From Pulitzer to the Outhouse: How tragic that a newspaper that won a Pulitzer Prize under T.M. Storke now resorts to page-one character assassination. Sunday’s Santa Barbara News-Press hit-piece attacking former editor Jerry Roberts was written in outhouse slime, not proud printer’s ink, a sick masterpiece of slick innuendo.
Irony of ironies, Storke won the Pulitzer in 1962 for his impassioned outrage against character assassination. In his prize-winning editorial of February 26, 1961, Storke raged indignantly against a local smear campaign. “Among victims of such cowardly diatribes have been educational leaders, including faculty members of the University of California at Santa Barbara and even ministers of the Gospel,” wrote Storke.
Storke had had it up to here with the local campaign of vilification by a semi-secret outfit-the John Birch Society-so weird that its leader considered President Dwight Eisenhower “a dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy” and guilty of treason. Outraged that a John Birch chapter was operating in the shadows here in Santa Barbara, carrying out cowardly attacks via telephone and letter, led by an area physician, Storke ordered what a principled newspaper should do: honest, hard-hitting news coverage to expose who and what was behind the secret attacks on Santa Barbara leaders. Reporter Hans Engh did the reporting. I had a hand in editing the series.
But after the series ran, “attacks on local leaders continued,” then executive editor Paul Veblen wrote later. “About a month later, T.M.-with his exquisite sense of timing-said, let’s have an editorial. The continuing campaign, billboard and otherwise, to impeach his friend Earl Warren played a large part in T.M.’s decision, I’m sure.” Former California Governor Warren was then chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Also accused of being tools of international Communism by Birch Society founder Robert Welch, a retired Massachusetts candy maker, were former president Harry Truman, along with ex-Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and his brother Allen, former CIA director. The Birchers have “already done a grave disservice to Santa Barbara by arousing suspicions and mutual distrust among men of good will,” read the editorial, which was actually written by Veblen.
T.M., for whom I worked from 1960 until he sold the paper in 1964, added this personal statement: “The editor and publisher of the News-Press is in his 85th year. His entire life has been spent in this community. His memory takes him back many years and his reading even further. He lived when conditions were rugged. When West was West and men were men. He lived during periods when if a man or a group of men openly by word of mouth, or the printed word, called our president, our vice president, our secretary of state, the president’s brother, members of the Supreme Court and others at the head of our government, traitors, they were made to answer.”
Response to Sunday’s editorial and Storke’s comments was “impressive,” Veblen recalled. “Two days later we published two full pages of letters.” When the New York Times published a piece written by Veblen and fellow editor Ron Scofield, letters flowed in from around the country.
Dick Smith, the News-Press do-it-all man, put together a presentation for the Pulitzer judges in the public service category. “The judges on the public service committee thought highly of it but they had another entry in mind for that prize,” Veblen said. So they sent it to the editorial committee, which voted the Pulitzer to T.M. “If the entry had not been bucked” from one committee to the other, “it wouldn’t have happened,” Veblen said. “I’m convinced, too, that what really made it happen was the dramatic impression of an 85-year-old warrior fighting for the tranquility and good political health of the community his family had called home for six generations.”
Ironically, we are again fighting for those qualities of life here, but this time the community is trying to defend itself against the News-Press.
My 46-plus years at the News-Press ended when I resigned the afternoon of last July 6 because I could not stand what it had become. I am saddened and ashamed that it has sunken far lower now. In the end, all we really have is our good name and now McCaw and her vengeful people seek to destroy the reputation of the finest man I know, Jerry Roberts. I anguish that the paper I loved and the profession of journalism is being used in such a twisted way.
I’m not perfect, nor is the newspaper business without fault. Certainly T.M. ran the paper his way, but I believe in my heart that T.M. Storke would never have stooped to such a mean-spirited and baseless attack on Roberts, who is already being sued via arbitration by News-Press owner Wendy McCaw for $25 million.
This week I talked to Paul Veblen, my first editor at the paper, now 87. I know he wouldn’t have stood still for this either.
(Barney Brantingham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 805-965-5205. He is a staff writer for the Santa Barbara Independent, with a print column in the Thursday print edition and online columns on Tuesdays and Fridays.)