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A film about the Santa Barbara newspaper feud receives a warm hometown response.

March 10, 2008|David Freed | Special to The Times

Were it a reality show, the blurb might read something like:

A reclusive and litigious animal rights-crusading blond billionaire libertarian divorcee with no journalism experience buys daily newspaper in upscale beach town and insists on doing things her way or the highway. Complications ensue.

For residents of this upscale beach town, the reality show has become, well, a daily reality.

In July 2006, the editor of the Santa Barbara News-Press, four other top editors and a columnist resigned over what they alleged was billionaire publisher Wendy P. McCaw's efforts to meddle in local news coverage, a charge that McCaw denies. More than 70 other News-Press employees, fully one-third of the paper's staff, have since quit or been fired. Thousands of readers have canceled their subscriptions in protest, with many complaining that they no longer know what's going on around town because there simply aren't enough experienced reporters or editors left to cover the news.

Now comes "Citizen McCaw," a documentary chronicling the whole messy affair.

The film, which premiered Friday before an enthusiastic, sold-out audience at Santa Barbara's venerable, 2,200-seat Arlington Theatre, is not simply a story about a strong-willed publisher at odds with her equally strong-willed staff. It is, according to its director and narrator, Sam Tyler, a cautionary tale about the 1st Amendment rights of journalists to report the news fairly and objectively, without influence from anyone -- even if that anyone also happens to be their boss.

"You take away a reporter's ability to tell the truth, and what happens to this town, to this country?" Tyler said. "These journalists who stood up to [McCaw], they're heroes."

Indeed, Friday's screening was followed by the appearance of 23 former News-Press reporters and editors who mounted the Arlington stage to a standing ovation.

McCaw's attorney, A. Barry Cappello, denounced the documentary as a "factually flawed hit piece masquerading as a docu-drama" and threatened possible legal action.

According to Cappello, it wasn't the fiftysomething, Stanford-educated McCaw who was injecting opinions into news stories but many of her editors and reporters. As a business owner who bought the paper with "her own hard-earned capital," McCaw had every right, Cappello said, to weed out that bias, dictate how the news would be covered and seek to restore what she perceived as flagging consumer confidence in her product.

"You're seeing a sea change taking place in the news business," Cappello said. "Publishers are saying, 'Hey, we're taking over. This paper's going to make money or we're going to close it.' "

The question is, will anyone outside Santa Barbara or the newspaper industry itself care enough to watch a 90-minute documentary about one small newspaper's implosion and the effect it had on the community it ostensibly serves? Tyler's co-producer, Rod Lathim, certainly hopes so.

"This is about a community losing its voice, its history," Lathim said. "People will look back on Santa Barbara 50 years from now and find a big, gaping hole."

A short honeymoon

Santa Barbara Mayor Marty Blum, a frequent target of the News-Press' editorials, was even more succinct after attending Friday's premiere.

"It's been everyone's bad dream," Blum said of McCaw's tenure as News-Press owner.

It wasn't always so. After McCaw bought the paper from the New York Times Co., reportedly for more than $100 million (she is said to have received $500 million in her divorce from cellular phone pioneer Craig McCaw), many Santa Barbara residents saw it as a good move. The paper would be locally owned.

From the beginning, however, many of her newsroom employees felt that McCaw attempted to assert her authority and influence how they reported the news. Few complained openly about McCaw's seemingly incessant editorials promoting animal rights (she urged Thanksgiving diners to eat beans and rice instead of turkey). But when she allegedly sought to prevent the paper from reporting a story about the drunk-driving arrest of her own editorial page editor, Travis K. Armstrong, outrage grew. The newspaper's neutrality and credibility, editors and reporters argued, were being threatened.

A Lowe point

Matters came to a head in summer 2006 when McCaw formally disciplined staffers for publishing actor Rob Lowe's address after an otherwise routine Montecito Planning Commission's review of Lowe's request to build his mega-dream house. Editor Jerry Roberts quit in protest with five others, including popular columnist Barney Brantingham, who'd been with the paper 46 years. Roberts was later sued by McCaw, who then used the News-Press front page to imply that Roberts -- without seeking his response to the highly questionable allegations -- had downloaded child pornography on a company computer. The computer was pre-owned.

All of it is explored in the documentary that pulls few punches.

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