BEFORE SHE GATHERED HER HIGH-PRICED legal posse and declared war on journalists, Wendy P. McCaw just wanted to do the right thing. In July 2000, after she bought the Santa Barbara News-Press for about $100 million from The New York Times, the wealthy divorcée wrote, in response to a Times query, “I will not have any role in the news-gathering or reporting process,” adding, “I would hope that no friend or acquaintance of mine asks me to intercede with the paper, but if they did, I would tell them what I just told you.”
As more than 150 newspapers around the world have chronicled since last July, when her former News-Press editor Jerry Roberts and six of his colleagues left in a newsroom revolt that shook sleepy Santa Barbara, McCaw, 55, has changed her tune.
Whether the six-month brawl at the News-Press is about the piñata that is journalism ethics or whether it’s about the actions of a hard-nosed businesswoman aggressively but rightfully protecting her small newspaper monopoly is a matter of dispute.
McCaw lawyer A. Barry Cappello said in a phone interview that McCaw is just trying to protect her rights as an owner, and journalists who’ve covered the story are, in effect, toadies who “just don’t want to be viewed as favoring a publisher over a journalist [Roberts].”
Lincoln Bandlow, a professor at the Annenberg School of Journalism at USC and a First Amendment attorney, disagrees, saying, “Wendy McCaw is treading down a very dangerous path for a publisher.”
What’s not in dispute is that McCaw and the lawyers, spin controllers and well-heeled friends who act as her consiglieres — a crowd partly based in Los Angeles plus Angelenos who immigrated to Santa Barbara — have become news themselves in national media, Vanity Fair and, most pointedly, the respected trade journal American Journalism Review.
From somebody who’s said she would have no role in editorial functions, McCaw’s story has morphed into a tale of a woman using some of her reported $2 billion fortune (some say that stash has shrunk) to threaten current and former employees for talking to other media, sue a Southern California journalism professor for defamation, threaten shopkeepers for posting window signs that challenge McCaw’s legal maneuvers, stage a mini-war against the Teamsters union trying to organize her news force — and threaten writers with legal action merely for trying to contact her or her posse.
“In terms of perversity, the story of Wendy and all her advisers takes the cake,” said Nick Welsh, executive editor of the Santa Barbara Independent, a weekly that McCaw’s News-Press accuses in federal court of copyright infringement.
Newsroom revolts are not unknown, but McCaw’s fascinating little jihad against her staff involved strange twists from the start. When News-Press editor Roberts and a slew of his allies quit July 7, McCaw refused to cut short a Mediterranean cruise on her yacht with show-biz royalty Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michael Douglas. And the internal beefs News-Press journalists had regarding McCaw and her newly appointed co-publishers hit a flash point when actor Rob Lowe complained to his good friend McCaw that the address of his planned Montecito mansion was printed in the News-Press. (The address had already been broadcast on a TV news report and during a televised community hearing.)
Often, honchos of the publishing world caught in a public-relations meltdown like this either grin and bear it, like former Hollywood Reporter publisher Robert Dowling during two newsroom revolts, or publicly apologize, like Variety editorial director Peter Bart after his bizarre comments about African-Americans were published in a 2001 article by Los Angeles magazine.
Instead, McCaw and her lawyers seem to be rewriting the playbook. First, they hammered former editor Roberts with a legal claim for $500,000 after he gave interviews about his ethical concerns under McCaw. Then McCaw wrote an angry diatribe to the Society for Professional Journalists after it announced it was giving Roberts an award. McCaw then unleashed Santa Barbara rainmaker and litigator Cappello — who typically bills more than $5 million a year in fees, according to the Los Angeles Daily Journal — to write threatening letters to a hairstylist and three other small-time Santa Barbara shop owners, demanding they remove “defamatory” signs from their shop windows.
The signs, which Cappello says exposed McCaw to “hatred, contempt [and] ridicule,” read: “McCaw, Obey the Law.”
Cappello, who has represented Courtney Love, says McCaw has taken many unfair hits and is a good keeper of a public trust. “The News-Press was going to be sold at a fire sale by The New York Times to some outfit like Knight-Ridder, and Wendy was the only one in Santa Barbara to step up and save the paper,” Cappello said. “Everybody was delighted, until one day, Wendy used her managerial jurisdiction and her prerogative as an owner to remove Roberts.” Added Cappello: “This whole thing is about Roberts and his allies overreacting.”