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The star of hypocrisy?

September 24, 2006 12:00 AM

I had to shake my head in disbelief when a reader e-mailed an editorial from the Ventura County Star that weighed in on our exciting internal transitional period at the News-Press.

My first thought: Someone reads the Star's editorials?

But my disbelief went beyond this to the content of the commentary. In an indignant tone, one part of this editorial tried to question the separation between the editorial and news pages at the News-Press. The "wall" between the news and opinion sides at the News-Press is as big as at any of the other three dailies where I've written editorials.

In fact, at many American newspapers, the editorial page editor on a regular basis reports directly to the newsroom editor. The News-Press is one of the remaining purist newspapers where the editorial page editor reports to the publisher. The Los Angeles Times only recently reformed its structure to one that emulates the type the News-Press has in which the editorial editor isn't under the newsroom editor.

News-Press owner Wendy McCaw's steadfast commitment to maintain this division appears to have, over the last six years, riled certain newsroom editors or reporters who've coveted input in or outright control over the opinion pages. Some of these journalists, for instance, had tried to exert veto power over the publishing of your letters to the editor critical of coverage or about perceived reporter bias in stories.

In part, the Star's editorial took aim at what it framed as: "Mr. Armstrong's announced intention to directly oversee some news coverage at the same time he was serving as editorial page editor." It was a reference to the short time I temporarily served as acting publisher in July.

The Star's editorial writers never bothered with a telephone call to learn the facts. For example, to eliminate any conflict during this brief period and to allow me time to attend to the publisher's newspaper-wide responsibilities and varied duties, the News-Press stopped publishing editorials.

Yet, what struck me as so hypocritical of the folks down Highway 101 was how the paper in its editorial failed to tell readers about its conflicted operation, even as it swiped at the competitor up the road.

I asked the Star's opinion page editor, Marianne Ratcliff, whether she and her department report to the editor of the paper. Her answer was yes.

Further blurring the lines -- and seemingly busting down the wall at the Star -- is the fact that Editor Joe Howry and Managing Editor John Moore actually are on the Star's editorial board, the committee that comes up with the newspaper's editorials.

The managing editor is a step below the top newsroom editor and usually is in charge of hands-on direction of the daily news-gathering. At the Star, it looks as if this person also has a say in determining the opinions of the paper based on coverage he directs. (Incidentally, one person who recently held the Star's managing editor position left in a controversy over free tickets for a sporting event -- an "internal" matter the Star management at first appeared reluctant to discuss publicly.)

Also, Ms. Ratcliff tells me that if every single member of the Star's editorial board opposed a certain position, Mr. Howry, as editor, could veto them. I guess he oversees news coverage at the same time as serving as ultimate editorial page director.

Some wall, eh?

The Star's hypocrisy isn't unique. On the South Coast, a freebie paper apparently has no wall between news and its uncivil columns and editorial opinions, with the same people reportedly writing both, as well as determining political endorsements. There have been no rallies in the plaza over this apparent breach of journalism ethics and lack of editorial independence. Why not? Because those behind the July rallies agree with that paper's too-often-seen political bias.

AM 1290: Please tune in at 10 a.m. Wednesday to AM 1290 to hear my interview with Jill Martinez, the Democratic candidate who's challenging Rep. Elton Gallegly for the 24th Congressional District.

Ms. Martinez thinks the country is in crisis. "We are in a global crisis," she says on her Web site. "We have few if any friends around the world. We are in an environmental crisis; mismanagement of natural resources and irresponsible toxic dumping is destroying our planet. We are in an education crisis; funding cutbacks for our schools, unfunded mandates, and little opportunity for higher education is crippling our nation's ability to be competitive. We are in a housing crisis; our children can no longer afford to buy a home and embrace the American Dream."

We'll have plenty to talk about.

Today at 10 a.m. on AM 1290, you can hear a repeat airing of my talk with Steve Shimek of The Otter Project. We discuss the return of sea otters to the waters off Santa Barbara and increasing marine protected areas along the Central Coast.