TAKING THE PLUNGE: It’s true I take everything
personally. But this time I think I might be entitled. By the time
you read this, the News-Press will have held its union election,
and I’m betting the farm that by about 5:20 this Wednesday evening,
the world will know the Teamsters were overwhelmingly elected to
represent that paper’s unhappy newsroom workers in their dealings
with Wendy McCaw, the daily’s gratuitously grim owner and
co-publisher. But given our Wednesday morning deadline, I won’t be
able to report this as fact. None of this, I can assure you,
happened by accident. I say this because the Teamsters offered the
NP its choice of three days this week on which to hold the
election. Tellingly, the paper selected Wednesday. Given The
Independent’s deadlines and weekly production schedule, Wednesdays
qualify as the dark side of our moon. That’s okay. Where the NP is
concerned, I take such slights as a compliment.

I’m guessing that McCaw is taking the Teamsters’ victory pretty
hard. Former friends who’ve had occasion to visit Wendy aboard her
yacht indicate her hatred for unions rivals her well-known love for
animals. Commented one: If it were a choice between dealing with a
union or shooting Free Willy — the world-famous whale whose
rehabilitation McCaw generously bankrolled — Willy would be Swiss
cheese. The fact is, she single-handedly brought the Teamsters upon
herself. Newsroom workers are notoriously independent and
individualistic, genetically disinclined, almost, to engage in
collective behavior of any kind, let alone to join unions. But
Wendy’s management style, which oscillates between whimsy and
capricious cruelty, persuaded even the most die-hard go-it-aloners
that they desperately needed protection.

When reporters and editors are interrogated by their superiors
and threatened with termination for talking with me, they need
help. When workers are reprimanded and fired for violating rules
and policies that do not even exist — they need a union. When
Wendy’s personal attorney sits in the office once occupied by
former editor Jerry Roberts, who quit in protest this July,
reporters know they’re not in Kansas anymore. When reporters find
themselves arguing about news judgment with Human Resources
Director Yolanda Apodaca, they know reinforcements are needed. When
editor Andrea Huebner got the axe two weeks ago because she didn’t
stop another columnist from taking a glancing shot at NP columnist
Dr. Laura, everyone working there understood that hard work,
dedication, and creativity were no longer enough.

Naturally, Wendy is spinning this as a conspiracy concocted by
corrupt union thugs and a cadre of disgruntled employees bent on
subverting the journalistic integrity of her newspaper in order to
forward a hidden political agenda on behalf of developers and
affordable-housing advocates. It’s entirely possible McCaw actually
believes this. If so, her strenuous refusal to face facts almost
qualifies as an athletic accomplishment. But for a community that
relies on its daily newspaper as a vehicle of self-inspection and
civic dialogue, it doesn’t bode well. The raw facts in this regard
are truly startling: Twenty experienced, skilled, and nationally
recognized editors and reporters have quit relatively decent-paying
jobs at the NP in the past four months because of Wendy’s behavior.
Three others have been fired for various pretexts, the real reason
being insubordination and pro-union sympathies. In addition, no
less than 44 attorneys — bridging a wide ideological gulf — have
joined forces to raise legal defense money for the many
ex-reporters and editors who have been threatened with legal action
by Wendy’s lawyer David Millstein for daring to speak critically of
their former employer.

These attorneys — whose ranks include at least one retired
judge — were somehow under the impression that newspapers were
supposed to champion free speech, not threaten it. Perhaps most
absurd was the letter Millstein sent to former reporter Camilla
Cohee, strongly urging her to demand that The Independent publish a
“correction” after we ran a column describing the treatment she
received as “unprofessional.” I thought that took the cake until I
got a letter from another one of McCaw’s attorneys demanding that I
turn over internal News-Press documents she erroneously believed
had been leaked to me and that I divulge the name of my sources.
Last I heard, newspapers are supposed to protect their sources at
all costs. We’ve come to expect the government, especially the
feds, to attack such conventions, but for another newspaper to
exhibit such hostility and indifference to basic journalistic
notions surprised even me.

