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Santa Barbara newspaper owner sues over critical article

The story by a Chapman University professor is defamatory, Wendy McCaw alleges. The suit is merely intimidation, author's attorney says.

December 19, 2006|Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writer

The controversial owner of a Santa Barbara newspaper has sued the author of a magazine article critical of the paper's management, alleging it defamed the paper.

The lawsuit calls the American Journalism Review article by Chapman University journalism professor Susan Paterno "nothing but a biased, false and misleading diatribe" against Ampersand Publishing LLC, the holding company of the paper's billionaire co-publisher Wendy McCaw, which owns the Santa Barbara News-Press. The suit, filed Dec. 12 in Orange County Superior Court, seeks unspecified damages.

Howard King, Paterno's attorney, characterized the suit as an attempt to intimidate journalists who write critical articles about the paper and its owner, and said he planned to seek its dismissal in January.

"Unless they revoked the 1st Amendment over the weekend, I don't think they have much of a chance," said the Century City attorney, who said the article was vetted by an outside lawyer before publication. He said the lawsuit was "a message to any reporter out there: 'If you're thinking of doing a critical story on this newspaper or its owners, you better watch out. We'll do everything we can to hang you out to dry.' "

McCaw and her employees have been embroiled in a bitter dispute in recent months over her alleged interference in the newsroom, such as ordering the paper's editor not to publish a story about the then-editorial page editor's sentencing for drunk driving. About 30 employees, including several top editors, have resigned or been fired since July. The remaining employees have voted to unionize, and the paper is being sued by 200 current and past employees alleging failure to pay overtime.

The controversies have been covered by publications throughout the country, including the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and Vanity Fair.

A spokeswoman said McCaw was unavailable for comment Monday. Stanton L. Stein, the attorney for Ampersand who filed the lawsuit, did not return a phone call seeking comment.

McCaw has a history of litigation. Last week, her attorney sent a letter to a Santa Barbara hair salon threatening to "take appropriate action" if the owner did not remove a sign that read "McCaw, Obey the Law," a show of support for the newspaper employees trying to unionize.

On Dec. 5, she sent a memo to employees threatening to discipline those who are disloyal or make disparaging comments about the paper or its management. She filed a $500,000 breach-of-contract claim against the paper's former editor, Jerry Roberts.

In addition, she was involved in a protracted battle with the California Coastal Commission over allowing public beach access near her Hope Ranch estate.

Paterno, Chapman University's director of journalism and a senior writer for the University of Maryland-owned American Journalism Review, covered many of the recent controversies in her article, titled "Santa Barbara Smackdown," including detailed descriptions of newsroom tensions.

According to the suit, the article in the December/January edition of the trade journal contains falsehoods that mischaracterize the recent controversies.

"Clearly neither accuracy nor objectivity was high on defendant's list of priorities," the lawsuit says. "The result is a one-sided article that is false and defamatory."

Attempts to reach Paterno were unsuccessful.

Rem Rieder, editor of AJR, stood by the article.

"It was a very carefully reported story. The News-Press had ample opportunity to respond to [Paterno's questions], and they refused. It's our feeling the story accurately reflects the feelings and opinions of a lot of the people that worked in the newsroom," he said. "The way the lawsuit has been filed suggests it was filed with the intent of intimidating people.... It's really unfortunate."

The American Journalism Review was not sued. Several attorneys found that odd because plaintiffs typically sue the party with the deepest pockets, which in this case would be the University of Maryland, not the college professor.

California's "Anti-SLAPP" (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) statute, which is intended to stop corporations or powerful entities from silencing critics by filing lawsuits with questionable merit, could be applied to this case, said Mark Goldowitz, a 1st Amendment attorney and director of the California Anti-SLAPP Project.

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seema.mehta@latimes.com

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