Publisher: Santa Barbara Firings Were Over Biased Reporting

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Santa Barbara News-Press owner and publisher Wendy McCaw testified Tuesday that concerns about biased reporting, not union activity in the newsroom, led to the firing of two reporters last January.

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 the two reporters had been fired because of union activity.

“No,” McCaw answered without elaborating.

The NLRB alleges in a 15-count, unfair labor practices complaint that the paper fired a total of eight workers who had no prior history of disciplinary action only after they began to fight for union representation.

The government contends that the two employees fired in January were let go for supporting the union, not biased reporting.

Six others were terminated the next month after protesting the two previous firings and urging residents to cancel subscriptions, the NLRB has said.

The agency wants all the eight former employees reinstated with back pay.

The News-Press has been embroiled in controversy since July 2006, when mounting tensions between the owner and staff spilled into public view when nearly every top editor quit to protest what they said was McCaw’s meddling in coverage.

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.
Newsroom employees voted overwhelmingly last September to form a union. The workers and the paper have been clashing since then over the legitimacy of the vote.

The paper’s management intensified attacks on the employees in the weeks following the union vote, NLRB attorney Steven Wyllie has said.

The NLRB certified the election last month, meaning the union can bargain with the newspaper.

McCaw was not asked about the other six workers during initial questioning by Cappello. She was expected to be cross-examined by a lawyer for the NLRB later in the day.

Lawyers for the News-Press have contended the other six employees were fired for disloyalty.

The ongoing hearing began on Aug. 14 and 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.

The hearing is being held before an administrative law judge. At its conclusion, the judge’s findings will be presented to the full NLRB for action.

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