Finally, thousands have cancelled their subscriptions to the NP.
Unconfirmed anecdotal accounts indicate daily circulation may have
plummeted from last year’s 41,000 to as low as 27,000. Equally
unconfirmed reports suggest that as many 35 subscribers per
newspaper route have cancelled the paper. As someone who has
attempted to hatch a conspiracy or two throughout the years, I can
assure you these unhappy facts did not result from any conspiracy.
They reflect a groundswell of community discontent. But over what,

The easy and immediate answers include transgressions of
journalistic ethics and breaching the so-called wall protecting
fact from opinion, news from editorials. Such concerns, I know, are
very real. But Wendy is hardly the first Santa Barbara newspaper
owner to cross these lines. T.M. Storke, the former Santa Barbara
powerbroker who owned and published the NP for decades, ran his
paper as an instrument of political power, and was not above using
his news section to smear candidates he opposed with last-minute
hit pieces. And Joe Tarrer, who was publisher when the New York
Times owned the paper, routinely inserted copy praising developer
Bill Levy despite the strenuous objections of at least one writer
covering Levy at the time. Tarrer also led the media campaign in
1990 to connect Santa Barbara to the State Water system, and
repeatedly sought to fire a reporter — unsuccessfully it turned
out — whom he deemed insufficiently supportive of that cause. Many
have noted that I myself constitute an egregious breach of The Wall
because I write opinion, news, and editorials on a regular basis.
Guilty as charged, but neither I nor The Independent have yet
sparked similar community outrage. My theory is that Wendy’s real
problems transcend journalistic ethics; they even transcend her
weird politics. Her problems are, in a way, very personal, and
sadly, all too common among those afflicted with vast wealth.

At least since the turn of the last century, Santa Barbara has
been a popular roosting ground for fat cats and plutocrats looking
for a safe harbor in which to hang and chill. For the most part,
Santa Barbara has done well by its rich folk and its rich folk have
done well by us. In recent years, however, we’ve been beset by a
new breed of wealth — individuals who seek to rearrange the basic
furniture of Santa Barbara while refusing to consult with the rest
of us about their plans. Being passionately paranoid and arrogantly
aloof, members of this new caste take great care when mixing with
the natives. Above all, they answer to no one. My theory is it all
started in 1992 with Texas multi-gazillionaire Michael Huffington,
who moved to Montecito to buy himself a seat in Congress. Once
elected, however, Huffington refused to answer basic questions
about his service on behalf of constituents, ordering aides to
destroy copies of his voting record and declining to tell even his
own office staff where he was. After Michael came out of the closet
as a gay man trapped in the body of a married heterosexual father,
his pathological need for privacy began to make some sense. But
what’s McCaw’s excuse?

Wendy’s been stiff-arming the community almost from the day she
bought the paper five years ago. Her editorial page writer Travis
Armstrong has delighted in insulting just about every constituent
group in town; all too often, those seeking redress by writing
letters in response have found themselves denied publication. When
a group of NP reporters and editors tried to meet with Wendy
herself a few weeks ago, they were reprimanded with suspensions.
Likewise, community leaders seeking an audience with Her Wendyness
never got to first base. When a delegation of Santa Barbara clergy
tried to buy an advertisement in the paper to express their
concerns, they were refused.

After their ad appeared in The Independent, those signing the
statement got an insulting letter from Wendy’s consort and
co-publisher Arthur von Wiesenberger. In it, the “Nipper” accuses
the ministers of being gullible dupes suckered by unscrupulous
Teamster organizers and disgruntled “so-called journalists.”
Contrast this display of in-your-face contempt with what’s now
taking place at the Los Angeles Times, which is also poised to
nose-dive into the toilet bowl of journalistic mediocrity.

The Times is under pressure from corporate owners in Chicago to
increase revenues by slashing hundreds of reporters’ jobs. When a
group of prominent community leaders wrote a manifesto urging the
Times to cut no further, the paper published their letter in last
Wednesday’s opinion section. Right next to it, management ran a
rebuttal. But at least both sides were on the same page. The
following day, the Times published a front-page news article
exploring all sides of the controversy. Here in Santa Barbara, the
NP has yet to run one substantive exploration of what’s happening
within its walls. Instead, we get incoherent spin and “letters to
our readers,” from McCaw.

Guess what? We ain’t that dumb. That Wendy and Nipper act as if
we were, I find kind of insulting. Like I said, it’s personal.


Please note this login is to submit events or press releases. Use this page here to login for your Independent subscription

Not a member? Sign up here.