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The Owner Strikes Back in Turmoil at Newspaper

She says those who left the Santa Barbara daily were biased. An eighth journalist resigns.

July 14, 2006|James Rainey | Times Staff Writer

Normally genteel Santa Barbara convulsed with another round of recrimination Thursday over its daily newspaper -- with owner Wendy McCaw accusing journalists who quit her newsroom en masse of using the paper to air their biases, while one of the defectors slammed the wealthy owner as an amateurish meddler.

Much of the fighting was conducted on the front pages of the Santa Barbara News-Press and the alternative weekly the Santa Barbara Independent. Even one-time Washington political columnist Lou Cannon joined in the print-lashing of the daily newspaper's operators.

While the week-old battle raged, an eighth News-Press journalist resigned Thursday and the acting publisher said some of the city's establishment was fanning the controversy to damage an editorial page that had dared to question politicians and proposals for high-density development.

Thursday's opening salvo came with McCaw's front-page "note to readers," telling her side. In it, she accused the journalists who quit last week of failing to meet her goal of "accurate and unbiased reporting."

"When news articles became opinion pieces, reporting went unchecked and the paper was used as a personal arena to air petty infighting by the editors," McCaw wrote, "these goals were not met."

The letter, accompanied by a photo of a smiling McCaw in pearls, said that some disgruntled employees "appeared to use the News-Press for their own agendas [and] decided to leave when it was clear they no longer would be permitted to flavor the news with their personal opinions."

From the beginning of the controversy, however, many of McCaw's employees said it was the owner and her acting publisher, Travis Armstrong, who tried to censor the news. They noted that the paper killed a short story about Armstrong's sentencing for drunk driving and that management issued sharp reprimands to a reporter and three editors for publishing the address where actor Rob Lowe proposed to build a mansion.

Those incidents contributed to the resignations of Editor Jerry Roberts, five other editors and veteran columnist Barney Brantingham.

On Thursday, Brantingham announced that he would write his column for the weekly Independent. His first effort: a lengthy account of a "tragedy [that] ended with more bodies strewn around than the last act of Hamlet."

Brantingham, pictured in a Hawaiian-print shirt in front of the News-Press building, said he ended his 46 years at the paper because "front-office meddling with the news" had left its "credibility in tatters."

He went on to compare McCaw unfavorably to Thomas M. Storke, the forceful publisher of the News-Press for most of the last century.

Acquaintances said they believed McCaw, 55, was in the Mediterranean, where she normally spends her birthday cruising on her yacht.

"No one who ever knew him could imagine that, in the middle of a crisis as great as the News-Press currently faces, T.M. Storke would leave the building, let alone fly off on a vacation," Brantingham wrote. "He would face the music."

The dissident journalists won a big-name ally in Cannon, the columnist and Ronald Reagan biographer who moved to the Santa Barbara suburb of Summerland 16 years ago.

In his letter to the Independent, Cannon compared Armstrong unfavorably to Washington Post Publisher Katharine Graham, who he said never told him about her friendship with First Lady Nancy Reagan so as not to influence the columnist's coverage.

Cannon also chastised Armstrong -- named publisher this month after serving as the paper's editorial page editor -- for the News-Press' failure to publish an account about his drunk-driving sentence.

"You are the public face of the newspaper," Cannon wrote, "all the more because of your owner's reclusiveness, and readers have a legitimate interest in your transgressions, as they do those of other public figures."

He went on to suggest an "honorable" course of action for Armstrong: "You could resign." The letter concluded: "I hereby cancel my subscription to the Santa Barbara News-Press, which has forfeited the trust of the community."

In his most extensive comments, Armstrong said in an interview Thursday that Cannon had failed a basic journalistic tenet by not calling him for an explanation.

He said the News-Press had not covered other DUI cases unless they involved traffic accidents or serious injuries. He said his transgression got more attention because of long-standing "hard feelings" between him and Roberts, the former editor.

Armstrong, 41, went on to accuse "a large group of people," including Santa Barbara Mayor Marty Blum, of trying to damage the newspaper's credibility.

"Some of them are connected to high-density development, which we have opposed," Armstrong said.

"And I think people will do as much as they can to keep this story going.... They are manipulating other media to try to silence this independent media voice."

Joining the News-Press exodus Thursday was Scott Hadly, a reporter who several community leaders said was among the paper's best.

Hadly, 42, said he had hoped to remain at the paper but that McCaw's letter made doing so untenable. He said the owner's claim that the newspaper had gained "new subscribers" because of the recent changes seemed incredible.

McCaw's claims of staff bias "defamed my work, the legitimacy of my work," he added. "I just didn't want to work for her for another minute."

Armstrong said that he "admired" Hadly's work but that the News-Press would endure.

"Ultimately," he said, "the paper is going to be bigger and better than it ever was."

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