The Sound of Silence
By Susan Paterno
Ever since the Santa Barbara News-Press became engulfed in controversy in July, owner Wendy McCaw and her top subordinates have ordered staff members to remain quiet or face termination; have threatened or filed lawsuits against former employees and other media; have refused multiple requests for interviews; and have then complained about being unfairly targeted by ignorant outsiders.
Susan Paterno (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an AJR senior contributing writer.
In late October, Ampersand Publishing, the News-Press' parent company, filed a federal lawsuit against the weekly Santa Barbara Independent, charging it with copyright infringement, misappropriation of trade secrets, unfair business competition, and intentional and negligent interference with prospective economic advantage and contract. Citing revenge as a motive, the lawsuit claims former employees, acting in concert with the Independent, are working "to harm, defame and ultimately destroy the News-Press."
The suit alleges the Independent obtained two unpublished News-Press articles and published one of them. Independent Executive Editor Nick Welsh says the Independent obtained only one unpublished article from the News-Press, about the resignations of Editor Jerry Roberts and his top lieutenants, which was posted on the Independent's Web site and removed after the paper received a threatening letter from McCaw's attorney.
Welsh says of the suit, "The clear intent is to silence and intimidate people with information from speaking critically of McCaw and her minions."
When I sought comment for this story, News-Press Communications Manager Agnes Huff told me that "Mrs. McCaw doesn't do any interviews." In response to my initial efforts to speak with News-Press executives, Huff told me in an e-mail, "News-Press management and staff are unable to grant any interview requests at this time."
In an October letter, McCaw attorney David Millstein accused me of attempting "a concerted effort to undermine our employee's obligations to the News-Press," apparently because I left numerous phone and e-mail messages for McCaw, Copublisher Arthur von Wiesenberger, Editorial Page Editor Travis Armstrong, Director of Human Resources Yolanda Apodaca and Associate Editor Scott Steepleton, among others.
"Our employees are bound to ordinary and specific rules of professionalism and confidentiality, which do not permit them to discuss the internal management or operations of the company publicly," he wrote. "Simply because your publication deems our internal operations newsworthy, does not permit you to undertake a concerted effort to undermine our employees' obligations to the News-Press...
"Your continued attempts to breach this confidentiality are by no means protected activities, and are nothing less than attempts to induce a breach of contract, for which there is no immunity, as I am sure your attorney will tell you. Requesting others to break fiduciary obligations is actionable, and you may be surprised to learn even journalists are not above the law in this regard."
The paper's recently hired local columnist, Dr. Laura Schlessinger, the syndicated radio commentator, requested that I send her questions in advance before she would "commit to an interview," she wrote in an e-mail. As I was responding to Schlessinger, I received a call from Mike Paul, who described himself as "Dr. Laura's global PR consultant." He said Schlessinger is "a global brand, and she gets media opportunities all the time. If you don't provide the questions, then we can't help you." A few hours later, he followed up with another e-mail: "Let me be more clear: Dr. Laura and her team have decided to not participate at all with your story."
Not to be outdone, a publicist for actor Rob Lowe, whose request to have his address kept out of the paper sparked a major controversy, said Lowe would have no comment on the News-Press, now and "forever."