years ago when the Times published a paparazzi-style photograph of her.) The News-Press has no formal policy about listing addresses, though they are customary in planning stories, if not absolutely essential. One obvious purpose of reporting is to alert the general public to a broader controversy, so that citizens might become involved. In many land-use battles, it would be difficult to weigh in without knowing precisely what property was involved. Although Mrs. McCaw acknowledged the paper’s lack of any policy on the matter, she nonetheless sent stinging letters of reprimand to Cohee and the three editors she believed had a hand in the story: Jane Hulse, George Foulsham, and Michael Todd. She insisted their decision to include Lowe’s address constituted “a careless error of judgment.” All four reportedly wrote back in protest, Hulse insisting she had nothing to do with the story. Todd’s letter was reportedly a zinger. Shortly after he sent it, Todd — widely admired in the newsroom for his intelligence, work ethic, and skill — was placed on indefinite unpaid leave, pending the outcome of an investigation into a smartass remark he made to a News-Press employee many weeks before. The offending comment had to do with Todd and this employee running into each other on State Street, and was along the lines of, “I would have swerved to run you over, but you were with two friends at the time, so I didn’t.” Unless there’s a dark history between these two, this qualifies as a dumb joke, not atypical of the barbed banter heard in any newsroom in America.

All these events have left the News-Press office in an uproar. If someone as competent and popular as Todd could be fired, no one was safe. And to the extent there was a reason, it was to further a double standard by which the rich and famous receive preferential news treatment. Given Mrs. McCaw’s emphatic and overwhelming opposition to the Living Wage — designed to lift those on the bottom up a few rungs — and her rage at the Coastal Commission for securing the public’s absolute right to walk on the beach in front of her Hope Ranch estate, there are those both inside and outside the newsroom who question her empathy for the less fortunate. Perhaps to quell such concerns, Mrs. McCaw has issued a new sweeping edict decreeing that henceforth no addresses be listed in any News-Press article unless the subject — rich and famous or not — gives prior consent. Already, this policy has born ridiculous results. Last week’s front-page article about a possible location for a new police headquarters was conspicuously devoid of an address.

As the News-Press careens headlong into certain disaster, Mrs. McCaw and her betrothed, Arthur Von Weisenberger, have left town for a few weeks’ vacation — but not before issuing a few other edicts from on high. Henceforth, we are told, the word “blond” will always be spelled “blonde” (either as noun or adjective) when applied to females. And unless a woman specifically instructs News-Press reporters that she wishes to be referred to as “Ms.,” her name will be preceded by the more traditional designations “Miss” or “Mrs.” Finally, in another edict, anyone from the News-Press caught talking with me faces a range of penalties, up to and including immediate termination. I’m sure all these changes will be of great comfort to the community when what should have been a journalistic Garden of Eden explodes. In this case, it appears Adam and Eve aren’t waiting for the Almighty to chase them out of Paradise; they’ve decided to blow it up instead. And I don’t know if there’s any recovering from that. — Nick Welsh

Update to this story, click here.

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