Wendy McCaw has notched an admirable victory for the First Amendment, but her job as the owner and co-publisher of the Santa Barbara News-Press may need some reinvention.
McCaw’s struggle with her newsroom over who controls the content of the news pages came to a head in 2006, when the paper’s top editors and reporters resigned. The journalists protested that McCaw violated longstanding tradition by dictating how they should cover the news. McCaw said she had intervened to correct what she saw as bias.
After the meltdown, a handful of reporters tried to unionize and were later fired. A National Labor Relations Board judge ordered them reinstated. But both a federal district court and now a federal appeals court have agreed with McCaw’s argument: Reinstating the reporters, who have a hand managing the content of the News-Press, violates her First Amendment rights.
The whole dispute over who controls the news pages may strike some business owners as odd. It’s generally assumed the person who signs the front of the paychecks, rather than the back, calls the shots. But for the past century, newspapers have worked a little differently.
The editorial page serves as the owner’s sounding board while the news pages are independently managed. While the independent management of a newsroom is part of modern convention, it is not enshrined in the Bill of Rights. What is contained in the First Amendment is the constitutional principle that the government cannot tell a newspaper what to write.
In our view, McCaw should not get a pass on following labor laws and respecting workers’ rights just because her business happens to be a newspaper. But she should be free to determine the content of her newspaper. Any other form of control, whether it comes directly, through a law or bureaucratic fiat, or indirectly, through an unelected judge’s orders or a censor’s review, is alien to the concept of a free press.
The Business Times has not and will not take a side in the fight between the fired reporters and McCaw. But we note that a publisher needn’t be popular or likeable to be protected under the First Amendment. However, there is little question that McCaw’s dispute with her newsroom has diminished the influence of the editorial pages of the News-Press. This is where her real work begins.
Over the past 50 years, Santa Barbara has grown from a picturesque beach town into the home of a world-class university and some of the nation’s leading technology firms — all without losing its idyllic appeal. It has been a difficult and often contentious balance to strike.
The News-Press historically provided a clear and guiding voice for the city’s leaders and business community. That voice has become marginalized by the owner’s penchant for picking petty political fights.
We call on McCaw to articulate her vision for the future of Santa Barbara and the greater South Coast. And we remind her of her newspaper’s legacy. The News-Press won the Pulitzer Prize in 1962 for the editorial writings of its then-publisher, Thomas M. Storke, one of the primary architects of Santa Barbara as we know it today. Storke’s leadership in areas such as civil liberties, the building of Santa Barbara’s airport and promoting free enterprise transformed the News-Press into a community and statewide leader on issues of the day.
It is a legacy to be respected — and reinvented.