OWNERSHIP HAS ITS PRIVILEGES

The subject of private property rights is a much broader subject than just the ownership and use of real property. In this country our rights as citizens to own our ideas, inventions, proprietary trade and business information, artistic and creative endeavors and many other proprietary ideas and creations are also important and protected property rights. These rights are wide-ranging and apply to diverse subjects such as downloading music, copying DVDs, duplicating drug formulas, development of computer technology, copying paintings and photographs and manufacturing processes.

The now very public dispute over our largest local newspaper, the Santa Barbara-News Press, offers the opportunity to look at other interesting aspects of private property rights.

Some employees of the News-Press, including editor Jerry Roberts and longtime columnist Barney Brantingham, left their employment supposedly in protest because owner Wendy McCaw allegedly meddled in news reporting and editorial content. They couch the dispute in terms of freedom of the press and journalistic ethics.

On the other hand, Ms McCaw contends that the dispute has nothing to do with journalistic ethics or freedom of the press, but revolves around the refusal of certain employees to comply with policies of the company, which owns the newspaper and employs the staff, and their duties to their employer. The facts of what really took place are hard to confirm in the crossfire of allegations.

In the midst of this brouhaha, some community activists and politicians, stung by recent editorial disclosures and observations made by the News-Press, have seized upon the dispute to organize rallies and forums decrying the loss of a free press in Santa Barbara, attacking the owner, encouraging union organization and demanding that a “wall” between news and opinion be imposed at the News-Press. The same people have lobbied media all over the country to support their view without – it appears – disclosing that they are the subject of the editorials that so outrage them.

At one rally, organizers and union representatives offered their support to many current News-Press employees, who lined up behind them with duct-taped mouths in evident protest of a supposed gag order about internal affairs imposed by the owner. Politicians such as Susan Rose and Marty Blum – both frequently skewered by News-Press editorials – comforted the employees with words of encouragement and shook their hands. While this may be good theater, it does not reflect the true reality of the parties’ respective property rights in such a dispute.

Ms McCaw owns the News-Press. It is a business not unlike other businesses. The owner gets to make the rules. Contrary to dissident employees’ beliefs, there are no laws preventing McCaw from dictating her policy – even if this is a newspaper. UCSB professor Kevin Harwood confirmed this fact when he spoke at a recent forum on the subject.

History tells us that many owners of newspapers – some more or less famous, some more or less benevolent – have guided and influenced the content of the newspapers they owned. The names Graham, Sulzberger, McClatchy, Chandler, Hearst, Murdoch come immediately to mind. Does anyone sincerely think that Katharine Graham, Ben Bradlee and the Washington Post’s entire legal staff did not read, edit or interfere with articles Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein wrote about the Watergate scandal?

While the departed News-Press employees and their supporters call for McCaw to leave them be, we hear no such calls for a wall between opinion and news at the Independent. Randy Campbell, the owner of the Independent, gets to run his company and newspaper as he sees fit, even though the paper’s content is opinion and point-of-view-driven to an extreme. Why the dichotomy? Is it because the politicians, activists and offended former News-Press employees agree with the more liberal bent of the Independent and are not called to task by its editorials to the same degree?

Former and current News-Press employees have choices. They are not indentured servants. They are, unless they have a written employment contract with their employer, employees “at will” under California law. That means they may quit whenever they like and the employer may terminate their employment for cause or even without cause for any reason, so long as it isn’t retaliatory or doesn’t violate public policy. Employees owe their employer a duty of loyalty that prevents them from disclosing proprietary information. If the employees do not like the employer’s internal rules or policies, they may leave. If they violate them, they may be fired.

While this is a simplified and generalized view of each party’s rights, it serves to emphasize that the paper is McCaw’s property. Her rights should be acknowledged and respected and she should be held to the same standards as others in the business, even by those who disagree with the paper’s editorials or her ownership decisions. The paper does all of us a service when it challenges colloquial thinking on politics, the environment, Indian tribal rights, affordable housing, even when the coverage doesn’t comport with our own personal views.