News-Press reporter Anna Davison seems an incongruous candidate for the poster child for self-indulgent journalistic bias. On the witness stand, Davison comes across as soft-spoken, precise, and a little hesitant. Equally striking is the alleged smoking gun that got Davison fired for bias: an eight-inch piece about sidewalk repairs taking place on lower State Street earlier this year. But on January 25-10 days after the article was published on the front page of the Santa Barbara News-Press-Davison was fired for bias.
Davison insists her real offense was supporting the union drive that lead to last fall’s 33-to-6 vote by newsroom employees to affiliate with the Teamsters. Davison wore Teamster t-shirts to work every Friday-though she took them off when out on assignment-and photographs of Davison attending prop-union rallies showed up in many of the news articles chronicling the News-Press‘s ongoing meltdown. As for allegations of bias, Davison testified that none of her editors ever complained to her about it either in person or in writing. Nor was the issue was never mentioned, she said, in any of the five annual performance evaluations written up by her immediate supervisors.
And if Davison was so biased, she wants to know why her superiors at the News-Press rewarded her with bonuses from 2003 to 2005. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), it turns out, agreed with Davison. And because it’s a violation of federal labor law to fire workers for engaging in lawful union activities, the NLRB dispatched two of its attorneys-Brian Gee and Steven Wyllie-to Santa Barbara to prosecute the News-Press.
Davison recounted the crazy days last July when six editors walked off their jobs in protest of what they charged were ethical intrusions by News-Press owner and co-publisher Wendy McCaw. Editor Scott Steepleton was on vacation, she said, and it was unclear how-or if-the News-Press would continue to publish. Davison testified that she and reporter Scott Hadly-who has since resigned-rallied the rest of the newsroom to get the job done under exceptionally difficult circumstances.
On the witness stand, Davison, who has earned a masters degree in botany and won several awards for her science coverage at the News-Press before being re-assigned in January to cover City Hall-recounted the crazy days last July when six editors walked off their jobs in protest of what they charged were ethical intrusions by News-Press owner and co-publisher Wendy McCaw. Editor Scott Steepleton was on vacation, she said, and it was unclear how-or if-the News-Press would continue to publish. Davison testified that she and reporter Scott Hadly-who has since resigned-rallied the rest of the newsroom to get the job done under exceptionally difficult circumstances. Later, when Steepleton returned from vacation and was placed in charge, he would offer Davison a night-time editing position. When Steepleton was on the witness stand two weeks ago, he testified that Davison refused to “step up” when she declined to take the position during the paper’s hour of need. Davison said she had heard that managers who helped get the paper out during the early days of the meltdown were eligible for a bonus. But when she heard that she would not be considered for such a bonus, she turned down the midnight shift assignment.
Under questioning by NLRB attorney Wyllie, Davison explained that only last year did she receive a seriously sub-par performance at the hands of Steepleton. She dropped so low, in fact, that she qualified for probabation. In the category of professionalism, for example, Davison said her score plummeted from a four to a one-five being the highest possible score-in just one year. She also recounted how she confronted Steepleton afterwards; he hadn’t read her own self-evaluation when formulating his, she complained. He reportedly replied that he was familiar with her work having edited her for four years. Prior to the melt-down, Davison claimed, Steepleton had only edited her for one year.
When Davison then took her case to News-Press Human Resources Director Yolanda Apodaca, even Apodaca was surprised by some of the irregularities. For example, Davison claims Apodaca said Steepleton should have read Davison’s self-evaluation before writing his own. Davison testified she gave Apodaca a copy of her evaluation. “At several times she said, ‘Wow!'” Davison recalled. Later, Davison asked Apodaca if there was any pattern to the evaluations given newsroom employees-who were the most vociferously pro-union of anyone in the office-as opposed to writers in other sections of the News-Press. She claimed Apodaca pulled some spread sheets up on her computer and exclaimed, “‘Oh my God, I see what you mean.'”
