Dueling versions in Santa Barbara

CoverBarney Brantingham, the "beloved" longtime columnist of the Santa Barbara News-Press, explains why he accompanied all of the top editors in resigning in a piece published in this week's free Santa Barbara Independent. He also joins the Independent as a new columnist, and the paper runs a timeline of how things went sour at the News-Press. Also this morning, News-Press owner Wendy McCaw signs a note to readers that ignores the ethical claims against her and floats the notion that the departed staffers were against covering local news.

First Brantingham, who describes the new McCaw regime as "amateur hour" and notes that her fiance and new co-publisher was the best man at Brantingham's wedding. He gives some of the first details on the Rob Lowe address incident and other pretexts used by the McCaw group to pressure the editors:

I quit the Santa Barbara News-Press last week after more than 46 years because I couldn’t bear to watch the destruction of a fine newspaper. And it was too painful to see the destruction of the lives of dedicated staffers whose only crime was publishing the news. And I could not continue to work at a paper that had lost its credibility and its soul.

In a bizarre Kafkaesque/Castro twist, a story about suppression of the news was suppressed. Last Friday, a news account written for that day’s paper describing the biggest story in town — the resignation of five editors (now seven, including myself) — was killed. About 150 newspapers from the U.K. to India ran the story, along with the L.A. Times — but not the News-Press. Even News-Press employees outside the newsroom were shocked and upset. One executive told fellow staffers: “Wendy McCaw may own the paper, but she doesn’t own the news.”

I’ve always hated the expression “News-Suppress,” but now, to my pain, I must admit it fits.

Ironically, until the last few months, these years working under the highly respected Editor Jerry Roberts and the great Managing Editor George Foulsham have been my best, my happiest, at the paper. And, even more ironically in view of the current travesty that has befallen the News-Press, this was during the ownership of Wendy McCaw. To her credit, she has always given me complete freedom to write. She has never interfered with my column.

But this idyllic time all came crashing down on July 6, last Thursday morning. Roberts arrived back from vacation to find his job as editor had been usurped by Travis Armstrong, the editorial writer and editor of the opinion pages of the paper. Roberts couldn’t ethically run a news department that was controlled by the opinion side of the paper, and so he submitted his resignation to be effective in 30 days. Always the professional, he was willing to stay on the job to assure that the paper would continue to get out and that the transition would be as smooth as possible. No way.

Instead, McCaw, with her fiancé and co-publisher Arthur von Wiesenberger, decamped in her private jet to areas unknown, leaving behind broken lives, a mangled paper, and Travis Armstrong as the acting publisher. Now Armstrong has the upper hand.

Armstrong, as many know, is a court favorite of McCaw and, as many have learned, is a dangerous man to anger. The author of countless poison-pen attacks on public figures out of favor with McCaw, he has become increasingly contentious and imperious. Now the time of reckoning came for the news desk. Hadn’t Roberts run a prominent story about Armstrong’s recent drunken driving arrest, when he had been stopped by police driving down Santa Barbara Street going in the wrong direction, with a blood alcohol level of nearly three times the legal limit? But when Armstrong was sentenced a few weeks later, the News-Press account of that story never saw the light of day. Only The Independent printed the information. Scooped again!

McCaw youngerThe News-Press has yet to run a news report on what happened there. McCaw's note, meanwhile, blames "disgruntled ex-employees [and their] political and commercial allies." Her commitment to the veracity of news is on display in her choice of photo that runs with the note. It is, shall we say delicately, a tad misleading. Compare to the (much) more recent picture the Independent uses by staff photographer Paul Wellman. [Photo removed from this post at Wellman's request.]

This past week there were some highly publicized changes at the News-Press. While we do not typically write about internal affairs, there has been so much misinformation given to other media by departing employees, we felt the need to set the record straight.

There are some disgruntled ex-employees who are making these matters public. Their media campaign manipulates facts to divert attention from the truth. They are attempting to make this situation appear something other than what it is.

When I purchased the News-Press, I had goals to improve the quality of the paper, to have accurate unbiased reporting, and more local stories that readers want to read. Our readers in Santa Barbara and elsewhere deserve nothing less. These goals clearly were not being met.

This requires journalists and editors to separate their personal feelings from their professional news judgment. Otherwise, the reader is ill served and journalistic integrity is lost.

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, these goals were not met.

Some of the people who lost sight of these goals and appeared to use the News-Press for their own agendas decided to leave when it was clear they no longer would be permitted to flavor the news with their personal opinions.

Some disgruntled employees and their allies (commercial and political) are now sniping at this paper and spreading agenda driven misinformation to other media.

My commitment to you is that this community will have a newspaper that is of the highest caliber with unbiased reporting and strong local focus.

In all challenging transitions one sees the good. We have seen new leadership emerge with a dedicated commitment to quality and higher standards.

We greatly appreciate that these fine individuals have stepped up to the plate. We also thank our loyal subscribers and advertisers.

We are encouraged by the new subscribers in direct response to these changes and the positive letters and phone calls we have received.

As Robert Browning said and what we firmly believe that "the best is yet to be" for the Santa Barbara News-Press.

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