BEWARE OF FALLING SKY: I’ve been so busy lately
that I haven’t found the time to watch the remake of The Poseidon
Adventure — that great water-logged disaster epic from the ’70s.
Neither, it turns out, have my friends working at the News-Press.
They’ve been too busy living their own version of the disaster
movie, the big difference being that their turmoil is real. If and
when the News-Press runs aground, it’s bad news for the whole

The fact is, daily newspapers matter. And in a self-obsessed
town like Santa Barbara, an intelligent daily newspaper is critical
to the expression of our collective narcissism.
Since billionaire Wendy P. McCaw bought the paper
in 2000 and had the good sense to hire Jerry
 — a hotshot editor from the San Francisco
Chronicle — the news pages have been humming. Sure, there have been
dumb stories, like May 3’s fawning front-page article explaining
how Jeffrey Barbakow — former high-flying CEO of
Tenet Healthcare — was named president of the
Santa Barbara Intergalactic Film Festival, without
even mentioning that under Barbakow’s leadership, Tenet, the second
largest private healthcare system in the country, has become
embroiled in one of the nation’s nastiest corporate meltdown
scandals, avoiding criminal sanction by the skin of its teeth. And
who can forget last year’s probing photojournalistic investigation
into whether volleyball players have great butts? But we all make
dumb mistakes. For the most part, N-P reporters have been putting
out some kick-ass work. One would think that, in a rational world,
Wendy P. and the Powers-That-Be would be enthralled with Roberts’s
performance. But at the News-Press, the inmates staged a coup a few
weeks back and took over the insane asylum. About three weeks ago,
McCaw pulled an off-with-your-head on the paper’s publisher,
Joe Cole, her onetime attorney and longtime
business adviser. Cole was replaced with McCaw’s perennial fiancé,
Arthur “Nipper” Von Weisenberger — internationally
known as a bottled water connoisseur. In the ’80s, he also ran a
Montecito nightclub fondly remembered by many as the site of much
hedonistic excess. In the newsroom, Cole was
regarded as an ally. A big, smart guy who coulda delicately
insinuate an unstated threat into an otherwise amiable exchange,
Cole seemed to care about journalism and what people in the
community thought about the paper. With Cole’s departure, N-P
employees are certain Roberts is next and accordingly have
initiated an informal “Roberts Watch.”

For every step forward Roberts took the paper, the N-P’s
editorial pages — captained by the ever-indignant Travis K.
 — have set the paper back at least three. Now
known as “Wrong Way” Armstrong since his arrest on
DUI charges three weeks ago while driving the wrong way down a
one-way street, Armstrong clearly believes you can drown more bees
with vinegar than you could ever catch with honey. The term
bully pulpit” clinically reflects his editorial
approach, and local politicos — from lefty wankers to main-street
corporate types — learned the best they could expect from Travis
was a stiff-arm to the head. More than Armstrong’s opinions, what
people find most galling is not being allowed a chance to respond.
Hey, there’s never been a fairness doctrine for newspapers. But
there once was such a policy for radio stations, and indirectly
that might get Travis and the N-P in hot water with the
Federal Communications Commission due to abuse of
airwave privileges at the N-P radio station, KZSB
1290 AM. The abuse was reported on the front page of the N-P itself
three weeks ago. Travis refused to let Mayor Marty
or 2nd District Supervisor Susan
appear as guests on a show hosted by the
Hutton Foundation, then doing a series on homeless
programs. The Hutton Foundation pays the station $14,000 per year
for its airtime, which it uses to broadcast shows about local
nonprofits. Travis — who’s been blistering Marty and Susan for
years — forced Hutton to dis-invite Blum and Rose because he said
they had refused to be on his show. It was station policy, Travis
wrote. And he should know because he wrote it. Blum claims she
actually did appear on Travis’s show once, but that she shined on
an invitation to discuss the most recent election results on
election night. For her part, Rose refuses to go anywhere near
Travis, saying she can’t get a fair shake. This incident was the
basis of a new complaint against the station filed with the

Fairness is not really the issue, the FCC having abandoned that
principle about 20 years ago. Under attack is the fiction that the
News-Press parent company, Ampersand Inc. — owned
by McCaw — does not effectively control KZSB. It’s an important
fiction, because the FCC does not allow businesses to own daily
newspapers and broadcast stations — radio or TV — in the same town
without first getting an FCC waiver. The theory is that such
concentration of media ownership might be bad for the free exchange
of ideas. McCaw has not obtained such a waiver. Instead, she had
Dennis Weibling, a friend and business partner of
her ex-husband — multigazillionaire Craig
 — buy the station for $750,000. Weibling — whose
company Santa Barbara Broadcasting is a telephone answering-machine
line operating out of his Rally Capital venture capital offices in
Kirkland, Washington — then leases the airtime back to Wendy and
Travis. The setup is clearly a premeditated dodge designed to
circumvent FCC rules and guidelines. It might, however, be a
perfectly legal dodge. According to people who spoke with the FCC
enforcement investigator — who hung up on me — the issues to
investigate are: who controls program content, who does the hiring
and firing, and who makes financial decisions? And finally, what’s
the relationship between Weibling and McCaw? Certainly there’s no
doubt who controls the programming. Travis made it abundantly clear
that where content is concerned, he’s calling the shots. And it’s
just as clear that Travis’s control is hampering the free flow of
ideas. Who knows, maybe that matters. In the meantime, watch out
for shipwreck movies; it’s my experience they don’t prepare you for
the real thing. — Nick Welsh


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