BEWARE OF FALLING SKY: I’ve been so busy lately that I haven’t found the time to watch the remake of The Poseidon Adventure — that great water-logged disaster epic from the ’70s. Neither, it turns out, have my friends working at the News-Press. They’ve been too busy living their own version of the disaster movie, the big difference being that their turmoil is real. If and when the News-Press runs aground, it’s bad news for the whole town.
The fact is, daily newspapers matter. And in a self-obsessed town like Santa Barbara, an intelligent daily newspaper is critical to the expression of our collective narcissism. Since billionaire Wendy P. McCaw bought the paper in 2000 and had the good sense to hire Jerry Roberts — a hotshot editor from the San Francisco Chronicle — the news pages have been humming. Sure, there have been dumb stories, like May 3’s fawning front-page article explaining how Jeffrey Barbakow — former high-flying CEO of Tenet Healthcare — was named president of the Santa Barbara Intergalactic Film Festival, without even mentioning that under Barbakow’s leadership, Tenet, the second largest private healthcare system in the country, has become embroiled in one of the nation’s nastiest corporate meltdown scandals, avoiding criminal sanction by the skin of its teeth. And who can forget last year’s probing photojournalistic investigation into whether volleyball players have great butts? But we all make dumb mistakes. For the most part, N-P reporters have been putting out some kick-ass work. One would think that, in a rational world, Wendy P. and the Powers-That-Be would be enthralled with Roberts’s performance. But at the News-Press, the inmates staged a coup a few weeks back and took over the insane asylum. About three weeks ago, McCaw pulled an off-with-your-head on the paper’s publisher, Joe Cole, her onetime attorney and longtime business adviser. Cole was replaced with McCaw’s perennial fiancé, Arthur “Nipper” Von Weisenberger — internationally known as a bottled water connoisseur. In the ’80s, he also ran a Montecito nightclub fondly remembered by many as the site of much hedonistic excess. In the newsroom, Cole was regarded as an ally. A big, smart guy who coulda delicately insinuate an unstated threat into an otherwise amiable exchange, Cole seemed to care about journalism and what people in the community thought about the paper. With Cole’s departure, N-P employees are certain Roberts is next and accordingly have initiated an informal “Roberts Watch.”
For every step forward Roberts took the paper, the N-P’s editorial pages — captained by the ever-indignant Travis K. Armstrong — have set the paper back at least three. Now known as “Wrong Way” Armstrong since his arrest on DUI charges three weeks ago while driving the wrong way down a one-way street, Armstrong clearly believes you can drown more bees with vinegar than you could ever catch with honey. The term “bully pulpit” clinically reflects his editorial approach, and local politicos — from lefty wankers to main-street corporate types — learned the best they could expect from Travis was a stiff-arm to the head. More than Armstrong’s opinions, what people find most galling is not being allowed a chance to respond. Hey, there’s never been a fairness doctrine for newspapers. But there once was such a policy for radio stations, and indirectly that might get Travis and the N-P in hot water with the Federal Communications Commission due to abuse of airwave privileges at the N-P radio station, KZSB 1290 AM. The abuse was reported on the front page of the N-P itself three weeks ago. Travis refused to let Mayor Marty Blum or 2nd District Supervisor Susan Rose appear as guests on a show hosted by the Hutton Foundation, then doing a series on homeless programs. The Hutton Foundation pays the station $14,000 per year for its airtime, which it uses to broadcast shows about local nonprofits. Travis — who’s been blistering Marty and Susan for years — forced Hutton to dis-invite Blum and Rose because he said they had refused to be on his show. It was station policy, Travis wrote. And he should know because he wrote it. Blum claims she actually did appear on Travis’s show once, but that she shined on an invitation to discuss the most recent election results on election night. For her part, Rose refuses to go anywhere near Travis, saying she can’t get a fair shake. This incident was the basis of a new complaint against the station filed with the FCC.
Fairness is not really the issue, the FCC having abandoned that principle about 20 years ago. Under attack is the fiction that the News-Press parent company, Ampersand Inc. — owned by McCaw — does not effectively control KZSB. It’s an important fiction, because the FCC does not allow businesses to own daily newspapers and broadcast stations — radio or TV — in the same town without first getting an FCC waiver. The theory is that such concentration of media ownership might be bad for the free exchange of ideas. McCaw has not obtained such a waiver. Instead, she had Dennis Weibling, a friend and business partner of her ex-husband — multigazillionaire Craig McCaw — buy the station for $750,000. Weibling — whose company Santa Barbara Broadcasting is a telephone answering-machine line operating out of his Rally Capital venture capital offices in Kirkland, Washington — then leases the airtime back to Wendy and Travis. The setup is clearly a premeditated dodge designed to circumvent FCC rules and guidelines. It might, however, be a perfectly legal dodge. According to people who spoke with the FCC enforcement investigator — who hung up on me — the issues to investigate are: who controls program content, who does the hiring and firing, and who makes financial decisions? And finally, what’s the relationship between Weibling and McCaw? Certainly there’s no doubt who controls the programming. Travis made it abundantly clear that where content is concerned, he’s calling the shots. And it’s just as clear that Travis’s control is hampering the free flow of ideas. Who knows, maybe that matters. In the meantime, watch out for shipwreck movies; it’s my experience they don’t prepare you for the real thing. — Nick Welsh