NEWS-PRESS UPDATE: This year’s long, hot, crazy summer just got a lot hotter and crazier, and promises only to get hotter still. This Thursday morning, News-Press reporter Scott Hadley, a well-respected and well-liked eight-year veteran of the embattled newsroom, announced his resignation. Hadley cited the front-page missive that appeared in Thursday morning’s New-Press written by the paper’s owner and publisher Wendy P. McCaw as the reason for his decision. In that note to readers, McCaw dismissed the mass exodus of high ranking editors from her paper, “as disgruntled ex-employees,” who left because she would no longer allow them to abuse her paper by using the news pages as a loudspeaker for their hidden and not-so-hidden political agendas. Hadley said McCaw’s remarks were so egregiously insulting and wrong that he could no longer work for her. That the News-Press has gotten out since last week’s mass exodus had much to do with Hadley’s much tormented professionalism. With his departure, other reporters are expected to jump ship, calling into question just what kind of newspaper the current crew will be able to produce.
Colin Powers, News-Press presentation editor, is the latest to resign, citing disgust with McCaw’s front-page note to readers. Powers, 29, had worked at the News-Press since interning there in high school. He described McCaw’s attack on reporters as “vicious and unfounded.” Powers’s departure will pose a major production challenge for those left behind trying to get the paper out every day. He designs the paper’s news, business, and feature sections.
In related news, former News-Press columnist Barney Brantingham, who resigned last week protesting newsroom interference by co-publishers McCaw and her fiancé, Arthur von Wiesenberger, received a threatening letter from McCaw’s San Francisco-based attorney David Millstein. In an appallingly bizarre twist on America’s love/hate affair with free speech, we now have a newspaper threatening to sue a columnist, albeit a former columnist, for exercising his freedom of speech. If Millstein’s letter were boiled down to its essence, it would say, “Shut your pie hole or we’ll sue you to Kingdom Come.” Millstein accused Brantingham of making false and defamatory remarks about McCaw and the News-Press because Brantingham said he could no longer trust the paper and that it had violated journalistic ethics. Brantingham cited the paper’s decision to kill a story about News-Press editorial page editor and acting publisher Travis Armstrong’s drunk driving sentencing.
Finally, the News-Press’s parent company, Ampersand, filed a temporary restraining order against former business editor Michael Todd, accusing Todd of making threatening remarks to News-Press photographer Ana Fuentes, of lurking by the News-Press parking lot late one evening, and in some unspecified fashion being responsible for the black wreath by the News-Press entrance this past Monday morning, with the letters RIP on top. Todd emphatically denies ever threatening Fuentes, but does admit he made a dumb joke about running her over, and acknowledged this offended her. Todd — also much admired in the newsroom — said he apologized to Fuentes when she told him his remarks made her feel “creepy.” He also said that his superior, former managing editor George Foulsham, called him on the carpet about the incident but Foulsham declined to take disciplinary action. Todd said he knew nothing about the protest wreath until told about it by a reporter with UCSB’s Daily Nexus. That wreath, it turns out, was the handiwork of antique shop owner Gary Breitweiser. As far as the lurking charge, Todd said he showed up last Friday night to pick up his personal effects.
Todd resigned last week after having been placed in indefinite unpaid leave the week prior. According to the News-Press, Todd’s suspension stemmed from Fuentes’s allegations, then the subject of an internal News-Press investigation. But Todd suggested that the real reason for his departure might be because of the spirited disagreement he and McCaw got into — in writing — regarding the letters of reprimand he and other News-Press employees received for revealing the 700 Picacho Lane street address of actor Rob Lowe’s proposed and controversial 14,000-square-foot dream home. Lowe complained that his address was mentioned and McCaw responded by disciplining the article’s writer, Camilla Cohee and three editors believed to have had a hand in its publication: Todd, Jane Hulse, and Foulsham.
Enclosed are three documents that might illuminate this dispute. The first is Wendy P. McCaw’s June 23 letter to Todd, notifying him of the letter of reprimand. The second document, dated June 28, is Todd’s response. The third document, dated June 29, is Todd’s response to her response.
