Jerry Roberts Honored: In presenting the PEN Society’s 2007 First Amendment Award to former Santa Barbara News-Press editor Jerry Roberts Tuesday night, film director Taylor Hackford compared the Wendy McCaw-owned publication to Stalin-era newspapers. “Under Stalin, the two most important newspapers – I won’t call them great – were Izvestia and Pravda,” former News-Press paperboy Hackford told a Beverly Hills Hotel dinner sponsored by PEN, the international writers organization. “In English, Izvestia means ‘the news,’ and Pravda means ‘truth.’ The Russians had a saying: There is no izvestia in Pravda and there is no pravda in Izvestia, or in translation, there is no truth in the news: Sad to say, many are now saying the same about the News-Press.”
Readers may have the same perception.Editor & Publisher reported Wednesday that the News-Press “experienced one of the industry’s biggest drops in daily copies: Monday through Friday, circulation plunged 14.1 percent to 33,755 for the six-month period ending September, 2007.”
Hackford (An Officer and a Gentleman, Ray) recalled his newsboy days and respect for then-owner-publisher T.M. Storke, who won a Pulitzer for fighting the reactionary John Birch Society, “despite a lot of pressure from the wealthy supporters” of the group. Storke, Hackford said, “wouldn’t back down.” “That was a tradition that lasted for a long time. Until the News-Press became another item in a billionaire’s catalog of toys … Jerry Roberts quit because Wendy McCaw tore the wall down” that traditionally exists between editorial opinion and news, Hackford said. “The retaliation against him has been vicious and costly in every way-to his career, his family, his health and his wallet. He has stood up to them with dignity. His friends have rallied and we want to be counted among his friends.”
Roberts, who got a standing ovation from the audience, is facing a $25 million arbitration action filed by McCaw. The litigation, Roberts said, “threatens to financially ruin my family.” As he spoke, a long list of the News-Press reporters, editors and others in the newsroom who quit or were fired after the July, 2006 meltdown was flashed on the screen. Roberts said he accepted the award on their behalf. The issue, Roberts said, was “a struggle over free speech and the ethics, values and standards of public interest journalism.” But Roberts warned that across the country “the long-held journalistic belief that a news organization should be much more than a private enterprise is in danger of slipping away. We are living at a time when traditional, sacred values and standards of public service journalism are under siege.”
“It is now clear that that the News-Press controversy generated so much passionate reaction precisely because of the importance of the fundamental values and ethics that define journalism’s public trust responsibility,” Roberts said. “At a time of radical change throughout the top echelons of our industry, it falls to the ordinary, working journalists to uphold and honor that responsibility, as a solemn promise to our readers, our sources and to ourselves.”
In a statement in the PEN awards dinner program, taking from his speech at a Santa Barbara community forum last year, Roberts said: “I no longer worked at the News-Press because I believed that a series of decisions made there ran counter to the [Society of Professional Journalists] Code of Ethics in a way that was untenable.”
A large contingent of Santa Barbarans attended, including Ann Smith Towbes, Sarah Miller McCune, Mercedes Eichholz and a number of former News-Pressers.