Jerry Roberts had his “Sally Field moment” on Tuesday night, March 13, when more than 167 people showed up at the swanky Field Club Lounge at AT&T Park for The Jerry Roberts Roast, an event that raised more than $30,000 for Roberts’ legal defense against the $25 million lawsuit News-Press owner Wendy McCaw has brought against him.
The event was appropriately held in the “living room of the San Francisco Giants,” as Roberts was a notorious supporter of the team while working at The Chronicle, and featured ballpark culinary fare like hot dogs, barbecued chicken breast, and potato salad. In the back of the space was an impressive silent auction featuring donated Giants’ goods (including an autographed Randy Winn jersey and autographed Matt Cain baseball), a number of photographs donated by The Chronicle and other photojournalists, a table of premium wines, gift certificates to Bay Area businesses, and two styles of McCaw-themed T-shirts: “I’ve been SUED by Wendy McCaw” and “I’ve been DISLOYAL to Wendy McCaw.”
Before the silent auction and walk-up sales, it was estimated that the event had already raised $30,000 for the Lawyers Alliance for Free Speech Rights, the fund established to defend those journalists who have become McCaw’s targets.
The highlight of the evening was the lighthearted, affectionate, and none-too-shy roast of the dashing, pinstripe-suited, and frequently laughing Roberts. It was emceed by former colleague Greg Lucas, who noted that throughout all of this trauma, Roberts has managed to keep his sense of humor - not only about his troubles at the News-Press, but also about the non-Hodgkins lymphoma he was diagnosed with in November. When asked how he’s doing, said Lucas, Roberts answers with, “Other than the cancer and the $25 million lawsuit, I’m doing all right.”
Guests and speakers included current and former employees of the San Francisco Chronicle, such as executive editor Phil Bronstein, former publisher Steve Falk, and reporters Greg Lucas, Steve Rubenstein, and Kevin Fagan. There were also former colleagues from the Santa Barbara News-Press such as Linda Strean and Josh Molina; editor and founder of Spot-on.com Chris Nolan; political consultant Gail Kaufman; former California State Senator John Burton; author, biographer and Washington Post contributor Lou Cannon; a representative from the Teamsters’ legal team; members of Roberts’ legal team; friends, family, and even a few supporters with no ties to Roberts or the media.
First up for the roast was Phil Bronstein, who was Roberts’ competitor at the San Francisco Examiner before Bronstein became his boss - and one of the main reasons Roberts left the Chronicle - when the papers merged. Despite their well-known feud, Bronstein has been vocal in supporting Roberts through this process - but that doesn’t mean he pulled any punches during his roast.
“I’m going to make this speech as brief as I can, kind of like my professional relationship with Jerry:and as painful as I can, kind of like:” he trailed off, met by laughter. He likened their working relationship as one of brotherhood, “like Cain and Abel,” and compared preparing for the roast to rectal exams, since “as a competitor and as a colleague, Jerry was so far up my ass.” He finished with a list of top 15 reasons - a nod to Roberts’ famous affection for top ten lists - he stopped working with Roberts, including a reference to the famous attack by a Komodo dragon on Bronstein at the L.A. Zoo with then-wife Sharon Stone and to a number of inside jokes about their short time together at the Chronicle.
Next up was Kaufman, who has known Roberts “and heard him complain” for 30 years. Though ribbing Roberts, her real punches were reserved for “stark-raving crazy” McCaw. “It makes me mad that a bored socialite billionaire is moving roughshod over our boy,” said Kaufman, to wild applause. “I think we’ll see Ann Coulter on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy before Wendy McCaw wins any Pulitzers.”
Former state Senator Burton took the faux optimistic approach towards the predicament facing Roberts, whom he remembers as a city hall reporter who was always “a straight shooter.” “The lawsuit:seems like a goddamned compliment to me,” said the notoriously foul-mouthed Burton. “He’s the only person I’ve ever met that’s worth $25 million when he quits a job.”
Things got a bit more serious as Cannon, wearing a powder blue suit and matching shirt, took the podium. The renowned Reagan biographer spent less time joking about Roberts and more explaining why this issue is a “way bigger deal than just some tiff in sunny Santa Barbara.” Cannon pointed out that this is a tough time for journalists, and that Roberts did what few others would have the courage to do: quit a job he loved - and led what Cannon called the “only mass resignation over journalistic ethics in the history of journalism that I know of.”
He emphasized that though Santa Barbara, unlike San Francisco, is not a union town, the vote for the union was 33 to 6, also explaining to the mainly Northern California crowd that if it weren’t for The Independent and blogs like Craig Smith’s, locals in Santa Barbara wouldn’t know anything about this issue. Furthermore, Cannon explained that though he’d be happy to be at the event purely to support Roberts, more is at stake: fighting against a woman who plans to suppress freedom of speech by bogging journalists down in expensive lawsuits. “The only answer is to raise money to fight her in court,” he said. “In doing so, we’re also striking a blow for freedom of press.”
The litany of speakers concluded with Lucas joking about Roberts’ new position as publications manager at UCSB, displaying a headline from The Daily Nexus during Roberts’ first week on the job: “Vaginas run wild at V-day festivities.”
And then the well-spoken Roberts took his chance for rebuttal and thanks. He poked good-natured fun at each of the speakers, and at his predicament, uttering a joke some heard at an event at Victoria Hall last July: “How come I spent 32 years working in journalism, and nobody noticed till I stopped?” But in true Jerry Roberts style, he capped off his speech with one of his lists, this one an explanation of top ten reasons he took the job at the News-Press five years ago:
10) C’mon dear. I’ll kick back for a while and then fly into retirement
9) Santa Barbara is so cool! Do you know Rob Lowe lives there?
8) The future of newspapers is in responsible local ownership
7) It’ll be just like working for Nan McAvoy (former owner of The Chronicle, now an olive oil maker)
6) I might even get to be publisher!
5) There sure won’t be any unions to deal with.
4) No one messes around with my newsroom.
3) It’ll be better for my health.
2) How bad can it be after Phil?
1) What’s she going to do, sue me?
Molly Freedenberg, a frequent contributor to The Independent over the years, now works as the associate culture editor at the San Francisco Bay Guardian. Many thanks to her for this report.