The series of stories in the Santa Barbara News-Press would have drawn attention for its sheer mass: 19,000 words, spread across five days on the front page of the paper. The tough content commanded attention too: accusations that an award-winning police officer had trumped up evidence to increase drunk-driving arrests. And there was a final grabber: The author of the reports had been arrested by the same cop on suspicion of DUI.
The series, which concluded last weekend, has generated a wave of debate and wildly divergent opinions. Said one reader on a popular news site called Edhat: "Whoa, News-Press reaches new low, using the power of the press to advance a personal vendetta." That comment was countered by this one: "I renewed my subscription to the News-Press because they had the guts to print this article."
In the new digital-age journalism, everyone is supposed to have a voice and the old consensus about what's fair has fragmented. But the tempest amounts to an odd sort of commemoration for the News-Press, coming almost exactly five years after another dispute about how the newspaper drew journalistic boundaries. In July 2006, half a dozen journalists walked off the job, never to return, because they said Publisher Wendy McCaw unduly meddled in news stories to protect her friends.
It remains to be seen how the current accusations against Officer Kasi Beutel — who previously won awards from Mothers Against Drunk Driving for her prodigious record of arrests — hold up. There's more than a whiff of suspicion in the details freelance reporter Peter Lance put forward, along with some damning inferences not yet born out by the facts.
Already this week, a defense lawyer in Santa Barbara stood in court and tried to impeach Beutel based on the News-Press' reporting. More challenges seem likely, considering that Beutel made more than 600 drunk driving arrests over two years as the Santa Barbara Police Department's DUI enforcement specialist.
The officer and her department are giving no ground but have declined to comment directly on the most serious accusations — that Beutel intentionally misused an alcohol breath-test device to boost readings and turned in paperwork with allegedly forged signatures.
The department issued a statement accusing Lance of writing the "attack story" in retaliation for his own arrest, which came in the wee hours of New Year's morning. Beutel's attorney, Charles Goldwasser, said there are explanations for all the discrepancies the News-Press pointed out, though his client has not yet decided how to respond.
All of this made me — and a couple of media observers in Santa Barbara — wonder why a newspaper with an already troubled reputation didn't simply take the information that DUI suspect Lance dredged up and assign a News-Press staffer to investigate. The paper's newsroom has been pared back to bare bones. But still, wouldn't the third-party approach have lent more credibility to the paper's biggest project in memory?
"In this kind of showdown newspaper writers and editors can't afford to give readers any reason to doubt their credibility," wrote Nick Welsh in the alternative Santa Barbara Independent weekly. Law professor and local blogger Craig Smith offered: "I usually prefer that the people who cover stories not have a stake in the outcome of the events they are reporting on."
Don Katich, the News-Press' director of news operations, dismissed the idea that Lance's run-in with Beutel should disqualify him from covering her. "It is our contention that the facts establish the credibility of the story," Katich wrote me.
Katich wondered if the Los Angeles Times and I weren't the ones guilty of a conflict. "Has the L.A. Times given consideration," he asked, "to have someone else cover this 'controversy' noting the past bias this columnist has had against the News-Press and Wendy McCaw?"
I would offer a touché, but the comparison seems a bit flawed. Though I previously have expressed less than complete confidence in McCaw's abilities as a newswoman, I've done that as a columnist, someone paid to offer the facts and my opinions. I would never write a news story about matters in which I had anything as critical as a criminal conviction on the line. The DUI opus in the News-Press, in contrast, was presented as a straight news story, written by someone who has a lot riding on the outcome.
The story came over the transom from Lance, 63, who previously had written another freelance piece for the News-Press. Before that, Lance spent most of his career writing for television news shows and then dramas, before shifting to nonfiction books with an investigative bent.
In the DUI series, he acknowledged his own arrest right up front. He reportedly blew 0.09, over the legal blood-alcohol limit for driving. Growing out of that incident, the series goes on to quote other people arrested on suspicion of drunk driving who say they were treated unfairly by Beutel. We are informed that Beutel ended up on disability after one of those arrests, even though the arrest documents made no mention she suffered an injury. We also learn that Santa Barbara, alone among police agencies in the area, does not equip its patrol cars with video cameras.
Lance told me angrily that I was wrong to wonder if some of his other conclusions amounted to an overreach.
The series at one point suggests, for instance, that Beutel might be trumping up drunk driving stops so she can squeeze out more overtime pay. That inference is based on statements from an expert about how much overtime cops can make, not anything specific about how much Beutel does make. That's the police department's fault, the writer told me, because they wouldn't divulge the information.
Similarly, the series describes Beutel's reportedly checkered credit history and suggests the officer might have lied about it on her job application. But we can't get a definitive answer on that either, because the department declined to release the paperwork.
No doubt, it would help clear up these questions if Beutel or the department made the OT and application information public. Absent those specifics, Lance attempted to fill the gaps largely with a series of experts. They spelled out the abundant potential evils lurking in DUI busts.
Most often cited was Darryl Genis, a prominent DUI defense attorney, who also happens to be representing Lance in his battle against Officer Beutel (which was disclosed in the articles).
Authorities expect the case of the People vs. Peter Lance to arrive in court sometime this summer. I suspect it will be more contentious than your standard drunk driving trial.