Don’t Kick a Dead Dog In the Mouth While It’s Down
ONE YEAR LATER: On this day back in 1687, a mathematical bigwig named Sir Isaac Newton published what would become his runaway bestseller, Principia Mathematica. In it, Newton postulated many of the theorems that have since tormented countless generations of restless high school students. Specifically, Newton’s theory of momentum holds that bodies in motion stay in motion, and his theory of inertia holds that bodies at rest stay that way, too. Meaning no disrespect, Sir Isaac obviously never heard of Santa Barbara News-Press owner and publisher Wendy P. McCaw, the bilious billionaire who in the course of the past year has scrambled the laws of momentum and inertia beyond any recognition. McCaw took a well-oiled news machine that was humming along nicely and utterly thrashed it. Today, the only thing still moving at the News-Press are the wheels, and I’m betting they’re about to fly off the axles. Get ready to duck.
Technically, it all began last July 6-319 years after Newton’s Principia hit the bookstores -when Jerry Roberts, the News-Press‘s acclaimed editor-in-chief, quit, citing ethical differences with McCaw. Along with Roberts went popular columnist Barney Brantingham, who, with 46 years on the job, qualified as a certified community icon. Other high-ranking and high-profile editors hit the trail in disgust with the McCaw regime-some on their own, some with Roberts-sparking a firestorm within the News-Press that even a year later shows no signs of abating. In the past year, nearly 50 people have either quit the News-Press or been fired. Roughly 70 percent of the 55 people in the newsroom the day Roberts quit are gone. A majority of the 17 still left voted to join the Teamsters Union to protect themselves from the cruel caprice of McCaw. If daily journalism has become the slow-moving train wreck many industry analysts contend it is, the News-Press qualifies as a bullet train engineered by a self-destructive billionaire seeking out new things to crash into.
As a news story, the News-Press conflagration has experienced astonishing staying power. Aside from the obvious freak-show factor of rich people misbehaving-with a few celebrities thrown in for bad measure-it qualifies as one of the best examples of man-bites-dog stories around. When reporters are brought up on ethics violations almost as frequently as pro football players are accused of spousal abuse or rape, there’s something both jarring and refreshing about journalists caring enough about scruples to quit over them. At a time when there’s a shortage of living journalistic heroes out there, Jerry Roberts and the rest of the News-Press diaspora fill the void nicely. For his pains, Roberts has been all but knighted by Queen Elizabeth, having been given prestigious professional commendations by the Society of Professional Journalists and the University of Oregon. Sharing the stage at Oregon were the Washington Post and New York Times reporters who revealed how the Bush administration was obtaining warrantless wiretaps to eavesdrop on American citizens at home. That’s some heady company.
By contrast, McCaw finds herself with few friends and even fewer supporters. Thus far, the only people to stand up and speak on her behalf are those paid by McCaw to do so. Little wonder that McCaw felt compelled to sue Roberts for $25 million. Or that she had him smeared in the front pages of her paper this April with an article linking Roberts to an abandoned kiddy-porn-on-the-computer investigation. Conspicuously lacking was any byline to the story, and the police have stressed there’s no way to say who-among the many people who had access to the News-Press computer in question-downloaded the offending child porn. McCaw’s attempt at character assassination backfired badly, inspiring considerable revulsion and disgust among those who previously had remained agnostic on the whole News-Press mess.
Journalistically, the News-Press has exceeded the worst expectations of its most ardent nay-sayers. Instead of news coverage, we get expansive photo essays on jacarandas in bloom, though certainly they’re lovely to behold. Desperate to fill space, Associate Editor Scott Steepleton has taken to strip mining the police and Sheriff’s blotters so aggressively that, by all rights, the public information officers of these law enforcement agencies should get paid as News-Press writers. If and when the News-Press is ever compelled to sit down and bargain with the Teamsters-which won the union election 10 months ago by a vote of 33-6-these two PIOs should likewise be included. Otherwise, it seems the overarching principle guiding the News-Press these days is “Get mad and get even.”
