News-Press Journalistic Ethics Forum Packs ‘Em In

Whose Press Is It Anyway?

Melinda Burns in town hall meeting, July, 2006
Paul Wellman

Whose Press Is It?

It was standing room only at a town hall forum on journalistic
ethics, in which a group of seasoned raconteurs—reporters,
publishers, a business lawyer, and a Teamster organizer—speechified
on journalistic integrity and the future of the Santa Barbara
News-Press. The nine reporters and editors who recently resigned in
a dispute over control of the newsroom, as well as current
News-Press staffers engaged in union organizing efforts to protect
their jobs, received a standing ovation as they walked to their
seats in Victoria Hall. The forum was sponsored by the progressive
organization Santa Barbara County Action Network (SBCAN), and
moderated by UCSB professor emeritus Dick Flacks, who was a
founding member of the radical Students for a Democratic Society in
the 1960s.

Former News-Press chief editor Jerry Roberts—who was among the
first to resign—kicked off the forum by quoting chapter and verse
from the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, which
he said safeguarded the newsroom’s integrity during his reign
there, but which has now been violated. At first glance, he
acknowledged, the issues that sparked this conflict—the publication
of a celebrity’s address and the suppression of a story on acting
publisher Travis Armstrong’s drunk driving conviction—may seem
trivial compared to the debates on war and patriotism convulsing
the nation, but he insisted they are “anything but.” At stake here,
he said, is the key principle of the wall of separation between a
newspaper’s business interests and its journalistic duty.

Jerry Robert’s speech

Reagan biographer and veteran Washington Post reporter Lou
Cannon urged the crowd to offer financial assistance to the
“magnificent nine” journalists who left their jobs, as well as
those who are risking them. “Their fight is our fight,” he said.
Regretfully recalling a time when he stood by and allowed a story
of his to be changed to satisfy a publisher’s interests, Cannon
labeled community support for the News-Press journalists “an
affirmation by those of us who believe in the preciousness of

Cannon’s speech

Several speakers considered the blurry line between a
journalist’s duty to report the truth and a newspaper owner’s free
speech rights. “I guess she’s thinking that buying a newspaper is
like buying a yacht,” Vanity Fair’s Anne Louise Bardach said of
multimillionaire News-Press owner Wendy McCaw.

Santa Barbara Independent publisher Randy Campbell introduced
himself as “the reclusive thousand-aire who owns The
”—although, as a Santa Barbara homeowner, he is
more accurately a millionaire. Campbell came down on the side of
the owner’s right to free speech, but noted that McCaw was a fool
to sabotage her reporters’ integrity. “That paper’s credibility is
not coming back,” said Campbell, who was among several to declare
that trustworthiness sells papers.

Former Santa Barbara City Counsel Steve Amerikaner—now in
private practice primarily representing major land developers—noted
that for the most part, News-Press editorials by McCaw and
Armstrong support the same pro-private property positions he
supports; he finds little joy in that, however, because the
editorials lack the spirit of civil discourse. Although the crisis
at the daily has received worldwide attention, Amerikaner pointed
out that iconic names like Rob Lowe and even Santa Barbara itself
have helped give the story legs, but its real impact is peculiar to
Santa Barbara. At the level of the paper’s actual readership, the
fact that the publisher will not publish dissenting opinions even
in the letters section jeopardizes local democracy.

After Teamster organizer Marty Keegan reported to the crowd that
McCaw has hired a legal team called Ogletree Deakins, which
specializes in union busting, current News-Press reporter Melinda
Burns took the mike, asking Santa Barbarans to cancel their
News-Press subscriptions on September 5 if the paper does not
satisfy its reporters’ and editors’ demands for union
representation and journalistic integrity. “We believe that with
your help,” she said, “we can turn the News-Press around.” But, she
acknowledged, “We will be asking for a lot of help.”

Wednesday night’s forum (7/26/06) was sponsored by SB CAN
(Santa Barbara County Action Network) and its sister organization
SBCORE (Santa Barbara Council on Research and Education). SB CAN is a countywide, grassroots
organization dedicated to promoting social justice and preserving
our community’s environmental and agricultural resources. SBCAN
advocates for the passage of progressive policies; educates and
organizes the public; and actively works to elect leaders who will
promote progressive public policies in office. We actively
encourage and insist upon opportunities for public involvement in
the development of public policy at all levels of local government.
SB CAN has nearly 400 dues paying members throughout Santa Barbara
County, and a full time executive director, Mary O’Gorman. We now
have a substantial base of active supporters in Santa Maria,
Lompoc, and the Santa Ynez Valley and throughout the South Coast.
As a result there is a great deal more voice for alternative
perspectives on many issues in these communities, and the emergence
of serious progressive challenges for local office.

SB CAN is the primary citizen watchdog for county
government, and actively monitors city governments in Santa Barbara
and Santa Maria. Several past board members are now elected
officials. Our election forums have been important events in recent
election campaigns.

SBCORE is a 501c3 organization that supports community
education and policy research relevant to SB CAN’s


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