By Christine Tatum | October 24th, 2006
Well, sure looks as if Travis Armstrong, editorial page editor of The Santa Barbara News-Press, won’t be re-joining SPJ anytime soon.
Stalwarts of journalism ethics – some of whom contributed to the writing of SPJ’s ethics code, the gold standard of American journalism — conducted independent investigations of the shenanigans at the N-P. Our leaders spoke with several people involved — even to the PR spinmesiters hired by publisher Wendy McCaw — and left many messages that went unreturned. Our tireless volunteers sent several detailed e-mails, which I reviewed. They were patient. They listened. They gathered information as any talented and highly experienced journalists would.
Then, yes, they reached certain conclusions with which Ms. McCaw and Mr. Armstrong obviously disagree. Those conclusions landed squarely in the ballpark of journalism ethics, not labor or management disputes, and essentially boiled down to this: The newspaper’s ability to deliver trustworthy journalism was — and would continue to be — heavily compromised by its management’s dim view of journalism ethics. (But, hey, don’t take SPJ’s word for it. Feel free to contact any of the senior newsroom managers and writers who gave up their jobs over this mess. Feel free to contact the thousands of N-P readers who dropped their subscriptions after reading what amounted to cursory accounts of what actually went down in the newsroom … SPJ leaders learned more than ever was reported.)
Oddly (or maybe not so oddly for someone having trouble crafting a sensible argument), Mr. Armstrong decided in his editorial to link SPJ’s conclusions regarding his newsroom’s antics to the Society’s decision not to stick its nose into disputes that have surfaced in recent months between the Los Angeles Times and its owner, the Tribune Co. He even went so far as to suggest that SPJ has steered clear of getting involved in the LAT/Trib battle because it’s compromised by all of the money it collects from big media (giving those of us who routinely fundraise for SPJ a hearty laugh and a half this morning).
As I already have stated, it was easy — darned easy — to see how problems embroiling the N-P stemmed from violations of journalism ethics. The Tribune/L.A. Times affair is very different. As I already have written (Note to commentators posting on the Nieman Watchdog Web site: If you want to quote me, please do so completely — and thus accurately): “… SPJ hasn’t issued any formal statements concerning the LAT/Trib brouhaha because it hasn’t been easy to know where the dividing line is between differing newsroom/management cultures and vision and over-the-top cost-cutting that has legitimately harmed the Times’ ability to do outstanding work.”
Certainly, at the point this Society sees the Times’ credibility damaged in ways similarly endured by the N-P, you can bet we’ll say something.
And certainly, this Society takes support from any newsroom that will give it. That support amounts to tens of thousands of dollars to produce national conferences, where we can teach the importance of journalism ethics and the Society’s other core missions. That support amounts to $50 to cover the cost of juice and doughnuts offered during SPJ meetings in newsroom cafeterias and breakrooms. It amounts to $5 from students who have very little to give but are resolute that they must do something more to support SPJ than simply pay their annual dues. It amounts to donations of office supplies, volunteer time and other amazing acts of charity.
What that support does not amount to: protection against SPJ’s scrutiny and criticism when deserved.
For Mr. Armstrong to suggest otherwise is an insult to SPJ’s nearly 10,000 members, who work on local, regional and national levels to improve and protect journalism.