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A world of media conflicts

August 15, 2007 12:00 AM

Can the News-Press get a fair hearing in the press regarding the federal labor trial that started yesterday in Santa Barbara?

Reporters have a built-in bias when covering other journalists or former journalists who are battling management.

But also consider that many of the reporters at the hearing earn their livelihoods by working at competing media outlets that have a financial incentive to damage this newspaper. Others are friends or associates of people who, for various reasons, no longer work at the newspaper.

Still others -- such as James Rainey of the Los Angeles Times -- have supervisors with ties to past workers. Mr. Rainey tried to get me to talk with him by writing in an e-mail to me last year: "Maybe you could even accept dinner and a beer on the Tribune Company."

I declined but did earlier ask him if Times Page 1 editor John Arthur had any role in one of Mr. Rainey's stories on the News-Press editor resignations in July 2006. As I've said before, the impression I got from Mr. Rainey's dancing around the question was yes.

Mr. Arthur, before that story appeared, told one of the departing editors in an e-mail to "hang in there! Best, John." The Times has since promoted Mr. Arthur to the managing editor's position.

The reporting by Mr. Rainey or his Times colleagues on the transitions at the News-Press at times hasn't been complete. They last year quoted political opponents of the News-Press editorials, without ever letting their readers know that these individuals had long-standing ideological axes to grind with the paper. In particular, these activists are supporters of politicians we've tried to hold accountable for misdeeds, or they are people who represent high-density development interests we've criticized for their pro-growth agenda.

I wonder how, say, a reporter from the Ventura County Star will write objectively when that paper's managers have written personal-tinged attacks on the News-Press owner and others at the paper.

The Ventura editor has hired former News-Press reporter Scott Hadly, who became an anti-News-Press activist, including taking on the job of writing a lengthy document that goes after his former employer. A far-left group paid for the document. This group appears to be partly funded by a local resident who'd like to buy the News-Press, and the organization seems to want to hurt the paper to further that goal. Its leaders are active in liberal politics and local affairs.

The Santa Maria Times is run by editor Tom Bolton, who lost his News-Press job in 2000 to a rival. Mr. Bolton has taken offense to my columns pointing out how he, as the newsroom editor, also directly oversees the paper's opinion pages. Beyond this editor, others at the paper with conflicts involving the News-Press have not excused themselves from news coverage. How is that for newspaper ethics at the Times?

Yesterday, in a moment of disrespect for the judge and court, the Associated Press correspondent Gary Gentile let out some laughs while covering the hearing. The context, in my opinion, clearly demonstrated his apparent positive, personal views of what was being presented as "evidence" supporting a charge against the News-Press.

The AP should reassign this correspondent.

Another reporter was seen hugging a former News-Press worker who was fired for disloyalty to the company. Another was chumming it up with a Teamster representative known to have been trying to organize the News-Press newsroom since July 6, 2006.

News reporters have an obligation to give balanced accounts in all stories. But many of the reporters in the courtroom yesterday have so many personal, workplace or emotional conflicts of interest, I wonder how they will do justice to that duty.

Travis Armstrong is the editorial page editor of the News-Press.