In addition, we are enclosing a copy of the article Scott Hadley wrote last Thursday announcing the resignation of five editors — the sixth had yet to go. Hadley had hoped that the News-Press might publish a news account of what happened, given that media outlets from around the world had done so. His piece would never see the light of the News-Press day; instead readers were greeted by a soft-focus, feel-good, opus de mush by News-Press editorial page editor and now acting publisher Travis Armstrong, explaining that at the News-Press — as in any family — there are bound to be heated disagreements and that the editors in question left because they were unhappy with the paper’s increased focus on more and better local news. In this Thursday’s News-Press, McCaw dramatically shifted rhetorical gears, describing what had been cast as a family disagreement to a passel of disgruntled ex-employees unable to use the paper for their own political purposes.
While the story of the News-Press meltdown obviously appeals to our local prurient interest, it has achieved a degree of national interest that amazes and confounds even those at the middle of the firestorm. Santa Barbara Planning Commissioner Bill Mahan was back in Iowa last week, celebrating his 55-year high school reunion. When the Fourth of July parade was rained out, Mahan and his few remaining classmates gathered in the garage of a former classmate, Tim Tisdale, to chat. When Tisdale, who never left the small town of 2,500 where Mahan had grown up, asked what people wanted to talk about, Mahan opined that sex, religion, and politics were probably out, so what could be left? At that point, Tisdale lunged forth, and demanded, “What’s going on with that newspaper of yours? And who is this Travis Armstrong guy?”
WHO’LL DEFEND THE DEFENDER? Maybe there’s something in the water, but a similar meltdown has seized the county’s Public Defender’s office. On Thursday afternoon, Jim Egar, Santa Barbara public defender for the past six years, announced his resignation and began clearing out his desk. Egar — who is reportedly leaving under great duress — is giving the county two whole days notice and will begin work next week as the Monterey County Public Defender. Precipitating Egar’s abrupt and stormy resignation was an equally stormy and tumultuous relationship with County Über Excutive Mike Brown. According to attorneys with the Public Defender’s office, Egar addressed workers at the North and South County offices on Wednesday, explaining in great detail the difficulties — and verbal humiliations — he encountered with Brown. Brown, known for his tempestuous temper, reportedly rained profanities upon Egar, showering him with spit. According to several accounts, Egar reported that Brown told him, “We got rid of the last public defender and we can get rid of you, too.”
Egar is widely respected as a serious and competent professional who takes his job, and his mission, seriously. He reportedly angered Brown by repeatedly demanding more money for the Public Defender’s office — which defends people charged with serious crimes who can’t afford their own attorney. Egar had long complained that he didn’t have enough budget or deputies to handle his escalating case load. In recent months, Egar began refusing to accept certain cases to protest his lack of resources. In addition, Egar has threatened to take legal action against the County of Santa Barbara for failing to address the issue of jail overcrowding, a serious and escalating problem for 25 years. Egar’s threat of a law suit has not been popular in many county quarters, especially given the prohibitively astronomical cost associated with building a new jail in North County. Egar reportedly drafted a detailed letter itemizing his complaints and describing Mike Brown’s abusive and insulting behavior and gave it to each county supervisor. Egar was well respected with the county’s judges, some of whom are appalled at reports of his treatment. Perhaps triggering the latest outburst are differences between Brown’s office and many Public Defenders regarding a new incentive plan hatched by the county’s new personnel chief, Sue Paul. According to the new plan, attorneys working for the Public Defender’s office would be considered as management — not attorneys — and their pay increases would be based on their performance as managers. This plan is wildly unpopular with many Public Defenders. In fact, senior Public Defender Michael Ganchow was suspended about three weeks ago after engaging in a contentious exchange with Paul regarding the new program. At a meeting with Paul and the public defenders, Ganchow — regarded as acerbic as he is intelligent — repeatedly demanded any studies or reports that traced the evolution of the new policy, how it worked, or that indicated its possible benefits. By reputation, Paul is notoriously averse to leaving anything resembling a paper trail, and she refused Ganchow’s request. (When the county’s Managers’ Association also asked for documentation of the proposal, she reportedly refused them too.) When Ganschow grew more aggressive in his demands, the two agreed to meet privately later, thus allowing the meeting to proceed. At that later meeting, Ganchow attempted to tape record the exchange; Paul refused. He then asked if he could videotape it; she declined. He then asked to bring in a certified court stenographer; at this point Paul declared the meeting over. This coupled with some earlier profane remarks about county executive Mike Brown has landed Ganchow in hot water. Should the county fire Ganchow, as some predict, expect a very nasty lawsuit to emerge.