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.”
In one of many unusual developments, McCaw is targeting a journalism professor who wrote about her for American Journalism Review, having hired attorney Stanton “Larry” Stein, a well-known Santa Monica entertainment litigator whose yearly billings, according to the Daily Journal, exceeded $10 million in 2002, and who styles himself an advocate of entertainment workers taking on studios over employment contracts and profit participation.
Stein’s donated work on First Amendment cases earned him the American Civil Liberties Union’s award as the 2004 Pro Bono Lawyer of the Year in Southern California. Yet on December 12, First Amendment advocate Stein, on behalf of McCaw’s News-Press, filed a vituperative 17-page defamation and libel complaint against obscure journalism professor Susan Paterno, of Chapman University in Orange County, for writing “Santa Barbara Smackdown,” an extensive recounting of the News-Press newsroom revolt forAmerican Journalism Review.
David J. Millstein, McCaw’s outside general counsel, told the L.A. Weekly, “We will prevail in our defamation lawsuit against the writer.” Millstein says the AJR piece was one-sided: “Though we did not allow our employees to talk to the writer, we were willing to answer written questions.”
Yet the bigger story is the spectacle of McCaw, a newspaper publisher, aggressively targeting Paterno, a lone journalist. Terry Francke, general counsel for Californians Aware, a Sacramento group that advocates protection of free speech statutes, said McCaw’s effort to “use the court system to stifle Paterno is amazing. Publishers send retraction letters usually. They just don’t resort to this.”
Moreover, her legal team appears to be trying to buck special protections in California afforded to reporters targeted by deep pockets such as McCaw, who try to silence controversial writers by launching costly courtroom proceedings against them.
(In California, such legal tactics used to silence reporters are called “strategic lawsuits against public participation,” or SLAPPs. California’s especially tough law, designed to prevent such strategic lawsuits, is called an “anti-SLAPP” statute.)
Said Francke, “I can only assume that her lawyers had no knowledge of anti-SLAPP statutes or didn’t care” because they could withdraw the lawsuit after sending Paterno a message.
Paterno’s attorney, Howard King, said he believes that Stein, the ACLU award winner whom King called an “excellent” attorney, warned McCaw of the hopelessness of suing Paterno — but filed the suit anyway. Said King of Stein: “He’s just trying to chill all of Wendy McCaw’s former and current employees and any other writer who wants to try to do the News-Press story.”
In another strange twist, Stein is a poker-playing friend of Susan Paterno’s brother, Peter Paterno, who in an interview with the Weekly shed light on the world of expensive mercenaries around McCaw.
“I wasn’t upset that Larry was the one who sued Susan, because he didn’t know she was my sister, and, if it hadn’t been him, McCaw would have had some other lawyer do it,” said Peter Paterno, a well-known L.A. music lawyer. “But even if McCaw had Clarence Darrow file against my sister, the case still sucks.”
At the ACLU Los Angeles office, which gave Stein his award, attorney Peter J. Eliasberg has now joined the other side, protesting Cappello’s threatening letters to small but outspoken Santa Barbara shop owners who put up signs that upset McCaw.
When asked about Stein’s actions on McCaw’s behalf, Eliasberg declined to comment — but noted that it is usually against the tenets of lawyers working for the ACLU to file legal claims that could limit free speech.
Stein did not respond to repeated calls for comment, and Sandra McCandless, McCaw’s labor-law attorney fighting the Teamsters, was not available for comment. Neither was Los Angeles litigator Theodore Miller, who represents McCaw against Gregory Parker, her former real estate attorney turned lover turned president of her holding company, who wants $14.8 million in severance pay.
Agnes Huff, her communications and media-crisis adviser, says McCaw is no longer granting interviews — yet Huff herself has invited criticism and may be emblematic of the publicity mire in which McCaw swirls. The Century City–based Huff is tasked with keeping the press away from Arthur von Weisenberger, McCaw’s fiancé and the News-Press co-publisher, and Travis K. Armstrong, the News-Press editorial opinion editor, yet articles abound in which the two are featured — often to their detriment.
Huff comes across as an oddity, inexperienced in the elite niche of media-crisis PR, and routinely referring to herself as “Dr. Huff.” (She earned a Ph.D. from Columbia Pacific University, a correspondence school shut by the state in 2000 for losing its accreditation.)
A former crisis consultant who once worked for McCaw says Huff’s willingness to let outside journalists tell McCaw’s story instead of McCaw telling that story is “insane.” The source requested anonymity because he had read the lawsuit against Paterno and did not want to invite legal action against himself.
However, those who criticize McCaw’s PR approach may not understand her strategy, according to Steve Sugerman of the Sugerman Communications Group in Los Angeles.
“Though the tactics of McCaw seem unusual as to all the litigation she’s thrown out, unless you know the business objective of McCaw, it is not fair to comment on the tactics of a crisis PR consultant,” Sugerman said. Her tactics might make sense if her goals are to push out her former editor to cut costs, keep a high-powered union out of a small paper and produce a cheaper product that advertisers must advertise in because it’s the only daily in a wealthy community.
One beneficiary of those tactics is Nick Welsh, the Independent executive editor, who recently picked up two longtime News-Press columnists who now cover the McCaw beat. Welsh believes McCaw’s objective is “to tell those in the journalistic establishment, ‘Fuck you all. I’m declaring war.’?”
If McCaw and her advisers had a sensible strategy, she would not be filing litigation against journalists, claimed Welsh, adding, “She could have reached out to the community after the initial exit of [editor] Roberts in July and said, ‘There is a problem here, let’s talk about it.’ Certainly, she would have had support against the Teamsters coming in. Santa Barbara’s not a union town. But instead, she was more concerned with letting the kids know she was driving the school bus, and not them.”
She has sued her lovers, her architect, her employees and fellow publishers. At the end of the day, she seems more comfortable around attorneys than anyone, but only those “who say ‘yes,’?” said Welsh.
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Stuart Fischoff, a retired psychology professor at Cal State Los Angeles, believes that the crisis atmosphere around the News-Press is not helped by lawyers, and the blood spilling may be far from over. “When you hire people who live by billable hours and testosterone, all they’re going to say is ‘Top of the world, Ma. Bring it on,’?” said Fischoff.
McCaw is also not alone in the sometimes obstinate world of the super-rich, added Fischoff. “Groupthink can occur in any type of corporate entity. They only talk to each other and develop their own distorted sense of their own intelligence, power and ability to cope with things. What looks like distorted thinking — a woman taking on everybody with high-priced lawyers — can make perfect sense to her.”
If McCaw decides she really wants to resolve the News-Press crisis in court, she’s going to have the outspoken Cappello and other advisers in her posse by her side. But perhaps not literally.
Cappello, despite being her staunchest advocate, is still not in her inner circle, whatever that really is. “I still haven’t met Wendy yet,” Cappello said.