UNHINGED AND UNCORKED: First, we need to get a couple of points out of the way. It happens to be the case that I am far and away the sanest person I’ve ever met. I may, in fact, be the only sane person I’ve ever met. In the world of ideas, there’s what I think-which happens to be clear, accurate, insightful, and, above all, unbiased-and then there’s what everybody else thinks, which is just the opposite. Throughout the years, I’ve been forced to learn the wisdom of masking such notions.
As a strategy of accommodation, I now pretend to mock my sense of papal infallibility with self-deprecating humor or pseudo-ironic wit. I confess this because, after sitting through the first week of the News-Press trial, I have concluded that one of the big differences separating me from News-Press owner Wendy P. McCaw is that she has little use for either humor or irony. Somehow, McCaw never learned she needed to pretend.
For those preoccupied with other matters, such as the fire now devouring so much of Santa Barbara’s backcountry, the News-Press is currently on trial for about 20 separate counts of breaking federal labor laws. Specifically, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has accused McCaw, the News-Press, and its parent company, Ampersand Publishing, LLC, of retaliating in a host of ways against the paper’s reporters, editors, and photographers who actively campaigned to affiliate with the Teamsters Union. These retaliatory efforts took place, the NLRB charged, after the newsroom workers voted 33-6 to join with the Teamsters in an election held late last September.
In one instance, the News-Press fired six pro-union reporters for unfurling a “Cancel Your Newspaper Today!” banner from the Anapamu Street footbridge early this February. The paper claims they terminated the workers for “disloyalty.” The newspaper managers also claim that somehow they didn’t know at the time that this display was part of a union action. That’s kind of incredible given that the Teamsters had been leading a high-profile cancellation campaign ever since last August.
But the point is important legally because it’s against federal labor laws to fire workers for engaging in legitimate union campaign actions. The News-Press is also accused of firing two reporters-Melinda Burns and Anna Davison-because they were active union supporters. The News-Press claims it was only coincidental that the two fired reporters happened to be union sympathizers. The real reason they were fired, we were told in court, was because they were biased reporters.
The News-Press trial, it should be stated, is not going to be the trial of the century. But to people in the courtroom, it feels like it will take that long. Like all courtroom showdowns, the News-Press trial has been as tedious as it is contentious. Thus far, there’s been no blinding moment of truth, just many flickering flames blowing in many directions simultaneously.
But one of the most interesting issues to emerge has been that of newspaper bias. As a matter of law, I suspect the question, real or imagined, will carry little weight with William Kocol, the no-nonsense judge charged with determining the legality of the News-Press‘s actions. But for the community at large, bias-along with fairness and balance-has everything to do with everything.
Like pornography and beauty, bias lies in the eye of the beholder. If you believe News-Press attorney A. Barry Cappello, McCaw saw it everywhere she looked, almost from the first day she bought the paper from the New York Times back in 2000. According to Cappello, McCaw wanted to pump more local news into the paper, just as she wanted to drain the bias out of it. Surveys have shown that readers worried about the creeping bias contaminating their news pages. But McCaw’s efforts, we are told, were thwarted at every turn by uncooperative publishers and recalcitrant editors. It’s a nice story. It’s great spin. But it doesn’t add up. And, in fact, the reality is just the opposite.
Let’s take the case of Anna Davison, the News-Press science writer who, for many moons after the meltdown commenced last summer, was also assigned the City Hall beat. Associate Editor Scott Steepleton testified last week that Davison was fired because she was biased. He also conceded that in all her performance evaluations, none of her immediate supervisors ever complained about biased reporting. Nor was she ever reprimanded for it in any fashion.
But Steepleton said McCaw had complained to him last year about Davison’s allegedly biased reporting in 2004 and 2005. That’s when she was covering the National Park Service‘s bloody efforts to restore the Channel Islands to something approximating their original state by eliminating a host of exotic creatures-introduced only in the past couple hundred years-that have upended the natural balance of the islands’ unique ecosystems. In recent years, the Park Service, which administers the Channel Islands, has overseen the slaughter of thousands of sheep and feral pigs, mostly on Santa Cruz Island. The pigs and sheep, we were told, created massive environmental damage, destroying the habitat upon which several extremely rare and endangered species depended. Later, the Park Service would launch a search-and-destroy mission against the island rats, as part of a convoluted Rube Goldberg scheme to bring back the island foxes and the bald eagle. The wholesale destruction of critters was such that you didn’t need to be an animal rights nut to find this upsetting.
Among her many passions, McCaw is a fierce animal rights advocate. She apparently did not believe Davison’s coverage of the controversy included consistent representation of dissenting voices similarly outraged by the culling of the herds. The fact is that in Davison’s articles, both sides were heard from. But Davison also gave voice to wildlife biologists who argued such methods, however harsh, were necessary. This was far from McCaw’s liking. Davison’s coverage was out of sync with what editorial page editor Travis Armstrong was writing. Armstrong then took the exceptional step in one of his editorials by attacking unnamed reporters working for his own newspaper, accusing them of biased coverage of the controversy.
Don’t get me wrong-bias is not insignificant. It has real impact. For example, people who got most of their information from Fox News were far more inclined to believe Saddam Hussein had something to do with the 9/11 attack even though no credible evidence exists linking the two. But most of the surveys about news bias-including the ones Cappello cited on McCaw’s behalf-indicate readers are most fearful that the news they get is tailored to agree with a newspaper’s editorial page positions. Certainly in the case of animal rights, it appears that McCaw’s biggest frustration was that her readers’ worst fears weren’t more fully realized.
During his opening remarks, Cappello argued that McCaw had been systematically denied any say over the direction of her newspaper. But somehow I doubt her editors-if left to their own devices-would have paid to fly a reporter to Texas so Santa Barbara readers could learn more than they ever wanted to know about the meerkat missing from the Santa Barbara Zoo. There’s a fine line, I suppose, between editorial vision and editorial bias. But was the meerkat coverage an instance of bias or vision?
Likewise, when the News-Press runs front-page story after front-page story-as it is now doing-about Bob, the poor tortured tortoise, is that an instance of bias or vision? Bob was kidnapped from his Ventura owner by a Ventura sicko. The only local hook is that Bob was sent to a rehab joint in Santa Barbara.
Likewise, I can’t tell whether it’s vision or bias when the News-Press opts to bury last Friday’s news that the NLRB unanimously voted to uphold the News-Press union election results in favor of the Teamsters. Given the importance of the news, why did the News-Press give it such a tiny article-unsigned, at that-hidden below the fold in the business section? Is this bias or vision? You tell me.
The last straw for reporter Anna Davison proved equally murky. Early this year, she wrote an eight-inch article about City Hall’s beautification efforts for the 400 and 500 blocks of State Street. The treacherously slippery sidewalks were removed and replaced, as were about 51 mature street trees. Steepleton testified that Davison should have sought out people who were upset about the tree removal and quoted them. McCaw was extremely upset, and demanded that Davison be reprimanded for this lapse. But when her supervising editor, Bob Guiliano, refused, both Davison and he were fired. Guiliano has since told anyone willing to listen that McCaw’s real complaint with the story was not just the absence of tree-hugger quotes, but was with the abundance of quotes from Santa Barbara Mayor Marty Blum. It’s well known that the News-Press officially hates Blum, and Blum, for her part, wastes few opportunities to yank the News-Press chain.
So, if bias was involved, was it Davison’s? Or was it McCaw’s? You tell me. Actually, you don’t have to. I already know. I only pretend I don’t know all the answers.