During the past week, The Independent offices have
been inundated with letters, phone calls, and emails, all
concerning recent events unfolding at the
Santa Barbara
News-Press. In this issue, we have printed a few of these,
including a most informative letter to that paper’s acting
publisher written by one of America’s preeminent journalists, Lou
Cannon. A complete posting of all letters and emails can be found
The Indy’s Web site (independent.com). Nick
Welsh has compiled a timeline which will explain the who, what,
when, and where of why six of the daily’s most senior editors,
including Executive Editor Jerry Roberts, resigned. But the most
powerful report is that by Barney Brantingham, perhaps Santa
Barbara’s most beloved writer. He explains in great detail why he
decided to leave a newspaper where he has worked for almost half a
century; it is a great honor for
The Independent to
publish this moving article. For us, here at
Independent, it is an even greater honor to announce that
Barney Brantingham has agreed to become our newest columnist. And
everyone in Santa Barbara will be happy to learn that this year’s
Grand Marshal of the Old Spanish Days Parade, Mr. Brantingham
himself, will be continuing to report on his adventures as he, once
again, eats his way through Fiesta.


Santa Barbara’s Beloved Columnist Tells His Story

by Barney Brantingham

I quit the Santa Barbara News-Press last week after
more than 46 years because I couldn’t bear to watch the destruction
of a fine newspaper. And it was too painful to see the destruction
of the lives of dedicated staffers whose only crime was publishing
the news. And I could not continue to work at a paper that had lost
its credibility and its soul.

Barney Brantingham in the '70s.

In a bizarre Kafkaesque/Castro twist, a story about suppression
of the news was suppressed. Last Friday, a news account written for
that day’s paper describing the biggest story in town — the
resignation of five editors (now seven, including myself) — was
killed. About 150 newspapers from the U.K. to India ran the story,
along with the L.A. Times — but not the News-Press. Even
News-Press employees outside the newsroom were shocked and
upset. One executive told fellow staffers: “Wendy McCaw may own the
paper, but she doesn’t own the news.”

I’ve always hated the expression “News-Suppress,” but now, to my
pain, I must admit it fits.

Ironically, until the last few months, these years working under
the highly respected Editor Jerry Roberts and the great Managing
Editor George Foulsham have been my best, my happiest, at the
paper. And, even more ironically in view of the current travesty
that has befallen the News-Press, this was during the
ownership of Wendy McCaw. To her credit, she has always given me
complete freedom to write. She has never interfered with my

But this idyllic time all came crashing down on July 6, last
Thursday morning. Roberts arrived back from vacation to find his
job as editor had been usurped by Travis Armstrong, the editorial
writer and editor of the opinion pages of the paper. Roberts
couldn’t ethically run a news department that was controlled by the
opinion side of the paper, and so he submitted his resignation to
be effective in 30 days. Always the professional, he was willing to
stay on the job to assure that the paper would continue to get out
and that the transition would be as smooth as possible. No way.

Instead, McCaw, with her fiancé and co-publisher Arthur von
Wiesenberger, decamped in her private jet to areas unknown, leaving
behind broken lives, a mangled paper, and Travis Armstrong as the
acting publisher. Now Armstrong has the upper hand.

Armstrong, as many know, is a court favorite of McCaw and, as
many have learned, is a dangerous man to anger. The author of
countless poison-pen attacks on public figures out of favor with
McCaw, he has become increasingly contentious and imperious. Now
the time of reckoning came for the news desk. Hadn’t Roberts run a
prominent story about Armstrong’s recent drunken driving arrest,
when he had been stopped by police driving down Santa Barbara
Street going in the wrong direction, with a blood alcohol level of
nearly three times the legal limit? But when Armstrong was
sentenced a few weeks later, the News-Press account of
that story never saw the light of day. Only The Independent printed
the information. Scooped again!

Last Thursday, I watched in dismay as Roberts was escorted out
of his office by Armstrong. According to one witness, Armstrong
barged into Roberts’s office saying, “I want you out of here now,”
or words to that effect. This was quite a spectacle: A longtime San
Francisco reporter and editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, a
journalist of the highest reputation in the nation, kicked out by
Mr. Poison Pen.

Many of us in the newsroom that day shook Jerry’s hand. Staffers
rushed up, women were in tears, Metro Editor Jane Hulse threw her
arms around Roberts, sobbing. Armstrong, widely despised in the
community and clearly uncomfortable with the love and respect being
shown the editor, growled, “Come on, Jerry, you have to leave the
building now.”

As he hustled Roberts down the hall and toward the door flanked
by Human Resources Director Yolanda Apodaca, sorrow turned to
anger. Hulse yelled, “Fuck you, Travis. Haven’t you done enough?”
The gathered staffers took up the chorus: “Fuck you!”

