Why I Quit the News-Press

Thursday, July 13, 2006
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During the past week, The Independent offices have been inundated with letters, phone calls, and emails, all concerning recent events unfolding at the Santa Barbara News-Press. In this issue, we have printed a few of these, including a most informative letter to that paper’s acting publisher written by one of America’s preeminent journalists, Lou Cannon. A complete posting of all letters and emails can be found on The Indy’s Web site ( Nick Welsh has compiled a timeline which will explain the who, what, when, and where of why six of the daily’s most senior editors, including Executive Editor Jerry Roberts, resigned. But the most powerful report is that by Barney Brantingham, perhaps Santa Barbara’s most beloved writer. He explains in great detail why he decided to leave a newspaper where he has worked for almost half a century; it is a great honor for The Independent to publish this moving article. For us, here at The Independent, it is an even greater honor to announce that Barney Brantingham has agreed to become our newest columnist. And everyone in Santa Barbara will be happy to learn that this year’s Grand Marshal of the Old Spanish Days Parade, Mr. Brantingham himself, will be continuing to report on his adventures as he, once again, eats his way through Fiesta.


Santa Barbara’s Beloved Columnist Tells His Story

by Barney Brantingham

I quit the Santa Barbara News-Press last week after more than 46 years because I couldn’t bear to watch the destruction of a fine newspaper. And it was too painful to see the destruction of the lives of dedicated staffers whose only crime was publishing the news. And I could not continue to work at a paper that had lost its credibility and its soul.

Barney Brantingham in the '70s.
Click to enlarge photo

Barney Brantingham in the '70s.

In a bizarre Kafkaesque/Castro twist, a story about suppression of the news was suppressed. Last Friday, a news account written for that day’s paper describing the biggest story in town — the resignation of five editors (now seven, including myself) — was killed. About 150 newspapers from the U.K. to India ran the story, along with the L.A. Times — but not the News-Press. Even News-Press employees outside the newsroom were shocked and upset. One executive told fellow staffers: “Wendy McCaw may own the paper, but she doesn’t own the news.”

I’ve always hated the expression “News-Suppress,” but now, to my pain, I must admit it fits.

Ironically, until the last few months, these years working under the highly respected Editor Jerry Roberts and the great Managing Editor George Foulsham have been my best, my happiest, at the paper. And, even more ironically in view of the current travesty that has befallen the News-Press, this was during the ownership of Wendy McCaw. To her credit, she has always given me complete freedom to write. She has never interfered with my column.

But this idyllic time all came crashing down on July 6, last Thursday morning. Roberts arrived back from vacation to find his job as editor had been usurped by Travis Armstrong, the editorial writer and editor of the opinion pages of the paper. Roberts couldn’t ethically run a news department that was controlled by the opinion side of the paper, and so he submitted his resignation to be effective in 30 days. Always the professional, he was willing to stay on the job to assure that the paper would continue to get out and that the transition would be as smooth as possible. No way.

Instead, McCaw, with her fiancé and co-publisher Arthur von Wiesenberger, decamped in her private jet to areas unknown, leaving behind broken lives, a mangled paper, and Travis Armstrong as the acting publisher. Now Armstrong has the upper hand.

Armstrong, as many know, is a court favorite of McCaw and, as many have learned, is a dangerous man to anger. The author of countless poison-pen attacks on public figures out of favor with McCaw, he has become increasingly contentious and imperious. Now the time of reckoning came for the news desk. Hadn’t Roberts run a prominent story about Armstrong’s recent drunken driving arrest, when he had been stopped by police driving down Santa Barbara Street going in the wrong direction, with a blood alcohol level of nearly three times the legal limit? But when Armstrong was sentenced a few weeks later, the News-Press account of that story never saw the light of day. Only The Independent printed the information. Scooped again!

Last Thursday, I watched in dismay as Roberts was escorted out of his office by Armstrong. According to one witness, Armstrong barged into Roberts’s office saying, “I want you out of here now,” or words to that effect. This was quite a spectacle: A longtime San Francisco reporter and editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, a journalist of the highest reputation in the nation, kicked out by Mr. Poison Pen.

Many of us in the newsroom that day shook Jerry’s hand. Staffers rushed up, women were in tears, Metro Editor Jane Hulse threw her arms around Roberts, sobbing. Armstrong, widely despised in the community and clearly uncomfortable with the love and respect being shown the editor, growled, “Come on, Jerry, you have to leave the building now.”

As he hustled Roberts down the hall and toward the door flanked by Human Resources Director Yolanda Apodaca, sorrow turned to anger. Hulse yelled, “Fuck you, Travis. Haven’t you done enough?” The gathered staffers took up the chorus: “Fuck you!”

