Dogs on a Plane

STINK FEST FOLLIES: The enduring dust-up at the News-Press calls
to mind the old schoolyard axiom: 10,000 flies can’t be wrong. In
other words, something supremely stinky’s going down at Santa
Barbara’s oldest daily despite the hyperventilated protestations to
the contrary by owner-publisher Wendy P. McCaw, her in-house hit
man Travis K. Armstrong, and her professional mouthpiece Agnes
Huff, PhD. Their explanation as to why 17 editors, reporters, and
writers — the latest being deputy sports editor Kimberly Burnell,
who resigned early this week — have quit decent-paying and
hard-to-get jobs since July 6? As they tell it, this stunning
exodus has nothing to do with any breach of journalistic ethics by
McCaw, as all 17 have alleged. Instead, they insist it has
everything to do with jack-booted union thugs conspiring with a
small band of disgruntled employees who are angry because Wendy
stopped them from abusing the newspaper’s public trust and
injecting their own political agendas into the paper’s news

As they tell it, this unholy union has been supported by a cabal
of greedy developers and their boot-licking lackeys eager to sell
out the environment for a few meager units of affordable housing.
One would have thought that with Wendy’s vast wealth she and her
hirelings could have come up with something a little more original.
Her attempt to play the mythical left-wing media boogeyman might
fly in right-wing TV, but here in Santa Barbara it has little
resonance with the public and even less with the facts. That might
be why in the two months since this story first broke, Wendy has
yet to provide even a shred of evidence supporting her claims.

But don’t take my word for it. After all, nobody could confuse
me for a neutral observer. But the state of California — through
the offices of the Employment Development Department (EDD) — has
weighed in on the issue, granting unemployment insurance payments
to reporter Scott Hadly, who quit over his ethical differences with
McCaw and Armstrong. Initially, the EDD was reluctant to grant
Hadly’s claim. After all, he walked off the job. The law allows
unemployment payments to people who quit only in rare instances.
But Hadly made the case he was “constructively terminated” because
he could no longer do his job at the News-Press without violating
basic journalistic ethics.

This argument proved persuasive to one of the state’s most
sodden and indifferent bureaucracies, and EDD ruled that Hadly
qualified. It’s worth noting that Hadly, an unassuming star in that
paper’s newsroom, had previously expressed concern over
journalistic ethics under the McCaw regime. In fact four years ago,
he wrote a letter — signed by 17 reporters — asking to meet with
then-publisher Joe Cole to discuss their concerns about the
direction provided by the paper’s top management. “Some of the
suggestions and directions we’ve received raise serious concerns
about the newspaper’s commitment to journalistic integrity,” he
wrote. “For some of us they also raise questions about our own
future here.” The meeting with Cole never happened.

One day after Hadly’s letter was sent, Cole announced the hiring
of Jerry Roberts as the paper’s editor-in-chief. At the time
Roberts — whose wise-cracking demeanor calls to mind a bearded,
bespectacled Bugs Bunny — was a certified star in California
newspaper circles.

His appointment was regarded as a major coup and during
Roberts’s four-year tenure, morale in the News-Press newsroom was
never higher. Since quitting over differences with McCaw on July 6,
Roberts has received an award for journalistic ethics from the
Society of Professional Journalists. He’s also been on the
receiving end of a $500,000 complaint filed by McCaw, charging that
his actions caused the newspaper substantial pain and suffering.
I’d suggest if McCaw is looking to punish the parties most
responsible for her newspaper’s demise, she’d do better to sue
herself. That, at least, would be original.

Recent letter-writing efforts by News-Press reporters have not
been as fortuitous as Hadly’s. An effort last Monday to
hand-deliver to McCaw a letter signed by 25 newsroom workers led to
two-day unpaid suspensions for 11 of them. Likewise, an effort
undertaken by six high-profile community members to sit down with
McCaw and chat about the paper’s problems went without the common
courtesy of a reply. One of the signatories was Summerland resident
Lou Cannon, the former White House correspondent, Ronald Reagan
hagiographer, and revered elder statesman in the journalistic

Another was Harriett Phillips, the longtime Goleta activist and
slow-growther. Phillips, who has enjoyed cordial relations with
Armstrong, has been around long enough to remember butting heads
with former News-Press owner and publisher T.M. Storke. “When the
Old Man was alive, we had no trouble getting in to meet him,” she
recalled. “Sure, he often disagreed with us. But we could always
get in to talk.” In this context, it’s easy to understand how Lou
and Harriett might have their noses out of joint. But Santa
Barbara’s changed a lot since the Old Man’s day. Now, being a
billionaire conveys an inalienable right to be rude, to disregard
what other people think, and to maintain an impregnable buffer of
contempt and disdain between oneself and everyone else. That’s not
to say people afflicted with such personality disorders can’t find
success in many fields. But being a small-town newspaper owner and
publisher doesn’t happen to be one of them.

More than anything else, Wendy’s egregious lack of etiquette is
animating the community’s widespread revolt against the News-Press.
It’s almost as simple as “please” and “thank you.” Almost. Concerns
about journalistic ethics, freedom of speech, and workplace
justices remain very real, not to mention Wendy’s penchant for
scorched-earth litigation and intimidation tactics. That’s why the
Teamsters will have little trouble winning a union election among
News-Press workers.

That’s also why Teamster organizer Marty Keegan will have even
less trouble persuading hundreds, if not thousands, of News-Press
readers to cancel their subscriptions. The $100 million question
is, what then? I’d like to believe that the better angels of
Wendy’s nature — generous to a fault where whales, wolves, and fish
are concerned — will reveal themselves before it’s too late. If
not, we can expect Wendy to go down swinging, taking her paper with
her in a prolonged tantrum of gratuitous self-destruction. If and
when that happens, none of us will be able to say of the stink
emanating from the News-Press digs in De la Guerra Plaza, “Sure
glad I didn’t step in it.” By then it will be over all of our


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