Days four and five of the National Labor Relations Board hearing against the Santa Barbara News-Press rolled along last week, with a few moments of excitement scattered amid a tedious two days of testimony and paper-shuffling. The government called four people to the stand Thursday and Friday, including Melinda Burns-the first of the fired News-Press reporters to testify. More than a dozen charges have been filed against the paper, including those from the eight reporters who lost their jobs for alleged disloyalty and are seeking reinstatement with back pay. Should the News-Press be found in the wrong on the other charges-several of which have to do with alleged bans, threats, surveillance, and intimidation-the newspaper’s management will be forced to concede activities they had forbidden should have been permitted.
Burns’s appearance was preceded by that of former assistant city editor Bob Guiliano, who was on the stand for much of Thursday and most of Friday morning. Guiliano first answered questions from NLRB attorney Steve Wyllie that seemingly contradicted earlier testimony from current News-Press Associate Editor Scott Steepleton, who had said under oath that he didn’t recall who wrote a “staff report”-bylined story in a January issue of the paper that detailed an NLRB hearing from a day on which Steepleton himself had testified. But Guiliano, whose termination from the News-Press was described as “performance related,” testified Thursday that Steepleton wrote the story after former reporter Leana Orsua backed off, telling Guiliano she was overwhelmed and couldn’t write the story. “How can I report that my boss was lying on the stand?” Guiliano recalled Orsua as saying.
This isn’t the first time Steepleton’s testimony has been questioned. Administrative law judge William Schmidt-in his March decision to reject objections raised by News-Press management and approve newsroom employees’ September 2006 33-6 unionization vote-characterized Steepleton, along with Armstrong, as extreme embellishers.
Some could argue that Guiliano’s testimony is also suspicious, in light of a series of cryptic emails written to News-Press owner and copublisher Wendy P. McCaw after he was fired January 26, 2007. Guiliano wrote the following at the end of a March 26 email to McCaw:
I hate flying so, if my plane crashes, good luck with your newspaper. I’ll try to come back to you as a friendly ghost if I can. But if I can’t, I wish you the best! If I can, I’ll let you know I’m present by rearranging your jewelry in a clockwise position on your dresser bureau. 😉
Bob G. 🙂
Guiliano said the emails were not intended to frighten McCaw, but rather to be funny. But lead News-Press attorney A. Barry Cappello argued the email, along with a few others Guiliano wrote, constituted intimidating behavior indicating Guiliano never wanted to come back to the paper. Guiliano’s letters also appeared to conflict with testimony he gave Friday. In one email, he wrote that he still cared for McCaw, but he said Friday he didn’t believe McCaw was a good publisher. Later, Cappello submitted as evidence a printed-out letter from Guiliano to McCaw and fiance and copublisher Arthur von Weisenberger. In the letter, Guiliano wrote that a story written by former reporter Anna Davison about a beautification project on State Street was “weak” and didn’t get both sides of the story, “as we agreed.” This writing appeared to conflict, as Cappello pointed out, with Guiliano’s testimony from Thursday, when he said he thought the story was balanced. Guiliano explained that he had read in a training manual that to improve communication or to diffuse situations, it is sometimes okay to tell someone what people want to hear instead of the whole truth, which is what he did in this situation. Cappello then asked if Guiliano was a “yes man.” After hesitating, Guiliano replied, “No, I’m not a ‘yes man.'”
Yolanda Apodaca, the paper’s human resources director, took the stand as well. During her testimony, News-Press attorney Dugan Kelley sought to show employees sympathetic to joining the Teamsters Union weren’t being treated any differently when they reviewed with Apodaca a list of 11 employees who received bonuses at the most recent opportunities despite the fact that they were believed to be pro-union.
A composed Melinda Burns, who was a senior writer and had won 15 awards during her 21-year tenure at the paper, took the stand Friday morning. She spent a good deal of time taking questions from NLRB attorney Brian Gee, who tried to establish Burns’s public and private participation in protected union activities. News-Press management maintains that Burns was fired for bias. In her termination letter, Steepleton wrote that “despite counseling, admonishment, and warnings over the past five years, you have ignored this duty and consistently produced biased and one-sided reporting which promotes your own personal views. You have been given repeated warnings, and every opportunity to improve. However, you have chosen not to do so.”
Burns, however, maintained she was fired because of her pro-union stance. Gee led her through several of her past performance evaluations, where her editors indicated that while some stories did have elements of bias, she showed a steady increase in making an effort to rid her stories of it. Her overall performance ratings were consistently rated as meeting or exceeding expectations.
The only News-Press management in attendance, editorial page editor Travis Armstrong, was in the front row both days, meticulously taking notes and occasionally passing along observations to Cappello’s staff. On the other side of the aisle, Armstrong’s Thursday editorial-in which he blasted the Ventura County Star’s coverage of the hearing-was being passed around the courtroom, from union attorney Ira Gottlieb to blogger Craig Smith to veteran journalist Lou Cannon and others.
Burns will be back on the stand when the hearing, which began August 14 and is expected to last at least until September 14, continues on Tuesday, September 4, at 9 a.m. at the U.S. Bankruptcy Court building at 1415 State Street.