"Wendy McCaw may own the paper, but she doesn’t own the news." — Anonymous Santa Barbara News-Press executive
One week since editors and a long-time columnist walked out on their jobs, Santa Barbara’s media establishment is still firing salvos across a deepening chasm – reporters and community activists on one side, the rookie publisher and amateur owner on the other. The News-Press debacle may just be a bump in the road or a harbinger of greater journalistic tussles to come, but either way, the controversy continues to shine a light on the darker aspects of modern news.
The most detailed account so far of what happened on The Day the Journalism Died comes from Barney Brantingham, the aforementioned columnist (disclaimer: I used to work in Santa Barbara and knew Barney professionally.) Brantingham wrote about the experience in the Santa Barbara Independent, which also happens to be his new employer.
You should read the article for yourself – it’s interesting, revealing, inspiring and sad, and I am sure, knowing Barney, it is also the truth. Here’s a brief excerpt:
Last Thursday, I watched in dismay as (Editor Jerry) Roberts was escorted out of his office by (Publisher Travis) 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!”
Perhaps the most damning comments about the demise of the News-Press, however, are from former Washington Post reporter and famed Reagan biographer Lou Cannon (another disclaimer: I’ve met and interviewed Lou on a few occasions, and consider him to be a real mench.)
Cannon, a Santa Barbara County resident, wrote a letter to Armstrong that was also published in the Independent. Following is some of what Cannon, one of the most respected journalists alive, had to say:
People don’t trust the news when it is merely an expression of opinion. In order to sell more newspapers and raise advertising rates, publishers realized they needed the readers’ trust. That is how modern newspapers evolved.
…It doesn’t take a big-time newspaper to practice honest journalism. Earlier in my career, I worked for the Merced Sun-Star, whose owner, the late Dean Lesher, was often (and accurately) described as idiosyncratic. But he understood the purpose of a newspaper. When one of the community’s most prominent attorneys (who had also represented the newspaper), was arrested for drunken driving, the lawyer wanted the news suppressed. Mr. Lesher refused to do it. Years later when I became editor of another Lesher paper, the Contra Costa Times, I asked what he expected of me. “Treat everyone without fear or favor,” he said.
Lesher was right. Cannon is right, so is Brantingham, and so are the editors who walked out.
Journalism has problems – declining readers and viewers, public mistrust and unprecedented economic pressures, not to mention the Nancy Graces of the world. But journalism still has principles, it has ethics, and it has journalists who are willing to endure great personal hardships to do what they believe is necessary to preserve the public trust.
I have one thing to say to these journalists, wherever they are: Thanks.