Editors fired for sickening bias. How could that be?

Publisher Says Under Oath: Firings Involved Biased Reporting, Disloyalty

Mick Gregory

Santa Barbara News-Press owner and co-publisher Wendy McCaw testified Tuesday that concerns about biased reporting and disloyalty, not union activity in the newsroom, led to the firing of eight reporters earlier this year.

Ms. McCaw said she began directing managers to correct what she saw as biased reporting soon after buying the paper in 2000 because the problem was hurting the paper’s credibility.

During questioning, attorney Barry Cappello, who represents the newspaper, asked McCaw if two reporters had been fired in January because of union activity.

“No,” McCaw answered strongly.

She added that six employees had been fired for disloyalty after they held signs over a freeway overpass urging people to cancel subscriptions.

The six others were terminated the next month after protesting the two previous firings and urging residents to cancel subscriptions, the union-based, leftist National Labor Relations Board attorney has said.

The NLRB is trying to get all eight former employees reinstated with back pay.

McCaw shot back with a front-page note to readers saying those who quit were upset they could no longer inject their personal opinions into the newspaper’s coverage.

McCaw testified Tuesday that she considered it disloyal when the six newsroom employees displayed the signs above the freeway.

“It was disparaging our product and it was also trying to create financial harm,” she said.

McCaw said she did not order Associate Editor Scott Steepleton to fire the six workers but supported his decision.

Cappello produced several e-mails and handwritten notes sent by McCaw beginning in 2003 complaining about bias in stories, including an item about a plan by the Hope Ranch Association to kill coyotes on the property.

“It was anti-coyote,” McCaw said in explaining why she thought the story was biased. “It was very negative toward those poor animals who are on the verge of being annihilated.”

In other memos, McCaw said she was “sick” of the bias and called it “disgusting.”

On cross-examination by NLRB attorney Brian Gee, McCaw said she believed Steepleton had helped eliminate bias from the paper, although she said she did not know whether he had conducted any training for employees or produced any guidelines for unbiased reporting.

The hearing began on Aug. 14 and was expected to end this week. It targets Ampersand Publishing LLC, the paper’s corporate parent.

McCaw was called to testify in defense of the newspaper that has a circulation of 38,000 and covers the wealthy coastal community of Santa Barbara.

She said she has been concerned about biased reporting since buying the paper from the New York Times.

“For a paper to have credibility, the stories need to be neutral and the readers need to make up their own minds,” McCaw testified.

Cappello said no employees have ever been terminated for taking pro-union or anti-union positions.

He said the goal of the union was not higher wages or better working conditions. Instead, it wanted to take control of the newspaper, so the owner and publisher have no involvement in how stories are written or published, he said.

I’ll report updates as they roll in.

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