When Scott Steepleton was contacted directly one month ago by me to answer some honest questions about his job and respond to internal complaints about his performance, the News-Press associate editor did not reply. Rather, a couple days later, the News-Press‘ attorneys got back to The Independent via our attorneys with a brief note threatening legal action. This is the twisted state of journalism in Santa Barbara today.
This saga began about four weeks ago when I got a call from someone inside the News-Press newsroom. The caller had some serious complaints about Steepleton and his wife Charlotte Boechler, who was recently promoted to assistant editor of the Life section. The caller explained that “there is an increasing lack of faith and respect” in Steepleton and that Boechler became somewhat tyrannical when given a leadership role.
The anonymous source - who echoed similar charges of nepotism from former and current News-Press employees that I’ve heard since Boechler’s promotion - also indicated that there is suspicion that the newspaper’s ownership may eventually try to use Steepleton as a fall guy for the community’s unrest. (How that would work is unclear - would Santa Barbara let owner Wendy McCaw off the hook that easily? - but the bizarre factor is already so high that anything’s possible.) The source suggested that Steepleton appears to harbor the same beliefs based on his increasingly paranoid and irrational behavior. (When, out of curiosity, I asked what editorial page editor Travis Armstrong was up to these days, the caller said that Armstrong stays out of the newsroom and usually enters and exits through a back door.)
Because my questions dealt directly with Steepleton and his wife - and, furthermore, suggested a possible break between the editor and his supervisors, who are co-publishers Wendy McCaw and Arthur von Wiesenberger - I figured that it would be proper, prudent, and a common courtesy to approach Steepleton himself. Last time I checked, it is still standard journalism practice to ask for a comment from someone who is the subject of an article.
On May 10, about one week after getting the anonymous call, I sent the following email to Steepleton:
From: Matt Kettmann (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Date: May 10, 2007 3:48 PM
Subject: Comments for upcoming article about you?
I’ve recently received multiple calls from people within your offices who want to remain anonymous for obvious reasons. They are concerned about your management techniques, including the recent naming of your wife Charlotte as assistant Life editor. The direct quote is that “there is an increasing lack of faith and respect” in you and that the behavior of your wife changed drastically for the worse when she was put in a supervisory position.
There are corresponding charges of nepotism, as you might imagine. These people also believe that you are possibly being set up as the fall-guy for the paper’s ownership, someone for the publishers to blame publicly when they think the timing is right. These people also think that you are aware of that possibility, which is why I am coming directly to you.
Do you have any response to any of this? I always go thru Agnes rather than straight to you, but she hasn’t been able to get anything from management since I started emailing her on a weekly, sometimes daily basis since January. And since this article immediately affects you, your wife, and your position at the paper, I thought it would be more appropriate to offer you a venue to respond.
Any comments? How is life over there? Do you see a long future at the paper? How is your relationship with ownership?
May 10 was a Thursday. No word on Friday, not even a simple and customary “no comment,” which would have at least been polite. Then over the weekend, I get an email from our publisher wondering what it is I asked Steepleton. Apparently, the News-Press‘ attorneys took issue with my questions and sent a letter warning against such standard journalistic practices. Apparently, since they are suing us in a federal copyright case, they believe that no one from our paper is allowed to contact anyone from their paper without going through attorneys. I guess what we’ll get from now on is a constant “no comment” from their PR rep Agnes Huff, who’s been cordial in our correspondence but has not been able to elicit one single comment from management despite countless attempts since January.
So I forwarded the above email to my publisher, with a note, “Pretty standard reporter stuff. I guess he doesn’t want to respond?” A couple days later, our attorneys, who represent the Borat movie among other notable clients, sent a letter to the News-Press‘ attorneys that defended our right to ask questions and reiterated that such is common journalistic practice, a case of one newspaperman asking another newspaperman for a comment.
How about an instant replay? I am contacted by an anonymous source at the beginning of May with information about Scott Steepleton. I contact Steepleton for a comment, as is standard practice in journalism. Steepleton forwards my request to management. Management forwards the request to their attorneys. News-Press attorneys write letter to our attorneys. Our attorneys contact my publisher. My publisher contacts me. I forward correspondence with Steepleton to my publisher. Publisher consults our attorneys. Our attorneys send a letter to their attorneys. Meanwhile, an article related to the anonymous tip is carefully prepared, knowing that lawyers are watching closely. And then, one month later, you’re finally reading the article.
Is this the sort of journalism we want in Santa Barbara, the brand where news gets delayed an entire month because attorneys get called in when one journalist asks another for a comment? I doubt it, but thanks to the News-Press, this is what we’ve got.