Paul Wellman

The sweltering forum held a couple Wednesdays ago was intended
to open a community dialogue on how best to deal with the
New-Press‘s apparent indifference to its position of
public trust.

Our intent on this website was to continue the dialogue in the
hope the weblog format would allow for a better give and take. We
have already published a
of the evening, with two of the more prominent speeches
also presented by journalists
Jerry Roberts
and Lou

What follows is the speech by Steve Amerikaner (pictured), which
focused on the editorial tone of the News-Press the past
few years. –Randy Campbell

A Request for Civil Community Discourse

Presented to the Town Meeting and Forum July 26, 2006,
Victoria Theatre, Santa Barbara California

My name is Steve Amerikaner. I have lived in SB for 23 years,
and have been a lawyer for 31 years. I served as Santa Barbara City
Attorney from 1982 to 1990, and have been in private practice with
a local law firm since 1991.

I’m speaking today as an individual, not on behalf of my law
firm, not on behalf of the business and charitable organizations
that I am involved in.

Over the weekend, I learned a new word on a local blog site:
NewsPressMess. For brevity’s sake, I’ll use it tonight.

The NewsPressMess is now three weeks old. In that time, it has
been reported in the LA Times, the NY Times, the Washington Post,
hundreds of regional and local papers, and overseas. It is
reportedly the subject of an article being written for Vanity

A friend of mine has a grandmother in Spain who has no running
water and gets her mail by goat-cart. Right, a cart pulled by a
goat. Her grandmother called the other day and asked what all the
fuss was about the Santa Barbara newspaper.

Here, it is a fertile source of comment on the Independent’s web
site and on Blogabarbara, which for me is a recently acquired
habit. And, I sense that it is a topic of conversation at many, if
not most, social events. Most days at Jeanine’s I overhear
conversations about it.

I’ve been asking myself: Why has this become so big? Of course,
journalists in other places are captivated by the conflict between
working reporters and management, particularly when there are
accusations of ownership interference with news reporting. And,
this particular story has additional magnets: a billionaire owner,
a movie star, and the ever popular name Santa Barbara.

But, why is the story so big here in our little corner of the
world? I have a theory about that.

It seems to many people that I’ve talked to that, over the past
few years, the editorial page has become increasingly
mean-spirited. The editorials go beyond advocating a position. In
many cases, they seem to go out of their way to impugn the
integrity or motives of those who assert a different viewpoint.

The editorials go beyond advocating a position. In many
cases, they seem to go out of their way to impugn the integrity or
motives of those who assert a different viewpoint.

In some cases, the newspaper’s poison pen has been directed at a
small group of elected officials, whether local, state or federal.
Indeed, the editorial page seems to go out of its way to vilify
that select group of officials, often repeatedly and in some cases
months after they have left public life.

In other cases, private individuals and groups are targeted. The
language is just as intemperate and disrespectful.

Now, I need to say something at this point. In many of the
situations I am describing, I find that I agreed with the substance
of the editorial’s position on the issue. For example, I believe in
private property rights and wish that they received the same kind
of care and concern as the right to free speech that we are
exercising here tonight. I find myself critical of some decisions
and policies of the Coastal Commission. And, I believe that we look
to government far too often for solutions to our problems, when
private action or public/private partnerships can do the job more

But, even when I shared the paper’s viewpoint on many of the
issues, I found myself recoiling at the gratuitously vindictive
tone and language.

There is a second complaint that one hears quite often. I have
heard many people complain that the letters to the editor are
manipulated to promote certain viewpoints. Most often, you hear
people say that their letter was not published, even though the
issue was one of community concern and the letter was reasonable
and responsible.

I heard that comment again at a party last weekend from an
executive of a significant local business.

From these conversations, I have come to believe that there are
a lot of angry people in Santa Barbara, and they were made angry by
the editorial practices of the News Press. Now, that’s not the same
subject that Jerry Roberts is talking about, but I think it is a
subject that has received too little attention or discussion.