Then Hulse quit. Foulsham, it turned out, had already given
notice and Deputy Managing Editor Don Murphy, a soft-spoken,
19-year News-Press editor, had cleared out his desk and
was gone. Business Editor Michael Todd, known for working night and
day, was already on suspension, his days clearly numbered after
daring to explain to McCaw journalism’s tradition of separating an
owner’s whim and opinion from the responsibility of keeping the
news as objective as humanly possible. I resigned in protest that
afternoon and Sports Editor Gerry Spratt quit the next day.

This was the breaking point of intolerable tensions that had
built up regarding front office meddling with the news. The
beginning of the end came after publisher Joe Cole, a longtime
business associate of McCaw and a moderating influence, left more
than a month ago. It’s not clear whether Cole was pushed out or if
he had just had enough. It was announced that he had “retired,”
though at 50 years old, Cole is far from Social Security age. Cole,
a well-known lawyer with a friendly, diplomatic style, was seen as
a buffer between McCaw and Armstrong, and the newsroom. At that
time, von Wiesenberger, who is the paper’s restaurant reviewer, was
named co-publisher with McCaw. Amateur Hour was in full swing.

Barney_at_News-Press.jpgOne of the most difficult parts of this
story for me is that Arthur von Wiesenberger had been my longtime
friend. He was the best man at my wedding to my wife Sue DeLapa. We
traveled around the world together and co-hosted a weekly radio
show. When he became engaged to McCaw on Valentine’s Day a few
years ago, I was happy for him. Just a couple of weeks ago, before
Armstrong began to take control of the newsroom, I had lunch with
Arthur and warned him that Travis Armstrong was a growing cancer on
the News-Press, that his extremely vitriolic columns and
editorials were alienating the paper from the community at large.
And though I have not heard from either von Wiesenberger or McCaw
since I sent in my resignation, it seems clear that my warning had
gone unheeded.

Instead, the tragedy ended with more bodies strewn around than
the last act of Hamlet. Russian playwrights couldn’t have written
anything sadder. The mass resignations were probably inevitable,
but what apparently triggered the big blowup was the Rob Lowe
Incident. The West Wing actor wants to build a Montecito
mega-mansion, and he’s certainly not the first to want his own
castle there. At a hearing, one of his neighbors objected to losing
his view. Commissioners gave Lowe a split decision. Lowe was then
interviewed by News-Press reporter Camilla Cohee but made
no request that the address of the vacant lot not be mentioned.
However, later that day, Lowe reportedly phoned Armstrong and asked
that the address not be used, even though it was prominently
mentioned at the hearing which was shown on cable TV for hours,
published on many documents, and was the actual title of the case.
But his message apparently never got through to the newsroom. Had
it, perhaps some accommodation could have been made. Like
“somewhere in Montecito.”

But the story made the front page, with the address included.
Then hell broke loose. Lowe or his representative complained. Cohee
said she received a call from von Wiesenberger in France — a prior
trip — quizzing her about the story. This was a Journalism 101
no-no. Publishers are not supposed to lean on reporters, grill
them, or try to influence the news, present or future. If a
publisher has a problem, he or she deals with the top editors about

You can’t do good journalism if you’re worried about offending
someone “important.” This, coupled with pressure from the business
side, has a chilling, intimidating effect. But no one could have
expected the surreal chain of events this set in motion.

Soon Cohee and three editors got letters of reprimand from McCaw
regarding the Great Vacant Lot Address Problem, including one
editor who didn’t even have anything to do with the piece. They all
replied to McCaw, but Todd’s reply strongly raised these
“church/state” separation issues, and he was slapped with a
two-week suspension without pay. This was supposedly due to a
joking remark he’d made to another staffer on the street more than
a month prior. Many suspect that the suspension was really due to
his objecting to the reprimand.

To Todd, McCaw’s letter made it clear that he had no future at
the paper.

In the meantime, according to Cohee, Armstrong was refusing to
run her story about longtime Carpinteria City Councilmember Donna
Jordan not planning to run again, wanting her to throw in more
negative comments about Jordan, who backed several positions
opposed by News-Press editorials. The Independent
ran the story. Scooped again!

The virtual reign of terror shook the newsroom to its roots. I
arrived back at my desk from vacation the Monday following the Lowe
debacle. I began cleaning out my desk. Opinion was seeping onto the
news pages and the paper was bleeding its best editors and its
precious integrity.

In a New York Times story published July 10, a McCaw
spokesperson said that the editors quit because they disagreed with
her push for local news — an absurd assertion, since that was the
very thing on which everyone in the newsroom was focused. In a
word, the claim was baloney.

