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The Canine Ultimatum


WHERE’S WENDY? I know it’s perverse to feel sorry for a guy who gets paid $650 an hour to beat the crap out of people. But after watching attorney A. Barry Cappello try to defend News-Press owner Wendy P. McCaw-now on trial for firing eight reporters because of their pro-union sympathies-I must confess to feeling pangs of sympathy for the guy. Don’t get me wrong: Barry was his customary tough but charming self during opening arguments, at ease and authoritative. And if he felt the least bit rattled as Administrative Law Judge William G. Kocol frequently interrupted, telling him to get to the point, he never let it show.

Angry Poodle Barbecue

Lawyers for the National Labor Relations Board are now prosecuting McCaw for firing eight reporters for exercising their legal right to organize a labor union. They claim that after McCaw’s newsroom workers voted overwhelmingly to affiliate with the Teamsters late last September, she engaged in a campaign of intimidation and coercion, ferreting out union leaders and firing them under whatever flimsy pretext she could find. The first to go was Melinda Burns, a much acclaimed, award-winning environmental reporter with 21 years at the News-Press. The second was science writer Anna Davison. Union sympathies had nothing to do with these terminations, declared Cappello; it was the writers’ long history of biased reporting.

Likewise, it was merely a coincidence that the six reporters fired this February for hanging a “Cancel Your Subscription” banner off the side of the Anapamu Street footbridge were all hardcore union supporters. They were fired, Cappello insisted, for disloyalty and denigrating the News-Press product. What most impressed me about Cappello’s opening statement was how wonderfully operatic it was. According to Cappello, the News-Press had become a festering hotbed of crypto commies, where the workers had seized control of the means of production. In their quest for absolute control, the reporters had effectively blocked owner and publisher McCaw from exerting any influence at all. McCaw’s real agenda, according to Cappello, was “to eliminate the reporters’ sense of entitlement to write what they wanted when they wanted.” And really, what they wanted to write, he charged, was “a stalker’s guide for celebrities in this town.”

This remark refers to the uproar that ensued last summer when McCaw reprimanded three newsroom workers for publishing actor Rob Lowe‘s address in an article about a land-use dispute to which Lowe was an active and aggressive participant. During his opening remarks, Cappello repeatedly stated, “The publisher has the right of freedom of press, not the reporters.” This is a new twist on the old adage, “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.” But that line, coined by noted reporter and media critic A.J. Liebling, was intended as a criticism, not as a boast. By contrast, Cappello assured us, McCaw was motivated by an overwhelming desire to eliminate bias from the pages of her newspaper. In fact, Cappello argued, McCaw has been fighting to eradicate the bias since she first bought the paper seven years ago. To the extent that it appears McCaw was picking on pro-union reporters, Cappello concluded, that was mere coincidence.

All of Cappello’s deft footwork, however, was summarily trampled the second NLRB prosecutors called Steepleton to the stand. When asked what steps he took, upon assuming command last August, to eradicate the bias that so tormented McCaw, Steepleton was underwhelming in the extreme. He sent out no memos, he offered no special workshops. In fact, the most he could remember was mentioning it in passing during a brief meeting of the newsroom staff he convened. When asked what constituted bias, Steepleton replied it was not getting both sides of the story. But when asked about the conspicuous lack of Teamster response in an article the News-Press published-and Steepleton edited-in which News-Press editorial page editor Travis Armstrong accused Teamster organizer Marty Keegan of stalking him, Steepleton seemed mysteriously unperturbed. If Steepleton felt any regret at not getting Keegan’s side of the story-for what anyone would consider a serious charge-he kept it to himself, explaining only, “A lot of copy comes through every single day.”

On the witness stand, Steepleton proved to be the proverbial sow’s ear from which Cappello must sew a silk purse. He testified he either didn’t know or couldn’t remember more times than Attorney General Alberto Gonzales during all his congressional appearances combined. Steepleton professed not to know, for example, whether his wife-News-Press editor and former features writer Charlotte Boechler-had voted for or against the union. And he claimed he couldn’t exactly remember if-at the time-he thought the reporters hanging the “Cancel Your Subscription” sign were engaged in union activities. Or whether the union’s well-known cancellation drive-initiated last August-was still in effect. Everyone forgets, but if Steepleton’s memory is one-tenth as bad as he pretends, he should not be at the helm of a daily newspaper. Had Steepleton “remembered” what everyone else knew at the time-that the overpass brigade was engaged in pro-union activity-it would have been curtains for the News-Press. By federal law, such activity is protected.

Of course, the really big news was that McCaw herself would take the stand as a witness on her own behalf. At least that’s what Cappello promised. This is akin to Howard Hughes, Greta Garbo, J.D. Salinger-or any number of legendary recluses-breaking their silence.

If McCaw does testify, it will mark the very first time she has ever placed herself in a position where she has to answer somebody else’s questions. Sitting in court during the opening day of what promises to be an excruciatingly tedious trial, I frequently found myself counting the number of attorneys and legal assistants assembled on both sides of the aisle. Combined, I reckon both sides are spending about $4,500 an hour. Had Wendy ever exhibited any willingness to sit down with people and talk since buying the paper in 2000, I’m positive all this egregious waste of time, talent, and money could have been happily avoided.

I know it’s too early to call, but I’m betting heavy that Judge Kocol will rule against McCaw. When that happens, I’m also betting that McCaw and Cappello-the unmovable object and the irresistible force-will wind up in court over Barry’s astronomical legal bills. And when that happens, Barry, I’ll be there for you. I’ll testify how hard you tried to conjure a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. But let’s just hope between now and then, I don’t happen to forget.

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