The Wrath of Wendy

Chapman University professor fights lawsuit filed by controversial newspaper owner

In the long, colorful history of American newspaper owners—a club whose ranks have included drunks, felons and Rupert Murdoch—few can boast fomenting as much community animosity as Santa Barbara News-Press owner Wendy McCaw. Since last summer, the placid coastal town has seen its daily newspaper lose dozens of employees through resignations or firings sparked by opposition to what McCaw's critics claim is her undue meddling in editorial affairs. In turn, McCaw has filed lawsuits and cease-and-desist letters against perceived enemies ranging from former News-Press editor Jerry Roberts to the alt-weekly Santa Barbara Independent to Santa Barbara business owners who posted signs on their storefront windows stating "McCaw, Obey the Law."

Now McCaw's legal team has invaded Orange County to pursue Susan Paterno, a former Orange County Registerreporter who's the director of journalism at Chapman University. Last December, Paterno wrote a lengthy article detailing the News-Press saga for the American Journalism Review, where Paterno also works as a senior writer. The piece, titled "Santa Barbara Smackdown," included interviews with many former News-Press staffers and quickly became the talk of journalists across the country.

Part of the continued fascination with the story is McCaw herself. The 56-year-old multimillionaire—who amassed her fortune thanks to a divorce settlement from a cell-phone magnate—bought the News-Press in 2000 from the New York Times and has antagonized Santa Barbarans since. Her personal life is fodder for tongue wagging and the gossip rags—for instance, McCaw spent part of last summer on a yacht in the Mediterannean with Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones.

Shortly after the AJRpublished Paterno's story, McCaw's lawyers filed a lawsuit in Orange County Superior Court claiming defamation. The 17-page motion describes "Santa Barbara Smackdown" as a "biased, false and misleading diatribe" against Ampersand Publishing (the parent company of the News-Press) and seeks damages "in excess of $25,000" because Paterno has caused Ampersand to "suffer general and special damage to its business and reputation."

Paterno declined to speak with the Weekly on the advice of her lawyers. But Paterno's legal team is arguing McCaw wants to squash free speech. On Jan. 29, Paterno's attorneys responded with a motion seeking to dismiss McCaw's lawsuit. They cited California Code of Civic Procedure 425.16, more popularly known as the anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) Law. This statute prohibits individuals and corporations from lodging lawsuits that "chill the valid exercise of the constitutional rights of freedom of speech."

In the motion, attorney Chuck Tobin described McCaw's lawsuit as "egregious," "speech-chilling," "another effort by a wealthy and powerful public figure to sue its critics into silence" and trying to "punish journalism." The motion also includes a declaration by Paterno, her only public remarks on the matter. She defended "Santa Barbara Smackdown" by recounting her information-gathering process and stated that the News-Press saga is "of legitimate interest" to Santa Barbara residents and the news industry. The two sides are scheduled to argue their cases March 5 in Santa Ana.

One unforeseen development in the McCaw lawsuit is the scholastic opportunity granted to Chapman's journalism students. Heather Reger, editor-in-chief for the university's student newspaper, The Panther, says Paterno has used her ordeal as a teaching tool to the Pantherstaff.

"She's using [the lawsuit] as an example of teaching," Reger said. "She talks about the lawsuit and the Shield Law [which protects journalists against lawsuits] in California. Susan also uses her story as an example of what it takes to be a good reporter, and how to get your sources to talk about a difficult story."

Paterno was on sabbatical from Chapman when McCaw's lawyers filed the suit, so the initial reaction from Paterno's students was guarded, according to Reger. "When you're younger, and you hear someone is getting sued, you tend to question their credibility," she said. "There were some students that questioned Susan's reporting at first. I can't speak for everyone else, but anytime you're ruffling feathers, I think it's always good."

But Paterno's students have since supported their professor, and Reger and the Panther staff prepared their own story on the matter. Pursuing the story presented Reger and her writers with some strange dilemmas. Although Paterno discussed the lawsuit with her students, she declined comment for the Panther story. "There were also concerns about conflict of interest amongst some Pantherreporters because she gives us our grades," Reger said. "But Susan told us to write it—she said, 'If you want to write something bad, go ahead.'"

The Pantherstory appeared in last Monday's edition. Pantherreporters unsuccessfully tried to contact McCaw and her attorneys. There is some trepidation that McCaw might also try to target the Panther. But Reger isn't afraid of incurring McCaw's wrath.

"Any time you go into something with fear, you're probably not going to produce your best product," she said. "Personally, I'm not afraid."

GARELLANO@OCWEEKLY.COM

 
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