And while we’re setting straight the record, let’s point out
that the News-Press’s front-page claim that the paper is in its
151st year is bogus. Since T.M. Storke, my first owner/publisher,
didn’t found what became the News-Press until 1901, where did they
come up with those other 50 years? And while I’m on the subject of
T.M. Storke, let me just say: He was a tough boss, but he could
take the heat. No one who ever knew him could imagine that in the
middle of a crisis as great as the News-Press currently
faces, T.M. Storke would leave the building, let alone fly off on a
vacation. He would face the music; he would see the paper though to
safety. And why? Because whether you liked Storke or not, whether
you agreed with his editorials or not, T.M. Storke was a
journalist, a real newspaper man.

I profoundly regret all that has come to pass in this sad mess,
but I don’t regret my years with the paper. I’ve worked nights and
weekends and covered tedious City Hall nighttime meetings,
wildfires where I almost got killed, angry Goleta water wars,
Vietnam War peace rallies, the I.V. riots, the 1969 oil spill, rock
concerts, the courts, and police beats. I met wonderful people,
friends for life in some cases.

Then, a kid from the streets of Chicago’s Southside, who just
wanted to sit in the back of the room and take notes, got a column.
It’s one of those remarkable facets of American journalism where
someone is allowed to give his or her honest opinion and take on
life. It’s a unique, independent view, not an editorial reflecting
the newspaper’s official position or a straight news story where
the writer’s opinions aren’t allowed.

It’s a privilege I’ve enjoyed and honored at the
News-Press since 1977, when I took over from the late Tom
Kleveland. Some have disagreed with my opinions, but that’s to be
expected. It was my job to raise issues and stimulate discussion of
controversial issues.

Now I’m gone, after 46 years and three months. Look, the day had
to come at some point. I had my time and at least I didn’t go out

What is important is a newspaper’s credibility, and the
News-Press’s credibility is in tatters. Brave souls in the
newsroom are doing their best, managing under intense pressure,
fearing for their jobs if they somehow happen to displease
Armstrong. It’s sad, but I can no longer believe what I read in the
News-Press because I have to wonder whether the dark
shadow of meddling hands are censoring or suppressing the news.

FOUR•ONE•ONE A rally will be held on
Tuesday, July 18
, for advertisers and readers to demand
the News-Press “build back the wall” between news and
opinion content. Meet at noon at De la Guerra Plaza in front of the
News-Press building.


News-Press Timeline

by Nick Welsh

April 24, 2006: Santa Barbara Mayor Marty Blum
and Supervisor Susan Rose are barred from participating in a talk
show hosted by a consortium of non-profit agencies on
News-Press radio station KZSV 1290 AM, although
the show sponsors paid for airtime.

April 27: Editorial page editor and columnist
Travis Armstrong, in a News-Press interview, said station
policy prohibited people from appearing as guests on one
show — even if leased by a separate entity — if they’d declined
invitations to appear on other programs. Sponsors privately
expressed shock at such a policy. Mayor Blum said she’d been on his
show once, and that she had never committed to being on a program
discussing June elections. Armstrong responded by writing that Blum
had a “sense of entitlement,” and that her attitude was akin “to
something out of a former Communist bloc.”

April 27: Publisher Joe Cole announced he was
leaving the newspaper and severed all professional associations
with owner Wendy P. McCaw so he could spend more time with his
family. Cole’s announcement ignited a firestorm of speculation
whether he quit or was fired. One of Santa Barbara’s most
successful business attorneys, Cole also had served as legal
counsel to McCaw and her Ampersand Holdings Co. He is credited with
hiring Jerry Roberts — former executive editor of the San Francisco
Chronicle — as executive editor of the News-Press.

April 27: On the same day, McCaw announced she
was appointing herself and her fiancé, Arthur von Wiesenberger, as
publishers. The News-Press reported that von
Wiesenberger — a bon vivant, food writer, travel critic, bottled
water expert, and owner of the once-famous Montecito nightclub
Nippers — edited his high school newspaper in Switzerland.

May 6: Armstrong bestowed the Goleta Chamber of
Commerce’s “Goleta’s Finest Award” at the Bacara Hotel.

May 7: At 2:45 a.m., police officers spotted
Armstrong driving the wrong way down Santa Barbara Street, arrested
him for drunken driving, impounded his car, and booked him into
county jail.

May 9: The daily ran an interview with
Armstrong, who said he had arranged to be driven back from the
Bacara, knowing that he might be drinking, but then had a few more
glasses of wine at home. Upset with thoughts about work, he went
for a late night drive to clear his head. According to newsroom
insiders, von Wiesenberger tried to kill the story.

May 25: After The Independent reported
that News-Press staffers initiated “The Jerry Watch,” to
see how long Roberts would continue working for the daily, some
employees were questioned privately by management to determine
whether they had spoken to Independent reporters.

