STINK FEST FOLLIES: The enduring dust-up at the News-Press calls to mind the old schoolyard axiom: 10,000 flies can’t be wrong. In other words, something supremely stinky’s going down at Santa Barbara’s oldest daily despite the hyperventilated protestations to the contrary by owner-publisher Wendy P. McCaw, her in-house hit man Travis K. Armstrong, and her professional mouthpiece Agnes Huff, PhD. Their explanation as to why 17 editors, reporters, and writers — the latest being deputy sports editor Kimberly Burnell, who resigned early this week — have quit decent-paying and hard-to-get jobs since July 6? As they tell it, this stunning exodus has nothing to do with any breach of journalistic ethics by McCaw, as all 17 have alleged. Instead, they insist it has everything to do with jack-booted union thugs conspiring with a small band of disgruntled employees who are angry because Wendy stopped them from abusing the newspaper’s public trust and injecting their own political agendas into the paper’s news coverage.
As they tell it, this unholy union has been supported by a cabal of greedy developers and their boot-licking lackeys eager to sell out the environment for a few meager units of affordable housing. One would have thought that with Wendy’s vast wealth she and her hirelings could have come up with something a little more original. Her attempt to play the mythical left-wing media boogeyman might fly in right-wing TV, but here in Santa Barbara it has little resonance with the public and even less with the facts. That might be why in the two months since this story first broke, Wendy has yet to provide even a shred of evidence supporting her claims.
But don’t take my word for it. After all, nobody could confuse me for a neutral observer. But the state of California — through the offices of the Employment Development Department (EDD) — has weighed in on the issue, granting unemployment insurance payments to reporter Scott Hadly, who quit over his ethical differences with McCaw and Armstrong. Initially, the EDD was reluctant to grant Hadly’s claim. After all, he walked off the job. The law allows unemployment payments to people who quit only in rare instances. But Hadly made the case he was “constructively terminated” because he could no longer do his job at the News-Press without violating basic journalistic ethics.
This argument proved persuasive to one of the state’s most sodden and indifferent bureaucracies, and EDD ruled that Hadly qualified. It’s worth noting that Hadly, an unassuming star in that paper’s newsroom, had previously expressed concern over journalistic ethics under the McCaw regime. In fact four years ago, he wrote a letter — signed by 17 reporters — asking to meet with then-publisher Joe Cole to discuss their concerns about the direction provided by the paper’s top management. “Some of the suggestions and directions we’ve received raise serious concerns about the newspaper’s commitment to journalistic integrity,” he wrote. “For some of us they also raise questions about our own future here.” The meeting with Cole never happened.
One day after Hadly’s letter was sent, Cole announced the hiring of Jerry Roberts as the paper’s editor-in-chief. At the time Roberts — whose wise-cracking demeanor calls to mind a bearded, bespectacled Bugs Bunny — was a certified star in California newspaper circles.
His appointment was regarded as a major coup and during Roberts’s four-year tenure, morale in the News-Press newsroom was never higher. Since quitting over differences with McCaw on July 6, Roberts has received an award for journalistic ethics from the Society of Professional Journalists. He’s also been on the receiving end of a $500,000 complaint filed by McCaw, charging that his actions caused the newspaper substantial pain and suffering. I’d suggest if McCaw is looking to punish the parties most responsible for her newspaper’s demise, she’d do better to sue herself. That, at least, would be original.
Recent letter-writing efforts by News-Press reporters have not been as fortuitous as Hadly’s. An effort last Monday to hand-deliver to McCaw a letter signed by 25 newsroom workers led to two-day unpaid suspensions for 11 of them. Likewise, an effort undertaken by six high-profile community members to sit down with McCaw and chat about the paper’s problems went without the common courtesy of a reply. One of the signatories was Summerland resident Lou Cannon, the former White House correspondent, Ronald Reagan hagiographer, and revered elder statesman in the journalistic firmament.
Another was Harriett Phillips, the longtime Goleta activist and slow-growther. Phillips, who has enjoyed cordial relations with Armstrong, has been around long enough to remember butting heads with former News-Press owner and publisher T.M. Storke. “When the Old Man was alive, we had no trouble getting in to meet him,” she recalled. “Sure, he often disagreed with us. But we could always get in to talk.” In this context, it’s easy to understand how Lou and Harriett might have their noses out of joint. But Santa Barbara’s changed a lot since the Old Man’s day. Now, being a billionaire conveys an inalienable right to be rude, to disregard what other people think, and to maintain an impregnable buffer of contempt and disdain between oneself and everyone else. That’s not to say people afflicted with such personality disorders can’t find success in many fields. But being a small-town newspaper owner and publisher doesn’t happen to be one of them.
More than anything else, Wendy’s egregious lack of etiquette is animating the community’s widespread revolt against the News-Press. It’s almost as simple as “please” and “thank you.” Almost. Concerns about journalistic ethics, freedom of speech, and workplace justices remain very real, not to mention Wendy’s penchant for scorched-earth litigation and intimidation tactics. That’s why the Teamsters will have little trouble winning a union election among News-Press workers.
That’s also why Teamster organizer Marty Keegan will have even less trouble persuading hundreds, if not thousands, of News-Press readers to cancel their subscriptions. The $100 million question is, what then? I’d like to believe that the better angels of Wendy’s nature — generous to a fault where whales, wolves, and fish are concerned — will reveal themselves before it’s too late. If not, we can expect Wendy to go down swinging, taking her paper with her in a prolonged tantrum of gratuitous self-destruction. If and when that happens, none of us will be able to say of the stink emanating from the News-Press digs in De la Guerra Plaza, “Sure glad I didn’t step in it.” By then it will be over all of our shoes.