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X-Dogs: The Last Stand

GET ME REWRITE, GUT THE PRESS: Back when I was
still a recovering Catholic, the story of
Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden used to
infuriate me beyond belief. It seemed incredibly unfair that every
human born since those two would come into the world indelibly
stained with Original Sin just because Adam and
Eve disobeyed the Almighty and ate the apple.
Under this scenario, we’re all born with three
strikes
against us; we don’t even get a chance to screw
up. But now that I am a fully recovered Catholic and these matters
no longer get under my skin, I see the wisdom in such
theological pessimism. Its basis — from which all
else follows — is the infinite perversity of the human
species
. The original-sin scenario recognizes that even if
we have within our grasp everything we need to be perfectly happy,
we’ll mess it all up the very first chance we get.

Wendy McCaw
Paul Wellman (file)

This inescapably pathetic fact of life is now playing itself out behind the scenes
at our daily newspaper, the Santa Barbara
News-Press
. From the outside looking in, that paper should
be a journalistic Garden of Eden. In an era of corporate chain
journalism, the News-Press enjoys the distinction of being locally
owned — by reclusive billionaire Mrs. Wendy P.
McCaw
. Its executive editor Jerry
Roberts
, a former star with the San Francisco Chronicle,
has put together an impressive team of talented and hardworking
reporters. One might think life at the News-Press would be so
hunky-dory that Mrs. McCaw could spend most of her days collecting
and polishing awards for journalistic excellence. Those awards
have, in fact, been streaming in, but they haven’t prevented life
at the daily from degenerating into a living hell.
It appears meltdown is just moments away. In this case, the straw
that broke the camel’s back looks more like a heavy metal I-beam.
For violating a policy that did not exist — specifically, offending
Montecito movie star Rob Lowe — one beloved and
respected high-ranking News-Press editor has just been effectively
fired. For the same violation of the same non-existent policy, two
other editors and one reporter have been seriously chastised, with
letters of reprimand placed in their personnel files. It’s widely
expected that when Jerry Roberts returns from vacation this week,
he will either quit or be fired. Barney
Brantingham
, columnist-at-large since before forever, has
reportedly already quit, depriving the News-Press of its most
publicly recognized face and voice. In addition, as many as three
other senior newsroom staffers are rumored to have written their
resignation letters or have resigned already. In other words, it’s
a self-inflicted blood bath.

Adding considerable insult to all this injury, Mrs. McCaw just
appointed Travis K. Armstrong — the poison
pen
who infuses the paper’s editorials with so much
caustic contempt — as the latest publisher. In addition, it appears
Mrs. McCaw may have given Armstrong — who faithfully reflects Mrs.
McCaw’s peculiar blend of environmental, libertarian, animal
rights, and let-them-eat-cake antigovernment politics —
unprecedented and exceptional authority. As
publisher, Armstrong has reportedly been given the explicit right
to edit and change news articles as he sees fit. It’s a given in
any newspaper that publishers — who represent the paper’s business
interest — are on occasion tempted to mess with news. Safeguards to
prevent this sort of meddling are supposedly built into the system;
to the extent these safeguards fail, papers lose credibility. Given
the exceedingly bad blood between Armstrong and the news department
(which had the temerity to publish a story on his recent
drunk-driving arrest, though he managed to squelch the subsequent
article about his guilty plea and sentencing), this new arrangement
promises to be especially poisonous.

