An Inconvenient Truth

Editors and journalists twisting the news via selective reportage, headlines, photos, and captions is among the oldest tricks in the newspaper trade. To say that such things are not regularly done at the Santa Barbara News-Press would be at the very least, a misstatement. Therefore, when affordable-housing activist Bud Laurent took the microphone on De La Guerra Plaza during a recent rally outside the News-Press building to declare that the resignations of nearly a dozen editors and reporters, including longtime and popular columnist Barney Brantingham, purportedly because of recent missteps by co-publishers Wendy McCaw and Arthur von Wiesenberger, were “an American Tragedy,” the charge seems slightly disingenuous.

Outgoing Second District Supervisor Susan Rose offered to shake the hand of each of the dozen or so News-Press staffers that had joined this lunchtime “silent” protest (staffers’ mouths were duct-taped to illustrate the silencing of “real” news by editor Travis Armstrong).

Cries of “Restore the wall,” and “Shame,” were encouraged during the planned demonstration, leading us to wonder: What wall? What shame? Subscription-based daily newspapers are in real trouble precisely because most – even the best, like The New York Times – regularly ignore the supposed “wall” separating fact from opinion, news from advocacy.

We’re not suggesting those taped-lipped staffers don’t have a real gripe with management. There is, or should be, a chain of command in any organization, and when Ms McCaw or Mr. von Wiesenberger send notes of protest directly to writers or other staffers rather than through their immediate bosses, the broken chain can lead to angst and resentment. We sincerely hope neither sends a note directly to a staffer again. Much has been made of the recently-elevated-to-co-publisher Mr. von Wiesenberger’s inexperience, and certainly there’s truth to it, but people should remember that he has written books, produced a lively and informative Santa Barbara website (nippers.com), co-hosted a syndicated radio show (“Travels with Arthur & Barney”), and is an acknowledged expert on food, wine, water, and who knows what else. Those are not the credentials of a bona fide publisher, perhaps, but his résumé does bespeak of accomplishment.

Going back to Mr. Laurent, the rest of his “American tragedy” comment is as follows: “[it is] one that I never thought I would see in my lifetime, and only under the tyranny of a government overthrow. We have learned that it doesn’t take a government overthrow to silence our free press. This is an American tragedy.”

Excuse me, but nobody has silenced “our free press.” Not for lack of trying, however. And it is the group outside the News-Press building that is attempting to silence the News-Press, not the paper’s editor or publisher. The crowd in De La Guerra Plaza consisted mostly of representatives from Santa Barbara’s liberal political establishment: the very same group that the paper has taken on. No one, let me repeat, no one, has ever challenged our local sacred cows the way Mr. Armstrong & company have. Recent editorials have: lampooned Democrat U.S. Representative Lois Capps for funding Democrat Janet Wolf’s Supervisorial campaign; refused to endorse Santa Barbara Mayor Marty Blum for re-election; and harpooned outgoing Second District Supervisor Susan Rose over her lack of support for community groups fighting proposed high-density housing. Recent News-Press editorials have railed against County Housing & Development’s affordable housing program, exposed the fraud that taxpayer-subsidized “workforce” housing for county workers making up to $152,600 really is, opposed a thirty-year extension and expansion of Measure D’s half-cent sales tax, and well, gone against some of the most preciously developed social programs and their historically “untouchable” proponents of the last thirty years.

Being Careful What You Wish For

The aforementioned editorial positions are the real reason Susan Rose was out there shaking the hands of each lunchtime protestor, why former Democrat State Assemblywoman Hannah Beth Jackson was rallying troops, why Mickey Flacks and Bud Laurent and the rest of the bureaucratic establishment is so opposed to what is going on at the News-Press.

What scares us about this ongoing episode is if the local political establishment wins and actually either brings down the News-Press (unlikely), or cowers it into submission (more likely), what that will do to a free press is indeed frightening. Imagine, if you will, the staff at, say, the Los Angeles Times, or the San Francisco Chronicle, rebelling against a new publisher attempting to pull either paper back from its leftward dive. Success against the News-Press would likely embolden other advocacy journalists, bureaucrats, and party hacks to do likewise. If their tactics proved successful, it really would “silence our free press”; such moves against editors or publishers that take on the local powers would indeed be “an American tragedy.”

Although Mayor Marty Blum – who said she was pleased when she heard that a local person (Ms McCaw) had bought the News-Press rather than a large corporation – now laments the purchase, her words of regret could easily apply to those attempting to oust Travis Armstrong and the rest of the current News-Press regime: “Be careful what you wish for.”