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Trial dissects roles at newspaper

A fight between employees and Santa Barbara News-Press' owner-publisher raises journalistic questions.

August 15, 2007|James Rainey | Times Staff Writer

santa barbara -- After a year of name calling, serial litigation and dozens of newsroom defections, American journalism's nastiest in-house squabble debuted in a courtroom here Tuesday.

Attorneys for eight fired journalists accused Santa Barbara News-Press owner Wendy McCaw of trying to quash a union organizing drive, while the publisher's lead lawyer argued that the employees overstepped their authority and tried to seize control of the newspaper.

The case contrasts two approaches to journalism and raises questions about how much an owner or a publisher should be involved in determining what ends up in print.

The case has become a cause celebre among journalists nationally and to the residents of Santa Barbara largely because of McCaw's combative stance toward her former employees. The 56-year-old publisher has three other legal cases pending against her former editor, a local alternative newspaper and a reporter for a national journalism review who was critical of the paper's management.

In recent op-ed pieces, McCaw has depicted herself as a lonely holdout for journalistic standards against an ethically bankrupt -- and biased -- mainstream media.

The National Labor Relations Board's complaint against the News Press cites nearly 20 instances in which supervisors and others at the paper allegedly took improper actions against employees who planned to join the Graphic Communications Conference of the Teamsters union. In addition to the terminations, the paper is accused of spying on and interrogating the union activists, issuing reprimands and poor performance appraisals, and canceling the weekly column of writer Starshine Roshell, who subsequently left the paper.

During opening arguments Tuesday, Ira Gottlieb, a lawyer for a division of the Teamsters Union, told an administrative law judge hearing the case for the NLRB that the fired journalists and other employees subjected to discipline only wanted a fair say in the future of a newspaper they cared about.

"The News-Press was dead set upon killing the union drive, discouraging union support, demolishing the aspirations of the employees who wanted and still want . . . to have a hand in improving the newspaper and gain a voice and influence over their terms and conditions of employment," Gottlieb said. A. Barry Cappello, the lead attorney for McCaw, countered that the case did not present "traditional labor-employer issues."

"These are employees who will testify that their sole goal was to take control of the newspaper," Cappello said, "so the publisher [would have] no control of what is written in the newspaper and how it is written." He added in his opening statement that McCaw was merely trying to rein in workers who had an inflated "sense of entitlement to write what they wanted, when they wanted" and who, when challenged, denigrated their own paper and publisher.

After a hearing that will continue until at least mid-September, administrative law judge William G. Kocol will have to determine whether the employees were improperly fired in retaliation for union activities, a violation of the National Labor Relations Act. The workers then could be entitled to back wages and benefits and possible reinstatement.

The opening testimony in the case Tuesday came from News-Press Associate Editor Scott Steepleton, the top editorial employee at the newspaper. Steepleton said veteran reporters Melinda Burns and Anna Davison were fired because they injected bias into news stories. Six others lost their jobs when they hung a banner on a pedestrian bridge over Highway 101 that read: "Cancel Your Newspaper Today!" Steepleton called it an act of "disloyalty against the company."

Steepleton offered mixed testimony as to how much notice the reporters had been given of their alleged bias. He said Burns had been warned in several annual performance evaluations although never cited separately or disciplined. The journalist's lawyers countered that she had been commended as an exemplary employee in 2000 and won several awards.

The editor acknowledged that Davison had not received prior warnings about bias and said her termination early this year centered on a single story. Davison failed to quote any of the numerous opponents of a streetscaping project that uprooted dozens of trees and could have found such views if she had read letters to the editor in her own paper, Steepleton said.

Lawyers for the employees tried to show "disparate treatment" of the union activists by introducing examples of a handful of other instances in which reporters did not present both sides of an issue but were not disciplined. Cappello said he would provide evidence to counter those claims.

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