News-Press Confuses News and Opinion

Casual readers of the Santa Barbara News-Press beware! The paper has begun mixing news and opinion on the front page, with no labeling to separate the two.

Sunday’s front page (April 18, 2010) featured an above-the-fold piece headlined “Retirement funding hampering county budget.” An important issue for sure.

And whom did the News-Press assign to cover such a topic? The byline says, “By Lanny Ebenstein. Special to the News-Press.”

What the byline does not explain is that Lanny Ebenstein is president of the Santa Barbara County Taxpayers Association, an ardent voice for conservative politicians and against public employee unions.

The article asserts “new ways of thinking—and acting—will be needed to turn the [Santa Barbara County] financial crisis around.” The reader has no choice but to take Mr. Ebenstein’s word for these conclusions because there is no attribution whatsoever. Not for the suggested “new ways of thinking,” not even for the assumed “financial crisis.” In fact, there’s only one source in this “story” and that’s Ebenstein himself.

While Mr. Ebenstein may actually present a persuasive argument against the escalating cost of public employees, the point here is that any self-respecting newspaper would label such an article as “opinion” or “analysis.”

This standard plank in the code of journalism ethics protects the reader from deliberate bias. It is assumed that informed citizens make their own opinions. If the paper wants to persuade those opinions, they do that on the opinion page. This vow undergirds the paper’s civic responsibility, it’s search for truth and public trust.

This tenet has been scrapped at the News-Press—at least in the case of Mr. Ebenstein—who has obviously become the darling of Wendy McCaw, the owner and co-publisher, widely reviled for earlier editorial intrusions so catastrophic as to bring about a newsroom exodus and a long-running legal battle with a former editor and the union that represents reporters.

McCaw’s infatuation with Ebenstein may have begun last fall. After the departure of Editorial Page Editor Travis Armstrong, Ebenstein began showing up with frequent “Guest” editorials in the space previously reserved for the newspaper’s primary opinion piece. So routine are is his appearances, it now appears Ebenstein is the voice of the editorial page.

Whatever you think of his views, Ebenstein is articulate, persuasive and consistent in his one man crusade for fiscal conservatism—calling public employee unions a “kleptocracy,” and insisting that a “new class has emerged—the government bureaucracy.” His views have appeared under such headings as

“County teetering on collapse”

“Pension woes part of broader trend”

“The cost of public employee unions”

On the editorial page, his columns convey his point of view quite appropriately.

But when The Santa Barbara News-Press disguises these lectures as front-page news, it has officially forsaken objective news coverage in favor of advocacy journalism.

As a journalist of 30 years, I am utterly shocked by the latest breach of ethics at The Santa Barbara News-Press.—Michael V. Marcotte


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