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A cabal aims to silence us while rival media exploit

August 4, 2006 1:38 PM

Their ploy didn't work. High-density development interests, Santa Barbara Mayor Marty Blum, county Supervisor Susan Rose and an outfit known as "SBCANT" tried mightily over the last month to silence the independent voices on these pages.

It appears in their view, if they don't like your opinion, one course is to try to shut down the locally owned free press and personally attack those who dare to attempt to hold government officials accountable for their policy decisions. This cabal latched onto the resignations of some News-Press editors as a pretext to try to stifle community debate.

Quite a legacy, eh?

And it sure seems as if the News-Press' competitors for your time and the paper's advertising dollars -- KEYT, the Clear Channel stations, the Chicago-owned Los Angeles Times and a local freebie -- have done their best to inflame.

Along the way, the seemingly erratic -- and biased? -- programming decisions by the management of cable access Channel 17 have gotten into the mix of News-Press bashing. County Supervisor Brooks Firestone has been right in the past in general terms to question the appropriateness of a home for this operation on county property. (More on this another day.)

Perhaps most disheartening has been the L.A. Times because of what appears in my personal view to be journalistic ethical questions involving the newspaper's coverage. The Times has set up a subscription booth across De la Guerra Plaza from the News-Press building.

In Times reporter James Rainey's interview with me while I temporarily served as acting publisher in July, I asked him if the newspaper's assistant managing editor for Page 1, John Arthur, had a hand in one of Mr. Rainey's stories on the News-Press resignations. The impression I got from Mr. Rainey's dancing around the question was yes. Mr. Arthur, before this story appeared, told one of the departing editors in an e-mail to "hang in there! Best, John."

How's that for journalistic detachment?

Another Times reporter who has written about the resignations is Catherine Saillant. She works in the smallish Ventura bureau alongside Steven Chawkins, husband of former News-Press metro editor Jane Hulse Chawkins. (Mr. Chawkins has a history of chasing News-Press stories. Yesterday, he wrote about how a veterans group is backing away from the proposal to turn Santa Rosa Island into a private hunting ground for retired soldiers. The News-Press had the story on Page 1 last Friday.)

There's an obligation for reporters who parachute into Santa Barbara to do some actual background reporting on those possibly biased sources who are spoonfeeding them quotes.

Take a story by Mr. Rainey and Ms. Saillant that featured attorney Steve Amerikaner as one impartial civic voice. A simple search in the News-Press electronic archives would have revealed that these editorial pages have taken on the developer-backed Coastal Housing Partnership and its new offshoot, the Coastal Housing Coalition. Mr. Amerikaner is a Coastal Housing leader -- a group that has stonewalled my requests for more information on its funding and operations.

My columns have examined this group's financial backing and how possibly the Coalition/Partnership has used developer or county government money to help pay consultant Bud Laurent. Amazingly, Mr. Laurent appears to lobby the county supervisors on growth policies on behalf of an advocacy arm of Coastal Housing -- an advocacy arm that county tax dollars helped start. How's that for bad government?

One editorial concern is that such groups want to pack in development of subsidized homes to sell to well-paid households at the expense of building below-market apartments for working-poor families. Their style of development also comes at the expense of the environment, open space, agricultural land and neighborhood character.

Oh yes, and Mr. Amerikaner is or has been an attorney for Rep. Lois Capps. We've tried to hold the congresswoman responsible for her weak environmentalism and, more recently, for her unprecedented lavishing of dollars from her federal campaign war chest to influence a local election and rescue supervisorial candidate Janet Wolf's failing campaign. (Recall that we unearthed that Ms. Wolf's campaign wrongly used county property to distribute political lawn signs.)

Perhaps being less the forthcoming, the Capps D.C. office says of Mr. Amerikaner: "Mr. Amerikaner and his firm have handled some legal issues relating to Congresswoman Capps' campaign. Her personal legal matters are private."

The Times story also featured Mickey Flacks, an activist with deep connections to Supervisor Rose, Rose ally Wolf and the Santa Barbara County Action Network, or SBCANT. The story failed to mention these connections.

I've taken issue with Mrs. Flacks on several matters, including her criticism of certain political involvement by the Chumash people, as reported in UCSB Professor Eve Darian-Smith's 2004 book on the tribe.

The professor wrote in one passage: "As Mickey Flacks, a prominent Democratic Party affiliate in the Santa Barbara community, revealed to me excitedly on the phone, 'The Indians have contributed $30,000 already to the recall effort (against Gail Marshall). They're players in all of this you know . . .' My response is why is it so amazing that Native Americans are significant political players, and moreover, why shouldn't they be?"

The professor is right.

SBCANT seems to have certain problems with the sovereignty and self-determination of Indian tribes, in light of its positions regarding the Santa Ynez Chumash. And its new executive director, Mary O'Gorman, while she was working for the city of Beverly Hills awhile back, wrote pointing a finger at me because of my take on former recall target and Chumash enemy Marshall. Ms. O'Gorman seemed possibly unnerved that I might have a variety of views of tribal casinos and that in columns for the News-Press and my last employer, the San Jose Mercury News, I spoke about them openly as a member of a federal recognized Indian tribe in Minnesota.

Funny how last week the activists behind SBCANT's slanted forum on the News-Press -- in which the group didn't invite News-Press management -- didn't mention how these pages have tried to be a watchdog over this self-promoting organization and its friends. The rival media ignored it too.

Similarly, there was no mention earlier that the organizer of a political rally in the plaza meant to slam the paper's management -- David Pritchett -- is with SBCAN and has worked closely with Ms. Rose. In a further ethical conflict, his wife, Cathy Murillo, has earned her livelihood working for the weekly freebie and a radio station.

The silence on the bias of all these folks says a lot about the disingenuousness of their tactics.

Travis Armstrong is the editorial page editor of the News-Press and host of a weekly public affairs radio program on AM 1290.