Dog in the Fog

READ AND WEEP: In a perverse way, I’d like to
thank embattled News-Press owner Wendy P.
McCaw
and her bilious right-hand man Travis K.
Armstrong
for all the uproar now engulfing the
News-Press and the whole town. The sad soap opera
unfolding at the De la Guerra Plaza digs of Santa Barbara’s oldest
paper has succeeded in diverting our attention — if only a little
bit — from the gathering storm clouds of World War
III
now spreading from Lebanon and Israel. Even for the
most defiantly chirpy among us, these are scary times indeed. At
least for now we have fodder for distraction. But the people we
really have to thank are the News-Press
Nine
 — the brave souls who quit their jobs to protest the
wreckage McCaw and company are presently wreaking on the
community’s daily newspaper. We can also thank the workers who
stood outside the paper’s entrance during last Friday afternoon’s
impromptu protest and duct-taped their mouths shut to protest the
management’s gag orders to keep them from discussing what’s taking
place inside the News-Press. About 250 supporters and
well-wishers showed up for that grim exhibition of guerilla
theater. This Tuesday, another 500 or so showed up at De la Guerra
Plaza to again express outrage at what’s happened to their
newspaper.

NP_tape.jpgTuesday’s rally was patched together by
all-purpose environmental agitator and media provocateur
David Pritchett. Pritchett assembled many of the
usual suspects who’d run afoul of the News-Press editorial
pages by violating Travis and Wendy’s notions of how the world
should work. This included three South Coast mayors. But also
included was neighborhood activist Cheri Rae, who
always has had Wendy’s wind at her back and Travis’s sunshine in
her face. Despite strong support from Travis, Rae took him and
Wendy sharply to task for meddling in newsroom affairs. As Rae
asked, what good is the News-Press’s support to her — or
any community activist — if the paper has zero credibility in the
community? Her presence on the podium gave lie to Armstrong’s
attempt to dismiss the groundswell of opposition as merely the sour
grapes of greedy developers and advocates of high-density
affordable housing who are intent on ruining the South Coast’s
quality of life over his emphatic opposition. Pritchett riffed on
one-time Santa Barbara resident Ronald Reagan’s
most famous line, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall,” leading the
crowd in a chant of “Mrs. McCaw, build back that wall.” Reagan was
referring, of course, to the Berlin Wall, then crumbling during the
waning days of the Cold War. Pritchett was referring to the
firewall that’s said to exist at any decent newspaper, shielding
the news department from the pressures of the advertising
department and the whimsical intrusions of the owner. Without such
a wall, it’s hard for readers to distinguish
advertorials from real news and real reporting
from political propaganda. It should be noted that
even in the best of papers, this “wall” is the subject of constant
pressure, “dynamic tension,” being the preferred
euphemism in the trade. But McCaw pretty much leveled the wall at
the News-Press when she issued letters of reprimand for
anybody in her employ responsible for publishing the address of the
vacant lot where former bad-boy movie star Rob
Lowe
hopes to build his dream Mega Mansion. There was no
policy in place at the News-Press against listing such
addresses at the time the reprimands were issued. In fact, it was
common practice at the paper to publish the address of all
properties that were the subject of a heated public debate — as the
Lowe property was. But because her reporters and editors did not
intuitively grasp that wealthy Montecito celebrities like
Lowe — who complained after his address was published — were
entitled to preferential treatment, McCaw issued four harshly
worded letters of reprimand, threatening to fire anyone who did it
again. That was strike three. Strike one was trying to spike the
drunk-driving arrest of Travis Armstrong, then the
editorial page editor and editorial writer. Strike two was
successfully killing the story on Armstrong’s sentencing. (For the
record, it’s customary for the News-Press to report on
drunk-driving arrests of prominent citizens, as former UCSB
Chancellor Barbara Uehling can readily attest.)
When McCaw then appointed Armstrong as her acting
publisher — giving him exceptional authority to change news
reporters’ copy — while she and fiancé Arthur Von
Wiesenberger
went off to Europe, relations between
Armstrong and the newsroom became so toxic that they could qualify
as an EPA Superfund site. The newsroom responded accordingly with
the bench-clearing brawl we see before us
today.

