Dogs Before Blogs

!%$@# HAPPENS: Poor Vladimir Kogan. He can’t buy a friend. At least not on Santa Barbara’s unforgiving blogosphere, now energized like never before. Kogan is one of the News-Press newbies recently hired to replace the 30-plus writers, editors, and photographers who quit — or were fired — protesting NP owner Wendy McCaw’s ferocious reign of error. In Saturday’s News-Press, Kogan reported how city firefighters heroically rescued a man trapped inside a four-story downtown structure engulfed in flames. Pretty cool story. The only problem was it never happened. Kogan mistook what was in reality a firefighter training exercise for the real deal while listening to his scanner. The blogites have been having a field day over this. It turns out they’ve been keeping a dossier on Vlad’s faux pas since he hit town a few months ago. In one article, he mistakenly referred to the city’s Architectural Board of Review as the Agricultural Board of Review, and in writing about the $8 million facelift slated for the city’s waterfront, Kogan reported the proposal would be reviewed by the city’s Water Commission, when in fact it’s the Harbor Commission.

People need to stop wetting their pants. We all make dumb mistakes, reporters more than most people. I never could get former school superintendent Mike Caston’s name right and repeatedly referred to him as Robert Caston. Eventually, I sent Caston a legal name-change form so that even when I got his name wrong, I’d still manage to get it right. I never heard back. I probably sent it to the wrong guy. Obviously, Kogan needs to get a new editor because it’s the editor’s job to make reporters look smart. But beyond such in-house considerations, the phony fire fiasco underscores the deeper doubts a lot of people are feeling about how much you can trust what you read in the News-Press.

Almost more troubling than stories reported that never happened are the ones that do happen but are never reported. Like the press conference this Monday at which the parents of Jake Boysel — the 12-year-old La Colina student recently killed on his bicycle while pedaling to school — announced their support for Measure D2006. That’s the congestion relief measure that will raise $1.6 billion during the next 30 years by increasing the sales tax by one measly quarter percent. The Boysel parents came out strongly for Measure D because it allocates $44 million to creating “safe routes to school,” a feel-good way of describing the network of sidewalks and bike lanes that need to be completed so that kids can get to and from their schools without running the risk of getting run over.

Admittedly, this is a relatively small chunk of Measure D funds, but for the Boysels it’s a very big and emotionally drenched issue. By any measure, this announcement qualified as a bona fide local news story. Maybe not stop-the-presses material, but news nonetheless. Jake’s death was front-page fodder and for good reason. For much of the community, his death was a kick in the gut. Certainly, the News-Press thought the subsequent investigation qualified as news, and described in detail the lengths to which police went in recreating the scene of the crime.

With all this, it’s hard to imagine readers wouldn’t be interested in what the Boysels had to say about Measure D. But at Monday’s press conference, the daily was conspicuous in its absence, and nothing on the subject has graced its pages since. Why not? My hunch is fear. No sane NP reporter hoping to keep her gig would touch that story. Why not? The paper has come out against Measure D with such a frenzied outrage that anyone reading its editorials runs the risk of getting soaked by the saliva spraying off the page. And after last week, the paper’s employees were given a brutal refresher course in the true meaning of McCaw’s law: As long as you work for Wendy, you can expect that the same knife that butters your bread can and will stab you in the back at a moment’s notice.

Late last Friday afternoon, Melinda Burns — the reporter covering the Measure D story — was called into the personnel office and given her walking papers after 21 years on the job. Burns was a key leader in the effort to unionize the News-Press, and her termination was an obvious, if strategically suicidal, effort to decapitate the union effort. Because such retaliatory actions are against the law, the paper’s management will try to make the case that Burns is a biased reporter and her coverage of Measure D was unfairly favorable. As to the former charge, one can only wonder how so biased a reporter managed to survive for 21 years in one place and win so many awards for journalistic excellence.

I’d say that if anything, Burns gave Measure D’s opponents way too much ink. These are people who don’t want Measure D’s revenues spent on anything but freeway widening and road repairs. They are furious that commuter rail, buses, bike lanes, and safe routes to school have been included. But if we ever hope to escape gridlock, we need new approaches. Freeways can only be expanded so much, and at immense cost and with vast inconvenience to all. But the train tracks already exist for commuter rail and capacity can be expanded simply by adding more cars. The real problem confronting any reporter trying to write a “balanced” news piece on this debate is that so few people in positions of knowledge and expertise support the opposition’s argument. Of Santa Barbara’s 47 city and county elected officials, only one opposes Measure D. With that gross imbalance, what constitutes “equal” time? Burns’s real sin was that her bias doesn’t conform to Madame McCaw’s, and of course, that she was leading the union bandwagon. In the meantime, I’d suggest that Vlad rewrite his fire story. This time, he should report the inferno is coming from within the walls of the News-Press. This way, when he gets the story wrong, he’ll still manage to get it very right. Because it’s obvious to anyone who can smell the smoke that Wendy’s trying to burn her own house down.

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