June 9: Armstrong pleaded guilty to driving
with nearly three times the legal blood-alcohol limit, was fined,
and sentenced to four days’ jail time. A News-Press
article describing the court action was killed, reportedly at the
insistence of the publishers.

June 20: Roberts left on holiday. Armstrong
started attending news meetings, and was accompanied by a human
relations officer who took notes. The meetings no longer were held
in Roberts’s office.

June 21: Despite the objections of a neighbor,
the Montecito Planning Commission approved actor Rob Lowe’s
proposed 14,000-square-foot house to be built on a now-vacant lot
at 7000 Picacho Lane. Reporter Camilla Cohee included the address
in a story about the proceedings. Responding to a call from Lowe
asking that the address be withheld, Armstrong emailed two editors.
But by then, the article had been printed.

June 22: The employee handbook was officially
revised to warn that employees who talk about internal matters with
other news organizations face immediate termination.

June 23: Though addresses are commonly included
in land planning stories and the daily has had no prior written
policy on withholding addresses, McCaw issued letters of reprimand
to Cohee and three editors: Jane Hulse, George Foulsham, and
Michael Todd, all believed to have reviewed the story. The letter
to business editor Todd stated: “Lowe’s address has damaged our
credibility with the Lowe family and potentially damaged relations
with other high-profile readers. … As a result of this error, the
Lowe family canceled their subscription.” McCaw concluded: “It is
now company policy that no addresses are to be published” without
the publishers’ approval.

June 28: All four news staffers sent letters of
protest. Todd wrote that the address was necessary to the story,
that punishing reporters for violating policies that did not exist
before publication to “border on the malicious and defamatory,” and
that to give special treatment to “high-profile” residents like
Lowe violated the doctrine set down by former News-Press
owner and publisher T.M. Storke: “Publish the news that is public
property without fear or favor of friend or foe.”

June 29: McCaw dismissed Todd’s arguments about
journalistic ethics as “specious,” and that it should be “a matter
of common sense and decency” not to publish the actor’s address.
“This is sensationalism, it is unethical, it is not the kind of
paper I intend to run,” McCaw wrote. As his tone was
“argumentative” and “blatantly disrespectful,” according to McCaw,
Todd was placed on indefinite unpaid leave pending the outcome of
an investigation into a non-sexual remark that offended another
employee six weeks prior. He was then escorted from the

June 30: McCaw and von Wiesenberger left on
vacation. Armstrong was named acting publisher for reportedly three
months. He was given unprecedented authority to alter news
articles. When Cohee filed a story about Carpinteria City
Councilmember Donna Jordan’s decision not to seek re-election after
16 years in office, according to News-Press sources,
Armstrong instructed Cohee to include more negative information.
Thus far, the article has not run. July 2: Jerry
Roberts returned.

July 5: Deputy Managing Editor Don Murphy, a
19-year veteran of the paper, resigned. Iconic columnist Barney
Brantingham, after 46 years in the newsroom, submitted his

July 6: At 9:45 a.m., Jerry Roberts submitted
his resignation along with those of Metro Editor Hulse and managing
editor George Foulsham. The human relations director escorted out
Roberts. He stopped to hug some tearful colleagues. Armstrong
showed up, took Roberts by the arm, and said, “You have to leave
now, Jerry.” This elicited a chorus of profanity from those
assembled. “Fuck you, Travis,” shouted Hulse. “Haven’t you done
enough?” Others expressed similar sentiments. Armstrong next told
Hulse to leave. At her house, her husband, a reporter for the
L.A. Times, presented her with a cheesecake bearing the
inscription, “F&%$ Travis.” Later that day, Sports Editor Gerry
Spratt also quit.

July 6: The upheaval made the front page of the
Los Angeles Times. A News-Press spokesman, Sam
Singer, a San Francisco-based consultant specializing in crisis
management, was quoted as saying that the editors left due to a
disagreement in editorial direction. McCaw, Singer explained,
wanted more local news. Reporter Scott Hadley wrote a story for the
News-Press detailing the resignations, but it has yet to

July 7: In a front-page editorial, Armstrong
compared the struggle between the newsroom and McCaw to a family
dispute. Briefly acknowledging the unprecedented exodus, he
confirmed the paper’s commitment to excellence. No letters to the
editor on the subject were published. Employees reported that hard
drives from computers used by five of the six editors who resigned
were removed to Ampersand headquarters. Unconfirmed reports
suggested the administration had hired an agency to track employee
phone calls.

July 8: Jerry Roberts tried to retrieve the
contents of his desk from the News-Press, but security
guards won’t let him in the building.

July 9: The paper announced the appointment of
four replacement editors; all but one were hired internally.

July 11: At the Board of Supervisors meeting, a
homeless man who goes by the name Lazarus said that McCaw and
Armstrong were in need of county mental health and alcohol
services, and that people with their problems should not be allowed
in positions of power or importance.


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