Then Hulse quit. Foulsham, it turned out, had already given notice and Deputy Managing Editor Don Murphy, a soft-spoken, 19-year News-Press editor, had cleared out his desk and was gone. Business Editor Michael Todd, known for working night and day, was already on suspension, his days clearly numbered after daring to explain to McCaw journalism’s tradition of separating an owner’s whim and opinion from the responsibility of keeping the news as objective as humanly possible. I resigned in protest that afternoon and Sports Editor Gerry Spratt quit the next day.

This was the breaking point of intolerable tensions that had built up regarding front office meddling with the news. The beginning of the end came after publisher Joe Cole, a longtime business associate of McCaw and a moderating influence, left more than a month ago. It’s not clear whether Cole was pushed out or if he had just had enough. It was announced that he had “retired,” though at 50 years old, Cole is far from Social Security age. Cole, a well-known lawyer with a friendly, diplomatic style, was seen as a buffer between McCaw and Armstrong, and the newsroom. At that time, von Wiesenberger, who is the paper’s restaurant reviewer, was named co-publisher with McCaw. Amateur Hour was in full swing.

Barney_at_News-Press.jpgOne of the most difficult parts of this story for me is that Arthur von Wiesenberger had been my longtime friend. He was the best man at my wedding to my wife Sue DeLapa. We traveled around the world together and co-hosted a weekly radio show. When he became engaged to McCaw on Valentine’s Day a few years ago, I was happy for him. Just a couple of weeks ago, before Armstrong began to take control of the newsroom, I had lunch with Arthur and warned him that Travis Armstrong was a growing cancer on the News-Press, that his extremely vitriolic columns and editorials were alienating the paper from the community at large. And though I have not heard from either von Wiesenberger or McCaw since I sent in my resignation, it seems clear that my warning had gone unheeded.

Instead, the tragedy ended with more bodies strewn around than the last act of Hamlet. Russian playwrights couldn’t have written anything sadder. The mass resignations were probably inevitable, but what apparently triggered the big blowup was the Rob Lowe Incident. The West Wing actor wants to build a Montecito mega-mansion, and he’s certainly not the first to want his own castle there. At a hearing, one of his neighbors objected to losing his view. Commissioners gave Lowe a split decision. Lowe was then interviewed by News-Press reporter Camilla Cohee but made no request that the address of the vacant lot not be mentioned. However, later that day, Lowe reportedly phoned Armstrong and asked that the address not be used, even though it was prominently mentioned at the hearing which was shown on cable TV for hours, published on many documents, and was the actual title of the case. But his message apparently never got through to the newsroom. Had it, perhaps some accommodation could have been made. Like “somewhere in Montecito.”

But the story made the front page, with the address included. Then hell broke loose. Lowe or his representative complained. Cohee said she received a call from von Wiesenberger in France — a prior trip — quizzing her about the story. This was a Journalism 101 no-no. Publishers are not supposed to lean on reporters, grill them, or try to influence the news, present or future. If a publisher has a problem, he or she deals with the top editors about it.

You can’t do good journalism if you’re worried about offending someone “important.” This, coupled with pressure from the business side, has a chilling, intimidating effect. But no one could have expected the surreal chain of events this set in motion.

Soon Cohee and three editors got letters of reprimand from McCaw regarding the Great Vacant Lot Address Problem, including one editor who didn’t even have anything to do with the piece. They all replied to McCaw, but Todd’s reply strongly raised these “church/state” separation issues, and he was slapped with a two-week suspension without pay. This was supposedly due to a joking remark he’d made to another staffer on the street more than a month prior. Many suspect that the suspension was really due to his objecting to the reprimand.

To Todd, McCaw’s letter made it clear that he had no future at the paper.

In the meantime, according to Cohee, Armstrong was refusing to run her story about longtime Carpinteria City Councilmember Donna Jordan not planning to run again, wanting her to throw in more negative comments about Jordan, who backed several positions opposed by News-Press editorials. The Independent ran the story. Scooped again!

The virtual reign of terror shook the newsroom to its roots. I arrived back at my desk from vacation the Monday following the Lowe debacle. I began cleaning out my desk. Opinion was seeping onto the news pages and the paper was bleeding its best editors and its precious integrity.

In a New York Times story published July 10, a McCaw spokesperson said that the editors quit because they disagreed with her push for local news — an absurd assertion, since that was the very thing on which everyone in the newsroom was focused. In a word, the claim was baloney.

