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Putting the ‘Ow’ Back in Bow-Wow

READEM AND WEEP


READEM AND WEEP: As the Santa Barbara News-Press constantly reminds us, be careful what you wish for. Or perhaps more precisely, what comes around doesn’t go around; it gives you whiplash instead. Both thoughts ran through my mind as I contemplated the five-year anniversary of the paper’s now legendary self-immolation. That’s when News-Press editor Jerry Roberts — and scads of others — walked off the job to protest wholesale violation of journalistic ethics on the part of owner Wendy McCaw, never to return. That’s a sad story too often told and still makes no sense. In response to McCaw’s ham-fisted intrusions — punishing reporters for violating nonexistent rules —  newsroom workers joined the Teamsters. Three victorious National Labor Relations Board trials later, McCaw is still appealing those cases. Roberts, for his betrayal, in an unsigned front-page story, was all but accused of downloading oceans of kiddy porn on his work computer. So egregious was the smear that Roberts has since been honored with ethics awards from three prestigious journalistic organizations. Today, the News-Press circulation is roughly half of what it was five years ago, and its news team, dominated by interns from the Young America’s Foundation, one-quarter the size. It ain’t a pretty picture. But until last week, it seemed the News-Press had been slowly, if unspectacularly, climbing out of its ignominious hole.

Angry Poodle

Last week, the News-Press published a five-part investigative series, both exhaustive and exhausting, detailing the alleged excesses of Officer Kasi Beutel, and her law-and-disorder jihad to rid the road of drunk drivers. On the surface, the series would seem to be everything we say we want. When most newspapers can’t afford to cut reporters loose, freelance investigative reporter Peter Lance spent six full months rummaging through the sock drawers of Officer Beutel’s personal and professional life. Lance — with six Emmy Awards under his belt for investigative pieces — knows how to rummage. The new buzz word for such reporting is “accountability journalism,” which the Federal Communications Commission declared this month was an endangered species, particularly at the local level. In studying the rise of Internet news, the FCC found that the abundance of such Web sites has actually hampered the generation of accountability reporting. Faced with the Internet’s insatiable demand for more content, daily papers post more and more news stories that require less and less reporting. The experts call it the “hamsterization” of the newsroom, and anyone lucky enough to still have a job reporting definitely hears the squeak of the hamster wheel. Lost in the shuffle, the FCC found, are longer investigative pieces that require the sustained dedication of time and staff that may or may not ever pay off. These are the stories that keep the powers-that-be up at night. Aside from negligee advertisements, that’s the reason the First Amendment was invented.

In the series, Lance rips Officer Beutel a new one every day for five days straight. If accurate, the Police Department has a power-tripping, pathological over-achiever on its hands, and the public has a cop on the streets who’ll rig the breath-test machine, forge signatures, and lie about a suspect’s previous criminal history just to get a collar. In addition, Lance strongly suggests that Beutel — before she became a cop — lied on financial documents — perjury — as part of a conspiracy with her ex-husband to commit wholesale bankruptcy fraud, maxing out credit cards before they eventually declared Chapter 7. Lance succeeded in raising a number of serious and troubling questions. How well he actually answered them, only time will tell.

My main concern is that on New Year’s Day, Officer Beutel popped Lance for a DUI, after he appeared to have fallen asleep behind the wheel at a downtown stoplight. He blew a 0.09, which is just slightly above the legal limit. He’s been charged with DUI and will go to trial for it sometime this summer. All this was duly noted in the News-Press series. Lance was motivated to investigate Beutel, he said, because he claims she falsely stated he waived his right to have a blood test at the time of his arrest. He also claims she forged his signature on that waiver. If she did, that’s a very big deal. I wasn’t blown away by Lance’s documentation, but we’ll find out when the matter goes to trial.

The News-Press should be praised for investigating how DUIs are enforced. It’s a big story. But why hire someone accused of driving drunk to do it? Call me old fashioned, but that’s just crazy. If the News-Press really wanted Lance to write it, the editors there should have given him as much op-ed space as he wanted. But by placing the articles on the front page and giving Lance more real estate — 19,200 words or 10 times the length of this column — than the News-Press has ever given any story in its history — the editors are giving Lance the journalistic equivalent of the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. Most people will never read the articles. They’re too long. They’re hard to follow. But because they’re on the front page, readers think there’s fire behind the smoke. Personally, I think the News-Press should have interviewed Lance and made his conflict the subject of the story. That would allow some alleged impartial third-party reporter with no evident ax to grind or no ox to gore — News-Press court reporter Angel Pacheco pops to mind — to present both sides’ recitation of the salient facts. Making matters more troubling is how utterly one-sided the series was. If the cops had any answers or explanations for what Lance has alleged, they’re nowhere to be found. Maybe the cops refused to cooperate other than to provide the documentation legally required. Maybe the chief was too busy holding press conferences at construction sites with the remote chance of dredging up the body of a 7-year-old girl presumably murdered 50 years ago. (Now that was weird. When we reportedly don’t have enough cops to protect out-of-town visitors from the foul-mouthed imprecations of deranged homeless panhandlers, do we really need so many officers hanging out at Winchester Canyon protecting a potential cold case site from crime scene contamination?) If the cops refused to participate, that was a dumb call, but totally understandable. Who in their right mind would respond to a defendant as a reporter demanding an explanation — for a news article — for why he was wrongfully arrested? I know all the traditional lines of demarcation have gotten blurry, but that’s still weird. Adding further to the impression of vendetta journalism was Lance’s undue and excessive reliance upon his own defense attorney for expert commentary on the corruption of police practices.

