Ten years ago this week, five top editors resigned from the Santa Barbara News-Press, citing unethical interference in the paper’s news reporting by multimillionaire owner and copublisher Wendy McCaw.
It was the start of one of the worst scandals in Santa Barbara history, and it’s not over yet.
During that chaotic summer and fall of 2006, the newsroom was galvanized by large community rallies in our support, as people shouted, “Shame! Shame! Shame!” in front of the historic News-Press building on De la Guerra Plaza.
One afternoon, we filed out into the plaza, where hundreds of community supporters and throngs of media awaited us. We planned to speak, but McCaw had implemented a gag order, so instead we put duct tape over our mouths. That’s when the debacle at the paper made national and international headlines, stunning news professionals around the globe.
We soon joined the Teamsters Union in hopes of protecting our jobs and our integrity as journalists from McCaw’s arbitrary attacks. We needed a union contract to guarantee that she would allow us to truthfully report the news and not punish us based on rules she made up after the fact. McCaw had one standard for coverage of her celebrity friends, and another for the rest of the world, in violation of every principle of ethical journalism.
When McCaw refused to recognize the Teamsters as our representatives, we launched a boycott that remains in place 10 years later — a massive demonstration of solidarity and a standing rebuke from thousands of readers who quit the paper in protest and never went back. This, above all, is what we’re grateful for now.
A month after the union vote in 2006, McCaw began firing reporters — eight of us in all, or one out of every four who voted for the union. Such retaliation had routinely been declared illegal by the National Labor Relations Board, so the union filed charges, seeking our reinstatement and back pay. A labor judge and the labor board both ruled in our favor, but we lost at the federal Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in late 2012.
The D.C. court was dominated by Republican appointees hostile to government regulation and the cause of labor. In a distortion of the First Amendment, contradicting longstanding precedent set by the Supreme Court, a panel of three right-wing judges ruled that by raising the issue of journalistic integrity as part of a union organizing campaign, we had attempted to seize editorial control of the News-Press. In effect, they gave McCaw carte blanche to violate labor law in the context of the initial campaign.
We miss the camaraderie of the newsroom and the excitement of working together on big stories. We were proud of our efforts to hold the powerful accountable, keep the electorate informed, and knit together the fabric of our beloved community. It was for many of us the best job we ever had — until it became the worst.
During the weeks and months of the News-Press Meltdown, as poignantly portrayed by local filmmakers in the documentary Citizen McCaw, dozens of journalists abandoned the oldest daily paper in Southern California. The exodus left a gaping hole in local news coverage that has not yet been filled.
The film, which was screened nationwide, shows how McCaw went after Jerry Roberts, our former executive editor and one of the first to resign, suing him for alleged breach of contract. After years of arbitration, Roberts won the lawsuit and nearly $1 million in lawyers’ fees.
By trampling on workers’ rights and press freedoms, McCaw struck at the very heart of our democracy. Donald Trump, the Republican she’s endorsed for president, would be cheering: He calls reporters “scum.” But Thomas M. Storke, News-Press owner and publisher for most of the 20th century and the winner of a Pulitzer Prize for his crusade against the racist John Birch Society, would be turning over in his grave.
Through bitter experience, we learned we couldn’t count on the courts to set things right, not even with a powerful union behind us. U.S. labor law is weak, and it is poorly enforced. The courts are full of judges who side with the wealthiest one percent and allow union-haters such as McCaw to freely mistreat their employees.
The fight for justice at the News-Press continues to move at a glacial pace through the courts, buried under a blizzard of objections and appeals by McCaw’s lawyers. Two newsroom cases against McCaw are still pending, concerning more than a dozen violations of federal labor law, including bad-faith bargaining and the firing of three more employees. The union won the bad-faith bargaining case at the labor board, and McCaw has again appealed. Another case is awaiting trial.
The violations paint an ugly picture of an owner who fires union supporters, makes a mockery of contract negotiations, encourages the newsroom not to cooperate with labor board agents, and denies raises to her employees for a decade, beginning with the vote to join the union in September 2006.
To date, McCaw has hired more than 10 law firms to avoid signing a union contract. The Teamsters have spent more than half a million dollars seeking the basic protections American labor law is supposed to provide.
We expect the Teamsters will win the cases that are pending. But by then, who will be left to sign a contract? The first floor of the once-bustling building on De la Guerra Plaza is empty now, the big wooden front doors locked. Upstairs, a few reporters rattle around in what used to be a noisy newsroom.
The final chapter of this scandal has not yet been written. A rich woman buys a profitable, award-winning newspaper in a tolerant and liberal town, and then, through vindictiveness or vanity or love of power, squanders the community’s goodwill and earns its everlasting scorn. But for what?
We’ll probably never know.
Melinda Burns was a senior writer at the Santa Barbara News-Press, where she worked for 21 years. She is a freelance journalist now. Dawn Hobbs, a News-Press reporter for nine years, is freelancing and teaching journalism at the university level.