Friday, August 17, 2007

He Said He Was the "Buck Stopper" Not the Back Stop

News-Press associate editor Scott Steepleton finished approximately two and a half days of testimony Thursday afternoon in the NLRB hearings regarding the News-Press. With the conclusion of his testimony so concludes the first week, albeit a short one, of the case. The hearings won't resume again until next Thursday.

I've been present for nearly all of the hearing so far and I must say, I'm kind of sick of hearing the word "bias" so much. Not that I don't appreciate the importance of fair and balanced reporting nor do I undervalue the need to keep bias out of stories. It's just that in Wendy McCaw's world bias exists where no reasonable person would see it.

For instance, today Steepleton testified that in one of his early meeting's with McCaw, as he was assuming his duties as the "buck stopper" in the newsroom, McCaw told him that she was sick of bias in the paper and wanted it out. In a subsequent meeting McCaw mentioned staff writer Anna Davison's articles about Channel Island foxes and bald eagles as being examples of biased articles.

Biased articles about foxes and eagles? Steepleton said that McCaw never specified in what respect exactly the articles were biased so one can only guess. Did Davison not get the viewpoints of the foxes and bald eagles and include them in her story? If Wendy wanted a reporter to talk to the animals she should have hired Dr. Doolittle. Then again I believe those animals are on the endangered species list so tracking down specimens to interview would probably have been a tall order for anyone.

Of course sending reporters such as Davison or Melinda Burns to the guillotine for writing biased stories, if in fact they were "biased," seems awfully unfair when you consider that, as former managing editor Linda Strean testified, "reporters don't put biased stories in the paper, editors do."

By that she was referring to the process by which an editor assigns a story to a reporter, suggests angles or approaches to the story, suggests sources or individuals to interview and then, when the story is written, reads the story, asks the reporter questions about it, suggests additional stakeholders in the story who might be contacted if their viewpoint is not represented and then finally when, and only when, the story is deemed fair and balanced, puts it in the paper. As Strean put it; "The editor is the backstop."

So who was Melinda Burn's backstop on the Measure D story written by her and cited in her termination letter as an example of biased reporting on her part? Steepleton testified that the person who edited the story and failed to recognize it as being biased was, himself. I guess the buck stopped before it got to the backstop.

And then there's the story that got Anna Davison fired. Running under the headline, "Walk This Way" it talked about treacherous tile sidewalks on lower State Street being replaced with brick pavers to make the area more pedestrian friendly. Turns out that writing about the sidewalks proved far more treacherous than navigating them.

Even though the article acknowledged that trees were being removed to the chagrin of some citizens, Wendy, the self-annointed judge, jury and executioner when it comes to what is biased, deemed the article didn't have enough quotes from those who opposed the removal of trees and too many quotes from Mayor Marty Blum. McCaw demanded that Davison be reprimanded for her "biased reporting." Davison's immediate supervisor, Bob Guiliano refused to issue a reprimand and soon both Davison and Guiliano were gone in less time than Barry Cappello took to make his opening statement at Tuesday's hearing.

Poor Davison. Her story on the treacherous sidewalks ran while Steepleton was away on vacation. Perhaps if he had been around he could have read the story, recognized the bias and saved Davison's job. Oh, that's right, he read Burns' Measure D story and let it run in the paper, bias and all. Never mind.

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I confess. I was wrong when I predicted that the News-Press' coverage of the NLRB hearing would be next to non-existent. Not so. They had stories run on both Wednesday and Thursday and reporter Hannah Guzik was in the hearing room again yesterday. They even had a video about the hearings on "News-Press TV."

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Travis Armstrong, editorial page editor of the News-Press has been attending the hearing as the paper's representative. During a short break yesterday he asked Stephanie Hoops, the reporter covering the hearing for the Ventura County Star, if he could interview her. Hoops said she would have to check with her boss. After doing so she passed a note to Armstrong saying if you want to know anything about me or the paper you'll have to call my editor.

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