Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Full Court Press at NLRB Hearing

The News-Press/NLRB hearing is back in full swing. After a shaky start in which the judge barred yet another of the newspaper's expert witnesses from giving an opinion, yesterday's session started to move along with editorial page editor Travis Armstrong picking up his testimony where he left off before the hearings took a break last week.

One of the interesting things about the hearing is how so many details about various aspects of this long saga that were heretofore generally unknown are now coming to light.

For instance, just what was Armstrong's blood alcohol level when he was stopped for driving the wrong direction on a one-way street at 2:30 in the morning? Armstrong testified it was a .23 percent. That's nearly three times the legal limit of .08 percent.

Although the paper reported the fact of Armstrong's arrest a subsequent story about Armstrong's sentencing, which would presumably have contained the details of the blood alcohol level, was killed after Armstrong complained to co-publishers Wendy McCaw and Arthur von Wiesenberger that Jerry Roberts, executive editor of the paper, was "harassing" him and "sensationalizing" the story.

Armstrong also revealed that he had offered twice, once in an e-mail and again in a face-to-face meeting with McCaw, to resign as a result of the drunk driving incident. McCaw never took him up on that offer instead asking only something to the effect of whether he had learned his lesson.

The revelation that Armstrong was not asked to resign nor was he reprimanded or suspended because of this incident is significant in light of the fact that the paper's attorney, Barry Cappello has argued that breaking the law by displaying banners from a freeway overpass in violation of California's Streets and Highway Code justifies the paper in not rehiring the reporters who did so, even if the judge determines that terminating them to begin with was an unfair labor practice.

Introduced into evidence during Armstrong's testimony was Roberts' four page letter of resignation. McCaw was out of the country when Roberts decided to leave so he delivered the letter to the paper's human resource director, Yolanda Apodaca, at a breakfast meeting on July 6th.

The letter said in part:

Dear Wendy,

I was disappointed and disturbed to return from a two week vacation to find the good operation of the newsroom disrupted and the staff more demoralized than at any other point since my (arrival) here four years ago.

After reciting a number of examples of McCaw's meddling in the newsroom operation Roberts continued:

The topper is your installation of the editorial page editor to oversee the operation of the newsroom, thereby effectively eliminating my job. If there was any doubt about your lack of understanding about the "church-state" relationship between the news departments and the opinion pages it has been eliminated. It appears you intend for the news pages to become a propaganda arm for the crusades and frivolities of the editorial page.

Upon being shown this letter later that morning by Apodaca, Armstrong testified that he decided that Roberts would have to leave the building immediately. He went to Roberts office and told him so adding that he expected Roberts to abide by his confidentiality agreement to which Roberts replied, "You can count on it."

In another area of testimony Armstrong was asked once again about the attempt by newsroom staff to deliver a letter to McCaw. Asked by NLRB attorney Brian Gee, "There was no noise associated with the walk?" Armstrong responded, "I didn't hear any."

Of course that undercuts the assertion made by Armstrong in his column last week that e-mails withheld by the union in an earlier hearing would show that the walk was raucous and intimidating.

Armstrong also appeared to be laying the groundwork for an appearance on the witness stand by McCaw herself. He testified that McCaw complained to him about bias in the reporting of former writers Melinda Burns as early as 2003 and on the part of Anna Davision as early as 2005.

If the News-Press is going to make anything of that little tidbit they will need The Wendy herself to come into the courtroom and follow-up. Cappello told me that McCaw will be at the hearing and testify sometime before the week is out.

The News-Press is not only trying its case in the courtroom but on the editorial page as well. For the second day in a row the paper ran an editorial on Monday in which it asserts that eradicating bias has been a priority since McCaw purchased the paper in 2000.

Near the end the editorial makes this eyebrow raising statement: "[A] good newspaper makes its news judgments responsibly. It tells its readers what they have a right to know, but it does not gratuitously invade people's privacy or expose them to unnecessary humiliation. A good newspaper also does not defame individuals or businesses with libelous misstatements or intentional falsehoods."

I wonder what Jerry Roberts would have to say about that?

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