I’ve never met Beutel. I’ve heard she may be too enamored of that officious command-and-control cop talk that doesn’t bring out the best in slobbering inebriates. For all I know, she’s guilty of everything Lance alleges. Or maybe not. By the time I was through with the News-Press series, I almost felt sorry for her. That’s not the effect exposes are supposed to have.

Cops, even when they’re caught in the act on film, are presumed to be telling the truth. Reporters, by contrast, are generally regarded with the special contempt reserved for dishonest people too stupid to make a buck off it.

One high-ranking city official asked if the series had violated some canon of “journalistic ethics.” Frankly, I wouldn’t know what an ethic is if one bit me in the ass. But I do know something about credibility. If you’re going to attack the police, you need as much of it you can possibly have. Cops, even when they’re caught in the act on film, are presumed to be telling the truth. Reporters, by contrast, are generally regarded with the special contempt reserved for dishonest people too stupid to make a buck off it. In this kind of showdown, newspaper writers and editors can’t afford to give readers any reason to doubt their credibility. In this light, I still can’t fathom how — or why — the News-Press gave this story to Peter Lance. When I sent Lance an email raising some of these issues, he was understandably annoyed. He wrote back that I was missing the point. He stressed none of his assertions have been repudiated and called me a hack and a hypocrite. Whatever I’d write, he said, he knew would be unfair.

To prove him wrong, let me acknowledge that Lance brought out some information that should be troubling to the Powers-That-Be. He reported, for example, that there are no video cameras installed in Santa Barbara’s police cars. This was a shocker. This fact was relevant to his story because such cameras, had they been there, could have resolved what actually happened in a number of contested cases involving Officer Beutel. In years past, all cop cars had cameras. All other municipalities have cameras in their cop cars. We should have cameras. Maybe Chief Sanchez can get the Chumash Casino, which has been generous to his fledgling Santa Barbara Police Foundation, to donate the cameras. Unlike humans, cameras don’t get flustered in the heat of the moment; they don’t provide distorted records of events. Cameras protect good cops from false accusation. They also help bully cops keep themselves in check. No one likes to look bad in front of the camera.

Lance also uncovered a treasure trove of messy information regarding Beutel’s personal finances before she was a cop. If true, the best spin is that Beutel and her ex appear to have been living extravagantly beyond their means. At the very worst, fraud and perjury could have been involved. In response to the articles, attorneys specializing in DUI cases have already started raising some of these issues in court as part of an effort to impeach Beutel’s credibility as a witness. Thus far, they haven’t gotten far. And it seems unlikely they will. But if I’m wrong, hundreds of DUI busts could be vulnerable to legal challenge. If Lance is accurate about Beutel’s past financial dealings — which precede the recession by a number of years — it makes you wonder how the Police Department missed it when screening her application. Maybe the department didn’t and concluded instead that Beutel was moving in the right direction, taking personal responsibility for her financial decisions. I don’t know. But I do know, a few years ago, a gay ex-cop named Ruben Lino successfully sued the Police Department because they had refused to rehire him (after he’d left for a few months and then changed his mind) despite an exemplary work record shown in court documents. Lino claimed he was not re-hired — at a time when the city was hurting for cops — because he complained about a few fellow officers making remarks, like how all “pillow biters” would burn in hell. City Hall countered that Lino wasn’t hired because his credit check revealed he was in over his head. Lino claimed the credit report was erroneous. But even if it wasn’t, his financial problems were chump change compared to Beutel’s.

If the cops install cameras in their cars because of the News-Press series, then who cares if what should have been a brushback pitch turned out to be a spit ball tossed at the head? If it makes cops more scrupulous about doing their duty, then maybe it’s all okay. Still, it’s going to take a whole lot of Guinness to wash away the sour taste the News-Press series left in my mouth. But at least I’ll have the good sense not to get behind the wheel of a car and drive.

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For The Record

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Freelance reporter Peter Lance has requested a retraction for this Angry Poodle column published June 30, in which Nick Welsh presented his opinions on the five-part series Lance wrote for the Santa Barbara News-Press, which detailed the alleged transgressions of Santa Barbara Police Officer Kasi Beutel in her pursuit of drunk drivers.

One of Lance’s objections to the column was there was no basis for saying he was pulled over at 1:06 a.m. January 1, 2011 because police said he “appeared” to have fallen asleep at the wheel. Welsh’s report was based on statements made to that effect by Lt. Paul McCaffrey, then the police department’s Public Information Officer.

Subsequent to the publication of the June 30 Angry Poodle column, Lance has provided excerpts of testimony from a Department of Motor Vehicles administrative hearing which he believes shows the officer who initially stopped Lance did not, in fact, perceive him to be asleep behind the wheel. We are happy to inform our readers of that.

Lance’s trial for driving while under the influence is scheduled to begin July 26.

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