Santa Barbara's news mess

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FORTY-SIX YEARS AGO, the idyllic seaside city of Santa Barbara was torn apart by an ugly whispering campaign conducted by the John Birch Society, whose members used anonymous phone calls to suggest that certain local leaders were members of a communist conspiracy.

The Santa Barbara News-Press exposed the Birchers in a series of articles. The newspaper's publisher at the time, 85-year-old Thomas M. Storke, then denounced the group on the editorial page for smearing educators, members of the clergy and others with "cowardly diatribes." The editorial, published Feb. 16, 1961, won the 1962 Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing.

Today, the Santa Barbara community has once more been torn apart, but this time by the News-Press itself. The saga began in July when the paper's respected editor, Jerry Roberts, as well as five other editors, a popular columnist and a reporter quit to protest billionaire owner Wendy McCaw's interference in newsroom decisions. During the next several months, more than 40 other reporters or editors were fired or resigned.

In the last few days, there have been half a dozen additional resignations, led by longtime book reviewer Susan Miles Gulbransen, prompted by disgust about a front-page article that appeared in the News-Press on April 22. The unsigned article said that Ampersand Publishing, the McCaw-controlled parent company of the newspaper, was seeking to retrieve from the Santa Barbara Police Department the hard drive of the office computer used by Roberts, "which contains according to the police more than 15,000 images of child and adult pornography."

Roberts denounced the article as "false, defamatory and malicious" and said the computer had been bought in used condition and had been utilized by at least three other editors before he came to the newspaper. His statement was supported by the Santa Barbara Police Department, which said the computer had multiple owners and was not protected by a password. The district attorney agreed and decided against filing charges. In response to the article, the weekly Santa Barbara Independent ran a grainy cover picture of McCaw above the headline: "Have You No Shame, Mrs. McCaw?"

One of the latest employees to quit was Lin Rolens, another book reviewer. In a letter of resignation, Rolens said that while reviewing a book on the Holocaust, she'd become aware of "how much the German people clearly knew about the genocide conducted in their name…. The obvious lesson is that when we encounter a direct affront to decency and what we value, we have two choices: We can be part of the problem or part of the solution."

In 1961, when the Birchers were riding high, Santa Barbara residents worried about anonymous phone calls to employers or friends. Now, the concern of those who oppose McCaw is the risk of legal costs. Local merchants who put up signs in their stores criticizing McCaw were warned to take them down or face legal action. The signs were removed.

McCaw, who bought the paper in 2000 from the New York Times Co., has sued Roberts for $25 million for an alleged breach of contract; he filed a counterclaim for $10 million. (Full disclosure: I have actively participated in Roberts' efforts to raise money to pay his legal bills.) McCaw has sued the American Journalism Review over an unflattering article, and the author of the article also faces a McCaw lawsuit.

The National Labor Relations Board is also grappling with the News-Press in legal proceedings. Earlier this year, the NLRB said it would prosecute the News-Press for unfairly firing eight reporters who were involved in helping to organize a union at the paper. (The employees voted 33 to 6 in September to join the Graphics Communications Conference, an affiliate of the Teamsters, but McCaw has declined to negotiate a contract.)

Helped by the Teamsters, the fired reporters have put up a website, the Santa Barbara Newsroom, to report the news of the city. But it's uncertain if the reporters can hold out financially.

Gone from the News-Press with the reporting staff is much of the local news coverage. Marty Blum, the mayor of Santa Barbara, complains that the paper, which under Roberts covered the city vigorously and won several awards, now rarely sends a reporter to city hearings. "We've lost our daily paper," Blum said. Readers have noticed a decline in quality. In the six months ending March 31, the News-Press lost 9.5% of its subscribers, more than any other newspaper in the region.

But what has been truly lost in Santa Barbara during the last 10 months cannot be quantified. For decades after Storke stood up against the John Birch Society, the Santa Barbara News-Press under different owners provided a forum for diverse points of view and earned the community's trust. That trust is now gone, and with it one of the most vital aspects of life in Santa Barbara. It's a sad story.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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