And while we’re setting straight the record, let’s point out that the News-Press's front-page claim that the paper is in its 151st year is bogus. Since T.M. Storke, my first owner/publisher, didn’t found what became the News-Press until 1901, where did they come up with those other 50 years? And while I’m on the subject of T.M. Storke, let me just say: He was a tough boss, but he could take the heat. No one who ever knew him could imagine that in the middle of a crisis as great as the News-Press currently faces, T.M. Storke would leave the building, let alone fly off on a vacation. He would face the music; he would see the paper though to safety. And why? Because whether you liked Storke or not, whether you agreed with his editorials or not, T.M. Storke was a journalist, a real newspaper man.

I profoundly regret all that has come to pass in this sad mess, but I don’t regret my years with the paper. I’ve worked nights and weekends and covered tedious City Hall nighttime meetings, wildfires where I almost got killed, angry Goleta water wars, Vietnam War peace rallies, the I.V. riots, the 1969 oil spill, rock concerts, the courts, and police beats. I met wonderful people, friends for life in some cases.

Then, a kid from the streets of Chicago’s Southside, who just wanted to sit in the back of the room and take notes, got a column. It’s one of those remarkable facets of American journalism where someone is allowed to give his or her honest opinion and take on life. It’s a unique, independent view, not an editorial reflecting the newspaper’s official position or a straight news story where the writer’s opinions aren’t allowed.

It’s a privilege I’ve enjoyed and honored at the News-Press since 1977, when I took over from the late Tom Kleveland. Some have disagreed with my opinions, but that’s to be expected. It was my job to raise issues and stimulate discussion of controversial issues.

Now I’m gone, after 46 years and three months. Look, the day had to come at some point. I had my time and at least I didn’t go out feet-first.

What is important is a newspaper’s credibility, and the News-Press’s credibility is in tatters. Brave souls in the newsroom are doing their best, managing under intense pressure, fearing for their jobs if they somehow happen to displease Armstrong. It’s sad, but I can no longer believe what I read in the News-Press because I have to wonder whether the dark shadow of meddling hands are censoring or suppressing the news.

FOUR•ONE•ONE A rally will be held on Tuesday, July 18, for advertisers and readers to demand the News-Press “build back the wall” between news and opinion content. Meet at noon at De la Guerra Plaza in front of the News-Press building.


News-Press Timeline

by Nick Welsh

April 24, 2006: Santa Barbara Mayor Marty Blum and Supervisor Susan Rose are barred from participating in a talk show hosted by a consortium of non-profit agencies on News-Press radio station KZSV 1290 AM, although the show sponsors paid for airtime.

April 27: Editorial page editor and columnist Travis Armstrong, in a News-Press interview, said station policy prohibited people from appearing as guests on one show — even if leased by a separate entity — if they’d declined invitations to appear on other programs. Sponsors privately expressed shock at such a policy. Mayor Blum said she’d been on his show once, and that she had never committed to being on a program discussing June elections. Armstrong responded by writing that Blum had a “sense of entitlement,” and that her attitude was akin “to something out of a former Communist bloc.”

April 27: Publisher Joe Cole announced he was leaving the newspaper and severed all professional associations with owner Wendy P. McCaw so he could spend more time with his family. Cole’s announcement ignited a firestorm of speculation whether he quit or was fired. One of Santa Barbara’s most successful business attorneys, Cole also had served as legal counsel to McCaw and her Ampersand Holdings Co. He is credited with hiring Jerry Roberts — former executive editor of the San Francisco Chronicle — as executive editor of the News-Press.

April 27: On the same day, McCaw announced she was appointing herself and her fiancé, Arthur von Wiesenberger, as publishers. The News-Press reported that von Wiesenberger — a bon vivant, food writer, travel critic, bottled water expert, and owner of the once-famous Montecito nightclub Nippers — edited his high school newspaper in Switzerland.

May 6: Armstrong bestowed the Goleta Chamber of Commerce’s “Goleta’s Finest Award” at the Bacara Hotel.

May 7: At 2:45 a.m., police officers spotted Armstrong driving the wrong way down Santa Barbara Street, arrested him for drunken driving, impounded his car, and booked him into county jail.

May 9: The daily ran an interview with Armstrong, who said he had arranged to be driven back from the Bacara, knowing that he might be drinking, but then had a few more glasses of wine at home. Upset with thoughts about work, he went for a late night drive to clear his head. According to newsroom insiders, von Wiesenberger tried to kill the story.

May 25: After The Independent reported that News-Press staffers initiated “The Jerry Watch,” to see how long Roberts would continue working for the daily, some employees were questioned privately by management to determine whether they had spoken to Independent reporters.

