Santa Barbara

Court rules for Wendy McCaw in old Santa Barbara fight

newspresstapesmall.jpgA panel of appeals court justices in Washington, D.C. ruled today that McCaw was within her rights to wage personal war on Santa Barbara News-Press staffers who formed a union to resist her excesses. AP says the ruling was based on the principle that a publisher controls the content of a newspaper, and the court found the dispute was not over union activity at all but about the reporters interfering with McCaw's First Amendment rights to print what she wanted. Yes, now is the time to do a double take and say: what??

The decision overturns a 2011 decision by the National Labor Relations Board ordering immediate reinstatement and back pay, based on “serious and widespread” labor law violations, for eight reporters fired by McCaw, according to one of those reporters. Melinda Burns writes in the Santa Barbara Independent:

Ignoring the facts on the ground, a panel of three arch-conservative judges in the Washington D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals invoked the First Amendment to rule that McCaw had every right to fire eight of us reporters in 2006 and 2007, on the heels of our vote to join the Teamsters, and that she could spy on and harass union supporters and cut their pay with impunity. In the judges’ distorted view, we newsroom employees formed a union and launched a boycott of the paper in order to control the news content of the paper, in violation of McCaw’s right to publish whatever she pleased....

These three judges bent over backwards to favor McCaw. But what, exactly, has McCaw won? Has she won back her credibility, her reputation, or her readers?

I remember how excited we were back in 2000 when McCaw bought the Santa Barbara News-Press from the New York Times. The day she took over, she threw a party on the third floor, and then, abruptly, the excitement ended for good. When we filed back into the newsroom that afternoon, we learned that McCaw had fired Publisher Allan Parsons, a truly gentle man; and suddenly everyone was crying. Several more publishers came and went, until, in the spring of 2006, McCaw announced that she would be co-publisher with her fiancé, Arthur Von Wiesenberger.

Spring had barely turned to summer that year when Editor Jerry Roberts and four other editors resigned, citing what they said was McCaw’s unethical interference in newsgathering and reporting. A dozen reporters quit, too, including one who had been covering a neighborhood dispute over the development plans of Rob Lowe, an actor friend of McCaw’s who wanted to build a mansion on a vacant lot in Montecito. Following standard newsroom practice, the reporter reported the address of the lot. Lowe’s assistant called the paper to complain, saying Lowe was going to cancel his subscription. McCaw fired off harsh letters of reprimand to the reporter and three editors, who all eventually resigned.

Those of us who chose to stay in the newsroom knew we needed a written contract to protect our job security and integrity as journalists from McCaw’s arbitrary attacks. We quickly signed cards to join the Teamsters, but McCaw refused to recognize the union. So, we held a union vote and won overwhelmingly. I was fired a month later, and seven others were fired not long after that. We were publicly urging subscribers to boycott the News-Press, a step we hoped would bring McCaw to the bargaining table for a fair employment contract.

Instead, that was the end of our daily newspaper careers in this town – the best job I ever had – and the beginning of McCaw’s reputation as one of the most blatantly anti-union employers in the state, if not the country. More than 70 journalists have left the News-Press staff since 2006, including some who took our place, and others who took theirs.

More at the SB Independent, AP and Politico. When McCaw fired Burns in 2006, after she became head of the fledgling newsroom union, Editor & Publisher said that Burns was the 28th newsroom staffer to leave since McCaw's treatment started an exodus that began with top editor Jerry Roberts.

The journalism tragedy in Santa Barbara was one of the biggest stories around LA Observed in 2006, and certainly one of the saddest.

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