Disintegration of a newspaper’s ethics

From its first day, the journalistic meltdown of the Santa Barbara News-Press has been a story about ethics.

Now, nearly a year after the controversy began, the shameful ethics of that once-proud newspaper and its multi-millionaire owner are on display for the entire world to see.

The latest example: In an Blowback article posted on this website last Thursday, News-Press owner Wendy McCaw peddled another personal attack on me, the former editor in chief of her paper, that provided a case study of why professional journalists have fled the newsroom in droves since last July 6, when nearly every senior editor departed.

That group of editors, including me, left because McCaw, having just appointed herself and her fiancé as co-publishers, pressured us to turn the paper away from the basic values and standards contained in the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists.

Her latest salvo was presented as a response to Lou Cannon's earlier denunciation of News-Press ethics under McCaw, published in the Times' opinion section; she packaged her piece as a call to arms in defense of exploited children.

In its references to me, her article was filled with more of the same false, defamatory and misleading statements and innuendoes with which she has attacked me for months, in an effort to find someone to blame for the self-inflicted, widely reported troubles at the News-Press.

Since last summer, McCaw has repositioned the paper as a kind of vanity press, whose apparent purpose is to punish her personal and political enemies, to brag on her friends and pet causes and to align the views of her editorial page with what is reported in her news pages.

In a letter to McCaw released publicly, Mr. Cannon has ably and eloquently set the record straight as to the falsehoods and innuendo aimed at him

In my own case, McCaw's online screed, which first appeared in her own paper's opinion section, followed a series of recent "news" articles trumped up to cast a false light of suspicion on me regarding images of child pornography on a News-Press computer. These articles were all published in the full knowledge that: 1) the hard drive in the computer was bought used by the News-Press; 2) the hard drive had been used by as many as three other editors before it got to me; and 3) an investigation by law enforcement experts could not determine when or by whom the offending images were downloaded.

Yet in her column posted here, using the defense of exploited children as a pretext, McCaw again sought to make it appear that I, and I alone, could be responsible for the images on her company's computer, rather than using her newspaper and her considerable resources to address a serious issue in a substantive way.

As Lou Cannon properly pointed out, "Child pornography is EVIL." It is, in my opinion, about the most heinous activity one can be charged with—and McCaw's vicious attempt to falsely tie me to this material is the most unethical and reckless use of a newspaper I have witnessed as a professional journalist.

The motive in doing so is to damage and smear my personal and professional reputation at a time when McCaw is suing me in a contract dispute for $25 million.

That key fact has somehow never found its way into the pages of the News-Press. Neither have any of my denials or comments about the issue—although the paper dispatched a reporter to cover a press conference my wife and I held to denounce its first story on the subject.

Nor is it mere coincidence that the News-Press began its smear campaign against me as I embarked on a community fundraising campaign to try to raise money to help pay my massive legal expenses to contend with the limitless resources of the paper's owner.

Her innuendo that I am somehow responsible for, or connected to, images of child pornography found on a computer owned by Ampersand Publishing, the corporate owner of the News-Press, is a contemptible suggestion that is categorically false and that was published with reckless disregard for the truth with the purpose of destroying me and my career.

Her statement that I "wiped" the hard drive of the computer clean is also a blatant falsehood, unsupported by evidence—and a physical impossibility, given the fact that I was brusquely evicted from the newspaper moments after submitting my departure letter (in which, ironically, I offered to stay 30 days to "ease the transition.")

And her claims that I left the newspaper, variously, in a "fit of pique," or because I insisted on running "biased stories." are similarly completely untrue.

Both the Society of Professional Journalists, with its national Ethics in Journalism award, and the University of Oregon journalism school, with its prestigious Payne Award for Ethics, have honored my colleagues and me for our actions at the News-Press.

As McCaw and, more importantly, the community of Santa Barbara knows full well, the other editors and I left for one and only one reason: because we could not abide working for a newspaper that ran roughshod over professional journalistic ethics.

Jerry Roberts is an award-winning journalist who served as the Managing Editor of the San Francisco Chronicle and the executive editor of the Santa Barbara News-Press.

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