Saturday, August 25, 2007

A Calm, Cool, Burns Takes The Stand

I'm happy to report that order was restored to the witness stand Friday afternoon as former News-Press senior writer Melinda Burns detailed her career and history at the News-Press during the fifth day of the proceedings brought against the paper by the National Labor Relations Board for having committed unfair labor practices.

Burns testified like a magna cum laude graduate of Harvard which shouldn't be surprising because she is. NLRB attorney Brian Gee initially questioned her about her career in journalism generally and at the News-Press specifically where she won 15 awards for her writing and reporting. She was even nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 2003.

Burns' testimony gave a very cogent overview of the chronology of the News-Press meltdown. She also described her role as one of the proponents of bringing in a union. Testimony covered her performance evaluations since the year 2000 and she was asked about the articles she had written in the fall of 2006 that the paper cited as being "biased" and thus justifying her termination.

One of those articles ran under the headline "Danger Zones" and was about school transportation safety. It ran a few weeks after the tragic death of a junior high school student who was run down by a car while riding his bike to school.

The article pointed out that within Measure D, a proposal for an increase in the sales tax that was defeated at last November's election, there was money earmarked for the development of "safe routes to school." The article discussed how passage of Measure D would create funding for that and other transportation improvement projects but also contained a quote from a Carpinteria City Council member who opposed measure D. Burns testified that she turned the article in on Friday morning to run in the Sunday edition of the paper and her editor, Scott Steepleton, never raised any concerns about the article being biased.

Proponents of Measure D quoted a portion of her article in their campaign literature, something which she had no control over, and the use of that quote was cited when she was terminated as establishing that the article was biased. The News-Press had opposed Measure D in an editorial.

Another article that was cited in her termination letter as an example of "biased" reporting ran under the headline "Axis of Inequality."

It was a report on a panel discussion sponsored by an activist group that favored immigration. The story that was assigned to her by Steepleton and no editors ever told her they felt it was biased. But it, like the other article, was cited in her discharge letter as an example of bias because she didn't include opposing views in the article. Of course going to a pro immigration meeting and trying to find individuals who oppose immigration to interview is a little like going into a bar and trying to find tea-totalers to chat with.

With about an hour left to go before the hearing recessed for the day, News-Press attorney Barry Cappello got the opportunity to begin his cross-examination of Burns. It was apparent he was not going to cut up Burns' testimony as easily as he had that of the previous witness, Bob Guliano. He did however manage to get one potentially significant concession from Burns.

Cappello asked if her description, in a letter sent to the paper's advertisers, of the News-Press as a paper that was losing subscribers was "denigrating" the paper. She agreed that it was. Cappello is expected to argue, after all the evidence in the case is in, that denigrating or disparaging the employer's product is not conduct that is protected by the National Labor Relations Act. He will have plenty of time to decide how he may best make use of Burn's testimony on that point. The hearing will not resume again until September 4 and Burns will still be on the witness stand.

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For the first time since the hearings began, News-Press reporter Hannah Guzik was not present in the audience Friday to cover the hearing. Ditto for Eric Lindberg who is covering the case for the Daily Sound.

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Most surprising find in Friday's edition of the News-Press; a letter to the editor from Santa Barbara Mayor Marty Blum. In it, she says that Esquire Magazine, misquoted her about the blue line project.

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Required reading for the weekend: Bill Etling's account of how he got served with a subpoena for the News-Press NLRB hearing.

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