WEATHER »

All Bite, No Bark


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TAKING THE PLUNGE: It’s true I take everything personally. But this time I think I might be entitled. By the time you read this, the News-Press will have held its union election, and I’m betting the farm that by about 5:20 this Wednesday evening, the world will know the Teamsters were overwhelmingly elected to represent that paper’s unhappy newsroom workers in their dealings with Wendy McCaw, the daily’s gratuitously grim owner and co-publisher. But given our Wednesday morning deadline, I won’t be able to report this as fact. None of this, I can assure you, happened by accident. I say this because the Teamsters offered the NP its choice of three days this week on which to hold the election. Tellingly, the paper selected Wednesday. Given The Independent’s deadlines and weekly production schedule, Wednesdays qualify as the dark side of our moon. That’s okay. Where the NP is concerned, I take such slights as a compliment.

I’m guessing that McCaw is taking the Teamsters’ victory pretty hard. Former friends who’ve had occasion to visit Wendy aboard her yacht indicate her hatred for unions rivals her well-known love for animals. Commented one: If it were a choice between dealing with a union or shooting Free Willy — the world-famous whale whose rehabilitation McCaw generously bankrolled — Willy would be Swiss cheese. The fact is, she single-handedly brought the Teamsters upon herself. Newsroom workers are notoriously independent and individualistic, genetically disinclined, almost, to engage in collective behavior of any kind, let alone to join unions. But Wendy’s management style, which oscillates between whimsy and capricious cruelty, persuaded even the most die-hard go-it-aloners that they desperately needed protection.

When reporters and editors are interrogated by their superiors and threatened with termination for talking with me, they need help. When workers are reprimanded and fired for violating rules and policies that do not even exist — they need a union. When Wendy’s personal attorney sits in the office once occupied by former editor Jerry Roberts, who quit in protest this July, reporters know they’re not in Kansas anymore. When reporters find themselves arguing about news judgment with Human Resources Director Yolanda Apodaca, they know reinforcements are needed. When editor Andrea Huebner got the axe two weeks ago because she didn’t stop another columnist from taking a glancing shot at NP columnist Dr. Laura, everyone working there understood that hard work, dedication, and creativity were no longer enough.

Naturally, Wendy is spinning this as a conspiracy concocted by corrupt union thugs and a cadre of disgruntled employees bent on subverting the journalistic integrity of her newspaper in order to forward a hidden political agenda on behalf of developers and affordable-housing advocates. It’s entirely possible McCaw actually believes this. If so, her strenuous refusal to face facts almost qualifies as an athletic accomplishment. But for a community that relies on its daily newspaper as a vehicle of self-inspection and civic dialogue, it doesn’t bode well. The raw facts in this regard are truly startling: Twenty experienced, skilled, and nationally recognized editors and reporters have quit relatively decent-paying jobs at the NP in the past four months because of Wendy’s behavior. Three others have been fired for various pretexts, the real reason being insubordination and pro-union sympathies. In addition, no less than 44 attorneys — bridging a wide ideological gulf — have joined forces to raise legal defense money for the many ex-reporters and editors who have been threatened with legal action by Wendy’s lawyer David Millstein for daring to speak critically of their former employer.

These attorneys — whose ranks include at least one retired judge — were somehow under the impression that newspapers were supposed to champion free speech, not threaten it. Perhaps most absurd was the letter Millstein sent to former reporter Camilla Cohee, strongly urging her to demand that The Independent publish a “correction” after we ran a column describing the treatment she received as “unprofessional.” I thought that took the cake until I got a letter from another one of McCaw’s attorneys demanding that I turn over internal News-Press documents she erroneously believed had been leaked to me and that I divulge the name of my sources. Last I heard, newspapers are supposed to protect their sources at all costs. We’ve come to expect the government, especially the feds, to attack such conventions, but for another newspaper to exhibit such hostility and indifference to basic journalistic notions surprised even me.