V FOR VENDETTA: By now much of this is old
news. It’s been covered to death by major media outlets throughout
the world, including, finally, even the News-Press. The
story has legs that just won’t quit, and there’s little sign the
attention will let up. This confounds even those caught up in the
middle. But there are many obvious reasons for all this attention:
You’ve got a rich eccentric owner, Hollywood celebrities, and Santa
Barbara itself. Beyond that, there are the broader issues of media
ownership. At a time when reporters are getting caught fabricating
quotes and making up stories almost as frequently as professional
athletes are accused of rape and steroid abuse, the public’s
confidence in the press has never been lower. Thirty years ago, in
the post-Watergate blip, the public thought reporters were going to
save the world from conniving politicians. Today, the public holds
reporters in even lower regard than politicians themselves, and
often with good reason. In this context, to have reporters and
editors quit their jobs — especially in today’s parched and
unforgiving job market — in a dispute over journalistic ethics is
big news.

McCaw, Armstrong, and their revolving door of spin
doctors
have provided almost as many explanations for this
meltdown as the Bush administration has for the
invasion of Iraq. Last Friday, McCaw took to the front page of her
paper to blast her newsroom as a hotbed of political bias and
personal agendas. People quit, she said, because she would no
longer allow those personal agendas to prevail. Before that, we
were told the editors who resigned weren’t committed to local news,
even though that’s the drum they beat loudest and longest. It’s
worth noting that members of the News-Press Nine were
responsible for most of the first- and second-place California
Newspaper Publishers Association awards the paper just won.
Business editor Michael Todd was the guiding hand
for the agricultural coverage; reporters Scott
Hadly
and Dawn Hobbs for the coverage of
the internecine food fight that’s destroyed the Sheriff’s Council;
Colin Powers for the front-page design. All of
them — except Hobbs — have resigned. To be fair and balanced, I
must mention that the editorial pages won an award too, even though
it’s been the incessantly mean-spirited tone of Travis Armstrong’s
editorials — far more than the actual positions he takes — that
have so pissed off such a wide swath of the Santa Barbara
community.

What McCaw has never understood is how hard her people worked
for her, how much they loved the newspaper she bought, and how
ferociously dedicated they are to the art and craft of journalism.
Most people have never heard of Don Murphy, an
intelligent, insightful editor and gentle soul who for 19 years has
worked his way up the newsroom ladder. I used to cover City Council
and Planning Commission meetings with Murphy back when he was still
a reporter. He took such obvious delight in the give and take of
Santa Barbara’s democratic process — inane and maddening as it
sometimes was — that they could have charged him admission and he
would have gladly paid. Few people soaked it in so thoroughly; few
people got it so well. Even in small doses, Murphy’s enthusiasm was
infectious. Over the years Murphy evolved into the institutional
memory of the newsroom, connecting dots that new reporters — always
arriving in a steady stream — didn’t know even existed. As an
editor, Murphy also understood reporters were not always
infallible, and fought to keep the sloppy, the lazy, and the
willfully stupid contained, constrained, or out of the newsroom.
Now Murphy is gone, the Ft. Knox of local history — at least two
decades’ worth — shut down. At age 60, Murphy confronts the very
scary prospect of finding a job elsewhere, where none of all that
accumulated knowledge will do him much good. His departure is not
just his loss. It’s Wendy’s loss. It’s her paper’s loss. But it’s
our loss too. As his parting shot, Murphy told the crowd that if he
could ever talk to Wendy — which very few people can — he’d tell
her that she may have bought the News-Press, but she
didn’t buy the people who work for her, and she sure couldn’t buy
the news. It’s a good line, and goes to the heart of the matter.
For McCaw, it appears to be a simple matter: She bought the paper,
so it’s hers and she can do as she pleases with it. The problem is
that the newspaper also belongs to the community. And it always
will, no matter whose name is on the deed. In this regard, a
newspaper is a little like beer. As any barstool scientist can
attest, you don’t buy beer so much as rent it. Unfortunately for
all of us, McCaw seems intent on pissing it all away.

 — Nick Welsh

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