June 9: Armstrong pleaded guilty to driving with nearly three times the legal blood-alcohol limit, was fined, and sentenced to four days’ jail time. A News-Press article describing the court action was killed, reportedly at the insistence of the publishers.

June 20: Roberts left on holiday. Armstrong started attending news meetings, and was accompanied by a human relations officer who took notes. The meetings no longer were held in Roberts’s office.

June 21: Despite the objections of a neighbor, the Montecito Planning Commission approved actor Rob Lowe’s proposed 14,000-square-foot house to be built on a now-vacant lot at 7000 Picacho Lane. Reporter Camilla Cohee included the address in a story about the proceedings. Responding to a call from Lowe asking that the address be withheld, Armstrong emailed two editors. But by then, the article had been printed.

June 22: The employee handbook was officially revised to warn that employees who talk about internal matters with other news organizations face immediate termination.

June 23: Though addresses are commonly included in land planning stories and the daily has had no prior written policy on withholding addresses, McCaw issued letters of reprimand to Cohee and three editors: Jane Hulse, George Foulsham, and Michael Todd, all believed to have reviewed the story. The letter to business editor Todd stated: “Lowe’s address has damaged our credibility with the Lowe family and potentially damaged relations with other high-profile readers. … As a result of this error, the Lowe family canceled their subscription.” McCaw concluded: “It is now company policy that no addresses are to be published” without the publishers’ approval.

June 28: All four news staffers sent letters of protest. Todd wrote that the address was necessary to the story, that punishing reporters for violating policies that did not exist before publication to “border on the malicious and defamatory,” and that to give special treatment to “high-profile” residents like Lowe violated the doctrine set down by former News-Press owner and publisher T.M. Storke: “Publish the news that is public property without fear or favor of friend or foe.”

June 29: McCaw dismissed Todd’s arguments about journalistic ethics as “specious,” and that it should be “a matter of common sense and decency” not to publish the actor’s address. “This is sensationalism, it is unethical, it is not the kind of paper I intend to run,” McCaw wrote. As his tone was “argumentative” and “blatantly disrespectful,” according to McCaw, Todd was placed on indefinite unpaid leave pending the outcome of an investigation into a non-sexual remark that offended another employee six weeks prior. He was then escorted from the building.

June 30: McCaw and von Wiesenberger left on vacation. Armstrong was named acting publisher for reportedly three months. He was given unprecedented authority to alter news articles. When Cohee filed a story about Carpinteria City Councilmember Donna Jordan’s decision not to seek re-election after 16 years in office, according to News-Press sources, Armstrong instructed Cohee to include more negative information. Thus far, the article has not run. July 2: Jerry Roberts returned.

July 5: Deputy Managing Editor Don Murphy, a 19-year veteran of the paper, resigned. Iconic columnist Barney Brantingham, after 46 years in the newsroom, submitted his resignation.

July 6: At 9:45 a.m., Jerry Roberts submitted his resignation along with those of Metro Editor Hulse and managing editor George Foulsham. The human relations director escorted out Roberts. He stopped to hug some tearful colleagues. Armstrong showed up, took Roberts by the arm, and said, “You have to leave now, Jerry.” This elicited a chorus of profanity from those assembled. “Fuck you, Travis,” shouted Hulse. “Haven’t you done enough?” Others expressed similar sentiments. Armstrong next told Hulse to leave. At her house, her husband, a reporter for the L.A. Times, presented her with a cheesecake bearing the inscription, “F&%$ Travis.” Later that day, Sports Editor Gerry Spratt also quit.

July 6: The upheaval made the front page of the Los Angeles Times. A News-Press spokesman, Sam Singer, a San Francisco-based consultant specializing in crisis management, was quoted as saying that the editors left due to a disagreement in editorial direction. McCaw, Singer explained, wanted more local news. Reporter Scott Hadley wrote a story for the News-Press detailing the resignations, but it has yet to appear.

July 7: In a front-page editorial, Armstrong compared the struggle between the newsroom and McCaw to a family dispute. Briefly acknowledging the unprecedented exodus, he confirmed the paper’s commitment to excellence. No letters to the editor on the subject were published. Employees reported that hard drives from computers used by five of the six editors who resigned were removed to Ampersand headquarters. Unconfirmed reports suggested the administration had hired an agency to track employee phone calls.

July 8: Jerry Roberts tried to retrieve the contents of his desk from the News-Press, but security guards won’t let him in the building.

July 9: The paper announced the appointment of four replacement editors; all but one were hired internally.

July 11: At the Board of Supervisors meeting, a homeless man who goes by the name Lazarus said that McCaw and Armstrong were in need of county mental health and alcohol services, and that people with their problems should not be allowed in positions of power or importance.

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