What did not come out while Davison was on the stand was how unhappy News-Press owner McCaw had been about Davison’s reporting the National Park Service efforts to return the Channel Islands to their original state by slaughtering sheep and wild pigs which had been introduced to the islands 100 years ago. In fact two years ago Travis Armstrong, the newspaper’s editorial page editor, had written a column expressing sharp disappointment with the biased reporting by some of the News-Press‘s own reporters. Although Davison was not mentioned by name, it was obvious to everyone at the paper for whom the barb was meant. Among the news staff, there was great consternation about one of their own reporters being attacked in print by the paper’s editorial page editor. This prompted the paper’s then-editor Jerry Roberts-who resigned last July-to write a rare guest column in which he obliquely stood up for his department by pointing out to readers how journalists should remain uninfluenced by the opinions expressed by their paper’s editorial page editor.
In one of the more curious exchanges of the trial thus far, Steepleton testified two weeks ago that he’d met with McCaw on one occasion and was told how upset she’d been by the reporting of the Channel Islands. What made the exchange curious was that McCaw-according to Steepleton-never explained what made her unhappy, and he never asked.
Regardless, the final straw for McCaw would be the short article Davison wrote about the removal and replacement of the old slippery sidewalks on the 400 and 500 blocks of State Street. At the time, Davison had just been transferred to cover City Hall. She had assigned the article to herself to help get her feet wet on the new beat. She walked downtown, interviewed about six people, and then went back to interview via phone Mayor Marty Blum and former Downtown Organization Director Marshall Rose. Because part of the project also involved the removal and replacement of many of the street trees, Davison testified she tried to find someone to speak out against the tree removal. (The newspaper-through the pen of Travis Armstrong-had editorialized against the removal on January 9.) Davison said she first called a tree advocate affiliated with Santa Barbara Beautiful only to get a message machine. She then called an arborist with the Botanic Garden with the same result. Then she discovered what she’d envisioned as a modest A-2 story had been seized upon by her editors as a page one article. She added a few quotes and beefed it up, but by the day’s deadline she hadn’t heard back from anyone who might speak out on behalf of the trees.
“He said that Wendy McCaw was unhappy that I quoted the mayor of Santa Barbara,” she testified. “He told me Wendy didn’t believe that some of the trees would be replanted and that they would be destroyed instead.” For that, Guiliano told Davison that he’d been instructed to give her a written reprimand.
The story ran January 15, and Davison heard almost immediately from her editor Bob Guiliano that McCaw was very unhappy with the article. “He said that Wendy McCaw was unhappy that I quoted the mayor of Santa Barbara,” she testified. “He told me Wendy didn’t believe that some of the trees would be replanted and that they would be destroyed instead.” For that, Guiliano told Davison that he’d been instructed to give her a written reprimand. “I said I thought it was ridiculous I was getting in trouble for quoting the mayor of Santa Barbara and the head of the Downtown Organization.” (Blum has long been the target of the News-Press‘s editorial wrath, and she’s returned the favor by speaking out publicly against McCaw and Armstrong. In her last campaign, she even mailed out a fundraising letter in which she attacked the News-Press in rhetorically vivid terms.)
Later Giuliano wrote to McCaw describing the article as “weak.” Davison testified that she’d asked Guiliano if he had any problems with the article before it ran and he said he didn’t. When she asked why he wrote that, Giuliano said he was taking a page out of Dale Carengie’s book How to Win Friends and Influence People By making a partial concession to McCaw, she said Guiliano hoped he might change the owner’s mind.
Afterward, Davison conducted some after-the-fact reporting, and interviewed Robert Muller with the Botanic Garden. She testified he told her that the tree removal plan had been in the works a long time, that it had been thoroughly reviewed, and there was no controversy. Ultimately, Guiliano would decline to issue the reprimand McCaw sought. A short time later, both he and Davison were terminated.