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Cannon Blast

Barney Sums Up Lou Cannon’s Take on the NP Trial


Bill and the Subpoena Server: What’s it like to encounter one of the News-Press subpoena servers? My experience was pretty low-key, but former NP Santa Ynez Valley columnist Bill Etling’s was mighty different.

He claims that the server lied, telling him he was working for the reporters, when he was actually working for the News-Press. And that he tried to learn the whereabouts of Bill’s daughter Leah-a former NP reporter who’s now writing for the San Luis Obispo Tribune-so he could hit her with a subpoena.

You can find the full story at edhat.com.

Reagan Didn’t Say It: I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Don’t be quick to believe those eye-catching stories that fly around the Internet, no matter how true they may sound. The latest is the one a reader forwarded to me about former President Ronald Reagan. It is supposedly a quote from his recently published diaries, one in which he calls George W. Bush the “ne’re-do-well” son of his then vice president, George H.W. Bush. It’s all over the cyberspace, but it ain’t true. It’s a garbled version of a satirical piece written by Michael Kinsley of The New Republic. Apparently a lot of people want to believe it.

Mass Unemployment in SM?: If the feds crack down on illegal workers, there’s a “potential for 10,000 agricultural workers to suddenly be without jobs,” the Santa Maria Times reports. About two-thirds of the estimated 15,000 farm workers in the valley are illegal immigrants, according to the president of a grower-shipper group. If the government aggressively enforces the law, targeting employers who hire illegal aliens, as it says it plans to, it would have a devastating effect on the economy, according to officials quoted in the Times.

World Class Rumor: Despite rumors that Cost Plus World Market, 610 State St, plans to move, a sign insists “We’re Here to Stay! You may have read rumors that Cost Plus World Market intends to leave its Santa Barbara store. This is not true.”

Cannon Blast: Journalist-biographer Lou Cannon has been sitting in on the current trial of the News-Press by the National Labor Relations Board. Here is an edited version of his pithy observations:

Sympathies aside, an onlooker from Mars who attended these hearings would gain little insight into normal newsroom practices from the testimony of Scott Steepleton, the associate editor of the News-Press. That is mostly but not entirely Mr. Steepleton’s fault. Paraphrasing what I said last week to Ventura County Star reporter Stephanie Hoops, and which she accurately reported, these hearings and Mr. Steepleton’s testimony in particular have been largely devoid of context. There has been scant discussion of how news stories are assigned, reported, written, and edited or how they are vetted for the ‘bias’ that newspaper management claims was the reason for dismissal of two reporters. The NLRB contends that these two reporters and six others were illegally dismissed for trying to organize a union. One would think that the context of customary journalistic procedure would be helpful in the adjudication of these charges, at least those involving the two reporters.

Take just two examples of what lack of context - and arguably a lack of sufficient cross-examination - means to analyzing the claim of bias. The first is Mr. Steepleton’s astounding claim that reporters are supposed to be aware of the editorial stances taken by the newspapers that employ them. ‘That’s one of those journalism 101 things,’ said Steepleton. More like Propaganda 101. In more than 40 years as a newspaper reporter, 26 of them at The Washington Post, I cannot recall a single instance where the editorial stance of the newspaper was mentioned during an assignment discussion. There is an obvious reason for this, to which any expert witness with elemental knowledge of common journalistic practices would testify. The reason is that one wants the reporter-whether he or she is covering a fire, a trial, a zoning hearing or the resignation of a president-to focus on the story NOT on the opinions of his or her employer. There are certain basic rules of fair play in journalism, and they are not mysterious. Find out what happened. Talk to both sides or every side, to the degree that this is possible. Check your facts or what you believe to be your facts. Write a balanced story that is accessible to readers (not to mention your editor).

Mr. Steepleton’s claim - in addition to contradicting his testimony in another proceeding that he didn’t read the editorials - undermines the entire premise of News-Press owner Wendy McCaw‘s contention that she sought to eliminate ‘bias’ from the paper. Emphasizing the owner’s opinion to a reporter who is covering to story is a means of introducing bias at the source. This is what would normally be taught in Journalism 101. I wish that the NLRB lawyers had called someone who pointed out these verities in court.

As I listened … my mind flashed back to 1960 (okay, so I’m an old guy) when I was editor of the Contra Costa Times. The publisher was concerned about a story we had published involving a dubious mining claim. He thought we had not shown insufficient skepticism in our account and asked me to look into it. I did. The details are lost in the mists of time, but we did a follow-up story that backtracked on our first one. I told the reporter to me more careful in the future but informed the publisher that it was my fault for letting the original story get into the paper. It was. Editors are supposed to take responsibility for mishaps of that sort-and, yes, for bias. That’s what Ben Bradlee and his editors at The Washington Post did. As I said to Ms. McCaw in a letter she declined to publish as part of her policy of keeping opposing views out of the News-Press, reporters usually had high morale at The Post because the publisher and the editors supported and valued them rather than undercutting and demeaning them. That would be a useful practice at the News-Press, but I digress.

One suspects that Judge William Kocol, who comes across as smart and experienced, will be able to figure this one out for himself.

When, green as grass, I covered my first trial 50 years ago, my city editor at the Merced Sun-Star warned me not to confuse the attorney with his client. It was good advice, which I appreciated many years later after coming to know Edward Bennett Williams. I don’t think that Barry Cappello is quite in that exalted league, but his performance at this hearing has struck me as exceptionally thorough and professional in every respect. My guess is that he’s worth every penny of the presumably sky’s-the-limit billings he’s sending Ms. McCaw. On its merits this hearing would seem to be a slam dunk for the NLRB, but I wouldn’t underestimate what a good lawyer can accomplish, even when there’s no jury involved.”

Lou Answers Travis: After being roughed up by News-Press editorial page columnist Travis Armstrong the other day, Lou Cannon fired back with a scathing reply, noting that Armstrong’s columns were short of facts but long on innuendo and suggesting that he resign. You can read the full account on Craig Smith’s blog.

Barney Brantingham can be reached at barney@independent.com or 805-965-5205. He writes online columns on Tuesdays and Fridays and a print column on Thursdays.

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