Extreme Embellishments

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For KCRW, this is Nick Madigan of the Baltimore Sun with Minding the Media.

Wendy McCaw, the peroxide blonde billionaire who has managed to turn the Santa Barbara News-Press into the laughing stock of the newspaper industry, has finally run up against an opponent who may be able to give her a run for her money: the federal government.

The National Labor Relations Board announced that it will prosecute McCaw to force her to rehire eight reporters whom she fired after they publicly advocated joining a labor union.

McCaw seems not to have known, or cared, that there are laws to prevent employers from retaliating against workers simply because they seek better working conditions.

Of course, workplace conditions are just one of a litany of issues that have bedeviled the News-Press since McCaw decided to take a personal, and very heavy-handed, role in the day-to-day running of the paper after buying it from the New York Times Company in 2000.

Last year, there were mass resignations, editors escorted from the premises, and lawsuits by McCaw against former employees, including the paper's editor, Jerry Roberts, whom she had hired from the San Francisco Chronicle.

McCaw has brushed aside her employees' 33-to-6 vote to join the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. But last week, a labor board judge rejected her challenge of the election, Sharon Waxman reported in the New York Times.

William Schmidt, the labor judge, said he didn't believe McCaw's arguments that employees were intimidated into voting for the union, and he criticized what he called "extreme embellishments" in the newspaper's testimony.

An N.L.R.B. lawyer said The News-Press had violated labor laws by firing the reporters because of their union activities, countering McCaw's argument that the reporters had been dismissed for disloyalty and biased reporting. In fact, their firings last month occurred after they had hung a banner over Pacific Coast Highway urging people to boycott the newspaper.

Waxman wrote that if the News-Press is found to be in violation of labor laws, it will have to reinstate the eight fired reporters and provide them with back pay.

Meanwhile, Jerry Roberts, the former editor, was roasted last week at an event in San Francisco that raised more than $30,000 for a legal defense fund established to defend the journalists targeted by McCaw. She has sued Roberts for $25 million.

Molly Freedenberg wrote in the Santa Barbara Independent that about 170 people showed up for the event, a "lighthearted, affectionate, and none-too-shy roast of the dashing, pinstripe-suited" Roberts.

"It was emceed by former colleague Greg Lucas, who noted that throughout all of this trauma, Roberts has managed to keep his sense of humor, not only about his troubles at the News-Press, but also about the non-Hodgkins lymphoma he was diagnosed with in November," Freedenberg wrote. "When asked how he's doing... Roberts answers with, 'Other than the cancer and the $25 million lawsuit, I'm doing all right.'"

Speakers included San Francisco Chronicle executive editor Phil Bronstein and political consultant Gail Kaufman, who has known Roberts for 30 years and who called McCaw "stark-raving crazy."

According to Freedenberg's account of the evening, author and Washington Post contributor Lou Cannon explained why the issue is a "way bigger deal than just some tiff in sunny Santa Barbara."

Cannon said this is a tough time for journalists, and that Roberts did what few others would have the courage to do: quit a job he loved and led the "only mass resignation over journalistic ethics in the history of journalism that I know of."

Cannon said it's crucial to go after McCaw, a woman who is trying to suppress freedom of speech by bogging journalists down in expensive lawsuits. "The only answer is to raise money to fight her in court," he said. "In doing so, we're also striking a blow for freedom of [the] press."

This is Nick Madigan of The Baltimore Sun, Minding the Media on KCRW.

Banner image is from Jerry Roberts Roast.



Nick Madigan