The Pen Is Mightier than the Sword: Former News-Press editor Jerry Roberts, who in July 2006 told owner Wendy McCaw “I’m outta here,” was honored by PEN, the international writers’ group, at a star-studded Beverly Hills Hotel dinner on Tuesday night.
Writer/director Taylor Hackford (An Officer and a Gentleman, Ray)-who was born in Santa Barbara, is a former News-Press carrier, and is married to actress Helen (The Queen) Mirren-handed Roberts PEN’s 2007 First Amendment Award for ethical journalism. The award “honors those who have courageously, and often at great personal loss, defended freedom of expression,” according to PEN. “At a time of radical change throughout the top echelons of our industry,” Roberts said, “it falls to ordinary, working journalists to uphold and honor that responsibility of public trust as a solemn promise to our readers, our sources, and to ourselves.”
The Roberts award also “honors those men and women of the Santa Barbara News-Press who sought to do just that,” PEN said. (Four other senior editors and I quit when Roberts did, followed in the subsequent months by dozens of others who resigned or were fired during the resulting efforts to form a union.)
Not only did Roberts give up his well-paid job as editor last year due to McCaw’s interference in news coverage, but McCaw promptly slapped him with a $25 million arbitration action, claiming breach of contract. He’s still fighting it, and has counter-claimed for $10 million. There are also unconfirmed reports that he is considering filing a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against McCaw regarding a page-one story that insinuated, without evidence, that he had something to do with child pornography allegedly found on a newsroom computer. Roberts has emphatically denied knowing of it.
Roberts, former vice president and managing editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, joined the News-Press in 2002 and quit on July 6, 2006. He is now supervising the UCSB student newspaper and yearbook publications.
Ironically, PEN advisory boardmember and investigative journalist Ann Louise Bardach of Carpinteria was scheduled by McCaw’s lawyers for a deposition on Tuesday-the same day as the awards ceremony-regarding the $25 million action. Whether or not it was a coincidence, Bardach opted out of the deposition and attended the dinner instead. One reason was that her attorney, Thomas Julin, was receiving a PEN Award of Honor on Tuesday night for pro bono work on behalf of writers.
Julin has defended Bardach during a long battle with the Justice Department, fighting a subpoena signed by then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, no less. Seems the feds, while fighting terrorism around the globe, were not very interested in anti-Castroite Luis Posada Carriles and his alleged involvement in the 1976 bombing of a Cuban passenger plane that killed all 73 people aboard. In fact, the Miami FBI office, in a town that’s a hotbed of anti-Castro fervor where money to finance the bombing might have originated, destroyed all the evidence and dropped the case, Bardach wrote. Then, when Posada showed up in Miami on a fake passport, officials got active and begged Bardach for her files. “Do us a favor,” one FBI agent said. “We can’t find ours.”
Bardach, strongly opposed to allowing the long arm of the law to fish into reporters’ files instead of the feds doing their own investigations, has battled the subpoenas. Besides, the feds have decades of files on Posada, who apparently was once a CIA connection, Bardach said. Meanwhile, some suspect it’s very handy for the Bush administration to cook up a reporter deadlock in order to justify letting any Posada prosecution simmer on the back burner.
“You’ve got to wonder,” Bardach once told me. “Is this a war on terrorism or a war on reporters? You’ve got to wonder if my materials will wind up in the shredder as well.”
For 40 years, you could find Linda Deutsch of the Associated Press covering every major court case in Southern California. She’s good, accurate, and savvy. Tuesday night, PEN gave her “A Special Salute.”
One of the biggest tributes of the night, the Freedom to Write Award, went to Sahal Abdull, a Reuters news agency reporter in Mogadishu, Somalia-one of the most dangerous cities in the world for journalists.
Helen Mirren read from a piece Abdull wrote about being badly hurt in an August car bombing that killed a fellow journalist. “I am in a car full of journalists driving from the funeral of a colleague murdered hours earlier in Mogadishu for doing his job,” Mirren read. “We don’t get far. An explosion throws our vehicle up and fills it with excruciating heat. Black smoke billows about us. I can feel the pressure rushing up inside my clothes. My neck splits open. Death is often random in Mogadishu, but in this case we were the target. Ali Iman Sharmarke-journalist, friend, and founder of the local media house HornAfrik-lies dead beside the wreckage.”
Abdull is recovering in Canada. “I’m with my family in Canada now. I don’t know what I’ll do-if I’ll go back. Journalists in Somalia are in more danger than ever before, but if we all leave, there’ll be no one to tell the story.”