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Jerry Robert's attorney Dennis Merenbach holds up the News-Press "front page smear."

Paul Wellman

Jerry Robert's attorney Dennis Merenbach holds up the News-Press "front page smear."


Shameless News-Press Breaks Out the Kiddie Porn

Paper Suggests Jerry Roberts Downloaded Child Porn; Former Editor Responds


Sunday, April 22, 2007
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On Sunday, April 22, the Santa Barbara News-Press featured a front page, below-the-fold story whose headline read: "News-Press seeks exam of computer used by ex-editor Roberts containing child porn." The non-bylined story, attributed to "News-Press Staff Report," explained that the newspaper's owner Ampersand Publishing, which is solely controlled by Wendy P. McCaw, "has filed papers in Superior Court to allow it to conduct forensic tests on the hard drive of the computer used by ex-editor Jerry Roberts, which contains according to the police more than 15,000 images of child and adult pornography." Although the article's unknown author admits that the Santa Barbara District Attorney's office was unable to prosecute anyone due to the nebulous nature of how these images were acquired, it goes on to state that "Ampersand, in the meantime, is conducting its own internal investigation to determine the source of the material."

At an impromptu press conference to respond to the article, Jerry Roberts, his wife Linda Keifer, and his attorney Dennis Merenbach vehemently denied any connection to the child pornography on this hard drive. Said Roberts, who independently passed a lie detector test denying the claims, "I have absolutely, categorically nothing to do with any of this material." He labeled the story "a front page smear" and said that in this battle over ethics, the News-Press on Sunday showed their lack of standards in a "full display for all the world to see." The "unconscionable" charges are "completely untrue" said a clearly infuriated Roberts, who added, "I am outraged beyond measure at this desperate attempt to ruin my reputation." He called the damages to his career "incalculable."

By Paul Wellman

An angry Jerry Roberts.

The press event was attended by about 30 journalists, including the nearly 20 who crammed into Merenbach's second-floor office on East Carrillo Street, a plethora of former N-P reporters, and one current reporter from the News-Press. With numerous flashes firing and cameras rolling, Merenbach revealed that the suspect G4 Macintosh computer was purchased by the paper as a used computer and that the same hard drive was used by other editors before Roberts's tenure. Law enforcement and computer experts are unable to determine who downloaded the pornography because there are no time stamps on the images, and therefore the person responsible, whether a former News-Press employee or not, will likely never be known.

By Paul Wellman

A teary Linda Keifer, wife of Jerry Roberts.

But the ethically questionable motivations aside, perhaps most egregious in the eyes of Roberts-who's been in the business for 30-plus years, formerly edited the San Francisco Chronicle, and is now in charge of UCSB's Daily Nexus and yearbook-the News-Press did not contact him for a comment nor tell him that the article would be published on Sunday. "There was no attempt to contact me for comment in advance of publication," said Roberts, to which the crowd of assembled journalist uttered a collective sigh. That is, arguably, the biggest no-no in professional journalism and it remains unclear as to how the newspaper will justify that decision. Roberts was informed of the article in an email from a friend, and he promptly alerted his wife, three daughters, and attorney and arranged for the 3 p.m. conference to clear his name.

Should the News-Press have contacted Jerry Roberts before running this story?

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With tears in her eyes and a waver in her voice, his wife Linda Keifer said, "Our family is very proud of him." She called the accusation "outrageous" and explained that it "speaks more to the people making the accusation" than to her husband. "He will not back down from the truth," Keifer said.

Roberts and Merenbach-who opined, "this is a really black day for Santa Barbara"-are currently investigating their legal options for a libel suit, and determining whether the binding arbitration they're pursuing with the News-Press precludes their possible actions. (That arbitration, incidentally, is bound to confidentiality; Roberts noted that he's upheld his end of that bargain, but declared this story shows that the News-Press is not holding up their end.) The existence of court documents often safeguards a newspaper against libel, though it's rare if not unprecedented that a newspaper would file legal documents as a premeditated move to block litigation. (No one has yet made such a claim.) Roberts explained, "I have been in the business awhile and as far as I recall, the preconditions for libel are similar to this."

Media watchers are summarily shocked at the news story. Said The Independent's editor-in-chief Marianne Partridge, a veteran journalist who's edited The Village Voice and Rolling Stone among other publications, "This is an unspeakable outrage. There's no news story here. This is disgusting. The News-Press has sunk into a mire as yet unknown to man in Santa Barbara. This rivals the worst of the yellow journalism of the 1920s and '30s."

By Paul Wellman

Roberts holding hands with his wife.

Merenbach also called to mind the ridiculously rich media kingpin William Randolph Hearst, who, like News-Press owner Wendy McCaw, had the wealth to "hire legions of lawyers" and "stomp on [those who disagreed with him] like trying to extract juice from a grape." Said Merenbach, "McCaw has been able to do so "without having dented the bulk of her wealth."

Interestingly, the News-Press's attempt to retrieve the hard drive is essentially a motion to have illegal contraband returned to the newspaper. That move, which is being opposed by the City of Santa Barbara, will almost certainly fail in court, as it's exactly like the newspaper asking for an ounce of methamphetamine to be returned so that they can try to ascertain whose drugs they are. As such, when asked whether the motion was merely a "ruse" to be able to write this story and publicly humiliate Roberts, Merenbach responded, "That's the only conclusion I can come to:I think even my three-year-old grandson could understand that."

Furthermore, the amount of dedicated work needed to download 15,000 images of child pornography is unfathomable. "You'd have to be working at it for three years to accumulate this much info," said Merenbach, who confirmed that law enforcement's attempts to determine the responsible party was thorough because these images are an "extremely serious" matter. Essentially, the cops did all they could, and were unsuccessful.

By Paul Wellman

Roberts in Merenbach's office, with his wife Linda Keifer.

The article also contains inaccuracies, according to Merenbach: Roberts never refused to cooperate with police, and the police accepted Robert's denial via Merenbach, because Roberts was in the midst of dealing with his cancer. Also, Merenbach said that no other law enforcement agency is currently investigating the case, though the article erroneously claims that the FBI is still involved.

A quick review of the numerous documents provided by Merenbach indicate that computer systems director Raul Gil was reporting to private detective/newspaper security expert Nick Montano, who shepherded the hard drive to a data recovery company in Novato, California. That company located the pornography, and alerted law enforcement.

Meanwhile, Gil secretly told Roberts that he believed that the newspaper was going to "use heinous information of dubious source to ruin [his] reputation." In his January 29, 2007 declaration, Gil calls Roberts "an honorable and decent man who left the paper because of his concerns over journalistic ethics of management. The actions of News-Press representatives in this regard offend my conscience and compel me to write this declaration, even at the risk of facing retaliation. It is the right thing to do. I am greatly concerned that I, like others, will be sued for daring to speak the truth. I also believe that silence at this point would be an unethical act and allow my employers to ruin a good man." When Gil was confronted by the News-Press for leaking the info to Roberts, Gil resigned.

On Monday, Roberts' attorney will be sending a demand for a retraction to the newspaper. There is a hearing on the matter set for May 2 in Santa Barbara Superior Court.

A series of questions were sent to News-Press spokesperson Agnes Huff before and after the press conference. She responded to say that attorney Barry Cappello would try to respond sometime today. As of 5:30 p.m., he had not.

By Paul Wellman

Jerry Roberts denies suggestions that he downloaded child porn with attorney Dennis Merenbach behind him.

For Nick Welsh's news story on this event, go here.

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