And, I’m not talking about the same kind of chronic, low grade
griping about the News Press that I’ve heard since moving here in
1982, when the paper was owned by the Taylor Family or later on
when it was owned by the NY Times. The anger that has emerged over
the past few years is much sharper and deeper than the traditional

The interesting thing about that anger is that it is shared by
people with very different politics. Conservative and progressive,
Democrat and Republican. And they are angry about different events.
Each of them has a particular source of their aggravation.

What they have in common is a sense that the News Press is not
promoting a civil discourse on community issues. Instead, by
demonizing those with whom it disagrees, it treats those people as

The interesting thing about that anger is that it is shared by
people with very different politics…What they have in common is a
sense that the News Press is not promoting a civil discourse on
community issues.

This has been accomplished with one editorial at a time, one
letter at a time. With each one, another hot spot has been set in
Santa Barbara, another individual or group has been angered. Over
time there have been dozens, maybe hundreds of those hot spots

So, when the tropical storm arrived three weeks ago in the form
of the resignations of News Press Nine, that tropical storm picked
up all that energy from all those hot spots and turned into a
Category 4 Hurricane. Hurricane Wendy, you might call it.

Now, some will argue with me and point out that the acerbic and
disrespectful tone of the News Press is echoed in at least some of
the postings on the local blogs. However, I agree with a friend of
mine who noted that there is a big difference between a blog and a
community newspaper of record. The latter should not descend to the
level of the former under any circumstances.

Now, some of you are thinking that this is turning into a
weak-kneed plea: “Can’t we all just get along?” No so.

I think a robust community debate is terrific. I think we ought
to have very large and vibrant arguments about the Gaviota Coast,
about 4 story buildings in downtown Santa Barbara, about the City
budget and police salaries, about the County budget and finding new
sources of revenue, about a vision for the Goleta Valley, about how
to clean up our creeks and the ocean. We have a lot to discuss, a
lot to argue about.

But the people on the other side are not our enemies. They are
our neighbors. We can disagree with them, and still treat them with

Respect. As I see it, that’s what’s missing here.

When the News Press events first broke, the management made a
series of classic blunders that seemed to display a lack of respect
for its employees and the community.

First, you remember the letter that appeared on the front page
of the paper from the Interim Publisher? It denied that there was a
problem. Said that every family has its little spats. Everything is
fine. Don’t worry. Be happy.

People shook their heads and rolled their eyes.

The approach changed a few days later, when the owner wrote a
letter on the front page. In that remarkable missive, she accused
the people who left the paper for violating journalistic standards.
In essence, she said that the reporters and editors who resigned to
enter an uncertain job market were to blame for the paper’s

So, first the head in the sand. Then the finger of blame. It was
positively Nixonian or, for you Republicans out there, arguably

Perhaps I’m just naïve, but I really thought that most American
businesses had learned how to confront corporate problems without
resorting to denial and scapegoating. After all, most business
schools now have classes that teach crisis management.

Finally, finally, the paper hired a PR firm with some sense. We
can only hope that the paper does not continue to avoid and accuse,
but instead displays a willingness to engage in the kind of
community discussion that is needed.

People are talking about starting an on line local newspaper;
others are talking about the LA Times or the Ventura Star opening a
Santa Barbara bureau and going head to head with the News Press for
advertising and subscriber dollars.

I haven’t been asked for my advice about how the News Press can
survive. And I don’t imagine that, after tonight, I will be. I’ll
offer it anyway. I think the paper can survive, but only if it
makes some radical changes.

I do not believe the community’s faith in the News Press as a
source of information and opinion will be restored until the
editorial page practices and vocabulary are changed. And that will
require putting a new editorial page editor in place and putting
the editorial content in the hands of an editorial board with a
different approach.

Without very substantial internal reforms, I believe that many
in this community will continue to harbor doubts about what they
read in the New-Press.

Lastly, and most importantly, the News Press management needs to
treat its employees and the Santa Barbara community with respect.
Without that, this venerable institution cannot survive.

Thank you.


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