Finally, thousands have cancelled their subscriptions to the NP. Unconfirmed anecdotal accounts indicate daily circulation may have plummeted from last year’s 41,000 to as low as 27,000. Equally unconfirmed reports suggest that as many 35 subscribers per newspaper route have cancelled the paper. As someone who has attempted to hatch a conspiracy or two throughout the years, I can assure you these unhappy facts did not result from any conspiracy. They reflect a groundswell of community discontent. But over what, exactly?

The easy and immediate answers include transgressions of journalistic ethics and breaching the so-called wall protecting fact from opinion, news from editorials. Such concerns, I know, are very real. But Wendy is hardly the first Santa Barbara newspaper owner to cross these lines. T.M. Storke, the former Santa Barbara powerbroker who owned and published the NP for decades, ran his paper as an instrument of political power, and was not above using his news section to smear candidates he opposed with last-minute hit pieces. And Joe Tarrer, who was publisher when the New York Times owned the paper, routinely inserted copy praising developer Bill Levy despite the strenuous objections of at least one writer covering Levy at the time. Tarrer also led the media campaign in 1990 to connect Santa Barbara to the State Water system, and repeatedly sought to fire a reporter — unsuccessfully it turned out — whom he deemed insufficiently supportive of that cause. Many have noted that I myself constitute an egregious breach of The Wall because I write opinion, news, and editorials on a regular basis. Guilty as charged, but neither I nor The Independent have yet sparked similar community outrage. My theory is that Wendy’s real problems transcend journalistic ethics; they even transcend her weird politics. Her problems are, in a way, very personal, and sadly, all too common among those afflicted with vast wealth.

At least since the turn of the last century, Santa Barbara has been a popular roosting ground for fat cats and plutocrats looking for a safe harbor in which to hang and chill. For the most part, Santa Barbara has done well by its rich folk and its rich folk have done well by us. In recent years, however, we’ve been beset by a new breed of wealth — individuals who seek to rearrange the basic furniture of Santa Barbara while refusing to consult with the rest of us about their plans. Being passionately paranoid and arrogantly aloof, members of this new caste take great care when mixing with the natives. Above all, they answer to no one. My theory is it all started in 1992 with Texas multi-gazillionaire Michael Huffington, who moved to Montecito to buy himself a seat in Congress. Once elected, however, Huffington refused to answer basic questions about his service on behalf of constituents, ordering aides to destroy copies of his voting record and declining to tell even his own office staff where he was. After Michael came out of the closet as a gay man trapped in the body of a married heterosexual father, his pathological need for privacy began to make some sense. But what’s McCaw’s excuse?

Wendy’s been stiff-arming the community almost from the day she bought the paper five years ago. Her editorial page writer Travis Armstrong has delighted in insulting just about every constituent group in town; all too often, those seeking redress by writing letters in response have found themselves denied publication. When a group of NP reporters and editors tried to meet with Wendy herself a few weeks ago, they were reprimanded with suspensions. Likewise, community leaders seeking an audience with Her Wendyness never got to first base. When a delegation of Santa Barbara clergy tried to buy an advertisement in the paper to express their concerns, they were refused.

After their ad appeared in The Independent, those signing the statement got an insulting letter from Wendy’s consort and co-publisher Arthur von Wiesenberger. In it, the “Nipper” accuses the ministers of being gullible dupes suckered by unscrupulous Teamster organizers and disgruntled “so-called journalists.” Contrast this display of in-your-face contempt with what’s now taking place at the Los Angeles Times, which is also poised to nose-dive into the toilet bowl of journalistic mediocrity.

The Times is under pressure from corporate owners in Chicago to increase revenues by slashing hundreds of reporters’ jobs. When a group of prominent community leaders wrote a manifesto urging the Times to cut no further, the paper published their letter in last Wednesday’s opinion section. Right next to it, management ran a rebuttal. But at least both sides were on the same page. The following day, the Times published a front-page news article exploring all sides of the controversy. Here in Santa Barbara, the NP has yet to run one substantive exploration of what’s happening within its walls. Instead, we get incoherent spin and “letters to our readers,” from McCaw.

Guess what? We ain’t that dumb. That Wendy and Nipper act as if we were, I find kind of insulting. Like I said, it’s personal.

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