Certainly, this ethos of nastiness reverberates throughout the series of columns, written by editorial page editor Travis Armstrong, castigating the Goleta Valley Chamber of Commerce for its various and nefarious shortcomings. I’m not saying the chamber doesn’t deserve a little scrutiny. But Armstrong only got motivated after learning the chamber-like so many thousands of former readers-canceled its subscription. By many accounts, Travis threatened to wreak havoc upon the chamber, and anyone reading his columns can see he’s a man of his word. But as usual, Travis and the News-Press are looking at the world through the wrong end of the telescope. Where were they last fall, when the chamber was buying the Goleta City Council election on behalf of a pro-growth slate? That’s when the community could have used such scrutiny. But that’s the sort of cockeyed news judgment we’ve come to expect. After all, one recently hired editor was fired for refusing to chastise a reporter because she quoted Santa Barbara Mayor Marty Blum in an article involving City Hall. Blum is intensely despised by McCaw and Armstrong, and the reporter should have known better than to seek her opinion on anything.
Aside from the reporters themselves, the big loser here is the community. As much as we enjoyed kicking the News-Press in the ankles throughout the years, we all know Santa Barbara is a much better town with a functioning daily paper. But from the very beginning, McCaw’s attitude toward the Santa Barbara community has been “talk to the hand.” In fact, when McCaw first bought the paper, she declined to speak directly to the local media, referring questions instead to Michael Sitrick, a Los Angeles-based public relations guru specializing in damage control for celebrities caught shooting up hotel lobbies in the middle of the night while on a drinking binge. That should have tipped us off. But we were too thrilled to see the News-Press fall into local ownership by an independent operator to read the handwriting on the walls. McCaw is hardly the only, let alone the first, gazillionaire to waltz into town, buy up a beloved Santa Barbara landmark, and then hold herself beyond the approach of mere mortals. That distinction probably goes to Michael Huffington, who moved to town 15 years ago and quickly bought himself a seat in Congress representing Santa Barbara, using daddy’s oil money to do so. What made Huffington so appalling was not his utter lack of originality-or his wife, either-but his violent refusal to hold himself accountable. When reporters asked his press secretary how Huffington voted on specific bills, they were told that information would not be forthcoming. In fact, his aides were instructed to destroy copies of Huffington’s voting records. There are others, but McCaw trumps them all. Not only does she refuse to explain herself to reporters-“Talk to the hand”-but when they persist in trying to get management’s side of the story, her lawyers threaten to sue for harassment. And then she has the gall to complain when articles about her are one-sided.
If all this seems too weird for words, it is. But it also works. McCaw scares people. So do all the cease-and-desist letters mailed out by her $600-an-hour attorneys. Many have learned to bite their tongue rather than risk litigation with someone as rich, determined, and implacable as McCaw. Typically, we think of newspapers as vehicles for public expression and discourse. In McCaw’s hands, the News-Press has become an instrument of intimidation. How quaintly old fashioned. Santa Barbarans don’t like being told “Talk to the hand.” Nor do they like being scared silent. And even the most dense of us can recognize a smear job when we see it. Little wonder, then, that untold thousands have “voted with their feet” and cancelled their subscriptions. If I were a business paying to advertise in the News-Press, I might be a little upset about this. I might even demand some sort of refund. In fact, I’m a little surprised no one has sued over this. I guess being scary has its rewards.
Those holding their breath for McCaw to behave in a sane or rational manner died of self-induced asphyxiation a long time ago. Those who know her best swear she’ll hold out ’til the bitter end. But all McCaw’s money can only go so far. You need people to put out a newspaper, and it helps enormously if they’re smart, energetic, and, above all, dedicated. Last I looked, Scott Steepleton and Travis Armstrong were made of flesh and blood. There is a physical and psychological limit to the stress and strain they can endure. What happens when they can’t take it any longer?
And guess what? Even though Sir Isaac Newton never met Wendy McCaw, he had something insightful to say about her-and our-predicament. After the apple famously fell upon Newton’s head, he dedicated a whole volume of his book to it. Boiled down to simple English, Newton came to a very elegant and elementary conclusion. “The harder they come,” claimed Sir Isaac, “the harder they fall.”