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Columnist

Their policies say they can't speak


October 6, 2006 12:00 AM

When the shoe's on the other foot, the managers and employees of many of the region's media outlets are reluctant to speak about internal operations.

Perhaps that's understandable in light of restrictions on what companies can say about certain personnel matters. Also, it's standard for employee handbooks to put limits on speaking publicly.

Yet when reporting on our transitional period at the News-Press, the newspaper's competitors acted as if the News-Press was unique in this regard. Their readers, viewers and listeners deserve better than some of the slanted coverage seen this past summer -- coverage that in some cases appeared engineered to help these media competitors in the marketplace.

So this morning, I thought I'd review some of the ways these media outlets have responded when their own entities have made the news over the last several months.

At the risk of offending the editorial brain trust at the Ventura County Star, is it a stretch to suggest that the Ohio-owned newspaper tried to exploit the recent resignations of News-Press editors and reporters? One Montecito resident told me that, for a while, free copies of the Star began showing up on her lawn.

I told you two weeks ago about an apparent ethical conflict at the Star. Its top newsroom editor, Joe Howry, has the ultimate final say in the newspaper's opinion editorials.

How did the Star initially handle another ethics controversy that journalists across the country were talking about?

Here's a posting from one journalism institute's Web site from May 3 titled "Ventura County Star finally covers its ME's ethical lapse": " 'Our readers and our staff need to know there is no tolerance for unethical behavior,' says editor Joe Howry. However, he apparently doesn't believe they need to know what kind of punishment was handed out to managing editor Richard Luna (for telling mid-level editors to pressure a sports reporter into seeking media credentials for him to sporting events. It's a personnel matter, he says."

So much for the Star, early on, being upfront.

Then there's KEYT and its gag order on personnel actions. As reported in June about the apparent firing of Paul Vercammen, who was KEYT's news director and 5 p.m. anchor for three years: "Phone messages requesting comment from station management were not returned. One of Mr. Vercammen's former colleagues, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal from management, said KEYT is heading in a 'new direction.' ''

The journalists at Channel 3, from John Palminteri to Michelle Cole, wouldn't answer my questions about the sudden and unexplained departure in August of chief meteorologist Kate Wentzel. Mr. Palminteri seems afraid to return my calls regarding these matters.

Over at KTYD FM, DJ Matt McAllister wasn't behind the mic one morning in September, apparently because of a snit over Clear Channel's policy on the amount of music the corporate giant tells him to play. Program Director Keith Royer said at the time: "We're not talking about personnel issues. This whole thing is a personnel issue." I'm told this station -- I've never heard it -- as part of the typical morning DJ shtick revels in personnel issues of others.

At the Los Angeles Times, reporter James Rainey has taken a break from his coverage of the News-Press to write about the unrest at the Times and its parent company, Tribune. One story in September quoted an anonymous Tribune executive "who asked not to be named because he had not been given permission to speak about the dispute."

From the beginning, why wasn't Mr. Rainey as aggressive covering his own paper's operations as those of the News-Press, such as seeking newsroom colleagues to have stories with more comments from rank-and-file editors and reporters? This might change now that Tribune fired the Times publisher and the Times newsroom appears in turmoil and possible outright revolt. The Times now is on its fifth publisher in seven years.

Perhaps Mr. Rainey could try to entice the paper's journalists as he tried to get me to talk more with him. Mr. Rainey wrote in an e-mail to me in July: "Maybe you could even accept dinner and a beer on the Tribune Company."

And then there's "The Santa Barbara Channels," the entity that runs Channel 17 on cable. I have a stack of documents, delivered by a reader, that alleges a history of management problems and internal strife at the public access station. (More details later on.) A day after my inquiry, Hap Freund, its executive director, has responded that he'll respond later.

There must have been a run at the Home Improvement Center on duct tape to cover the mouths of all these media professionals.

Travis Armstrong is the editorial page editor of the News-Press and host of a Wednesday morning talk show on AM 1290.