While trouble has been brewing at the News-Press for many moons,
this latest episode began on June 21, when the Montecito
Planning Commission
narrowly approved Lowe’s request to
build a mega mansion on a vacant parcel of land he
bought for $8.5 million at 700 Picacho Lane. After a Hollywood
career of successfully fusing the very cute and the very nasty,
Lowe has settled down in Montecito, where, like everyone else, he
got the itch to build his dream house. With all the bells and
whistles — including pool houses, cabanas, garages, and guesthouses
— it weighs in at about 15,000 square feet. Even by Montecito
standards, that’s large. Lowe’s immediate neighbor Fred Gluck
complained that the 24-foot-high fence Lowe proposed to construct
for privacy purposes would substantially diminish the scenic views
he now enjoys. Gluck, by the way, is no lightweight. After stints
at Bell Labs and Bechtel, he’s
become a major rainmaker for one of the world’s premier management
consulting firms, even issuing a now-famous report on how the
Catholic Church is on the fast track to nowhere if
it can’t quell its feudal management culture.
After settlement efforts by Gluck and Lowe’s attorneys went
nowhere, Gluck appealed to the Planning Commission. There he argued
(correctly) that Lowe’s plans exceed Montecito build-out guidelines
by about 20 percent. But then it turned out, so did Gluck’s.
Ultimately, the Montecito planning agency concluded that since
everybody in Montecito is building castles these
days — mansions are apparently the luxury homes of yesterday — it
would be unfair to say no to Lowe. Aside from the wealth and
celebrity of the players involved, this was a typical Santa
Barbara land-use story
. Certainly, News-Press reporter
Camilla Cohee wrote it up as one, and that
involved listing the address of the proposed development. Lowe was
upset his address was mentioned and complained to the News-Press,
presumably Mrs. McCaw or Mr. Armstrong. As a rich celebrity, it’s
easy to imagine Lowe being concerned about his privacy. But the
fact is, his address was listed on a vast quantity of
public documents relating to this permit struggle.
At the June 21 hearing, Lowe himself spoke, and I noticed he
mentioned many of his neighbors by both name and address. At the
public hearing, anyone who cared to watch — it was broadcast on
government-channel, public-access TV — saw maps of the Lowe
property from every conceivable angle.

Still, whatever outrage Lowe felt, Mrs. McCaw shared.
(Notoriously media-shy herself, Mrs. McCaw nearly walked away from
buying the News-Press from the New York Times five
years ago when the Times published a paparazzi-style photograph of
her.) The News-Press has no formal policy about
listing addresses, though they are customary in planning stories,
if not absolutely essential. One obvious purpose of
reporting
is to alert the general public to a broader
controversy, so that citizens might become involved. In many
land-use battles, it would be difficult to weigh in without knowing
precisely what property was involved. Although Mrs. McCaw
acknowledged the paper’s lack of any policy on the matter, she
nonetheless sent stinging letters of reprimand to
Cohee and the three editors she believed had a hand in the story:
Jane Hulse, George Foulsham, and Michael
Todd
. She insisted their decision to include Lowe’s
address constituted “a careless error of judgment.” All four
reportedly wrote back in protest, Hulse insisting she had nothing
to do with the story. Todd’s letter was reportedly a
zinger. Shortly after he sent it, Todd — widely
admired in the newsroom for his intelligence, work ethic, and skill
— was placed on indefinite unpaid leave, pending
the outcome of an investigation into a smartass
remark
he made to a News-Press employee many weeks before.
The offending comment had to do with Todd and this employee running
into each other on State Street, and was along the lines of, “I
would have swerved to run you over, but you were with two friends
at the time, so I didn’t.” Unless there’s a dark history between
these two, this qualifies as a dumb joke, not atypical of the
barbed banter heard in any newsroom in
America.

All these events have left the News-Press office in an uproar.
If someone as competent and popular as Todd could be fired, no one
was safe. And to the extent there was a reason, it was to further a
double standard by which the rich and famous receive preferential
news treatment. Given Mrs. McCaw’s emphatic and overwhelming
opposition to the Living Wage — designed to lift
those on the bottom up a few rungs — and her rage at the Coastal
Commission for securing the public’s absolute right to walk on the
beach in front of her Hope Ranch estate, there are those both
inside and outside the newsroom who question her empathy for the
less fortunate. Perhaps to quell such concerns, Mrs. McCaw has
issued a new sweeping edict decreeing that
henceforth no addresses be listed in any News-Press article unless
the subject — rich and famous or not — gives prior consent.
Already, this policy has born ridiculous results. Last week’s
front-page article about a possible location for a new police
headquarters was conspicuously devoid of an address.

As the News-Press careens headlong into certain disaster, Mrs.
McCaw and her betrothed, Arthur Von Weisenberger,
have left town for a few weeks’ vacation — but not before issuing a
few other edicts from on high. Henceforth, we are told, the word
“blond” will always be spelled “blonde” (either as
noun or adjective) when applied to females. And unless a woman
specifically instructs News-Press reporters that she wishes to be
referred to as “Ms.,” her name will be preceded by the more
traditional designations “Miss” or “Mrs.” Finally, in another
edict, anyone from the News-Press caught talking with me faces a
range of penalties, up to and including immediate
termination
. I’m sure all these changes will be of great
comfort to the community when what should have been a journalistic
Garden of Eden explodes. In this case, it appears Adam and Eve
aren’t waiting for the Almighty to chase them out of Paradise;
they’ve decided to blow it up instead. And I don’t know if there’s
any recovering from that. — Nick Welsh


Update to this story, click here.

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