Hushed conversations and bursts of laughter filled the humid space in the balcony of the Arlington Theatre. The air was thick with a palpable feeling of excitement.
As the room darkened, yelps of delight escaped from audience members and a collective clap rumbled off the walls. The anticipation of the controversy that was about to unfold onscreen was felt all the way through to the back row of the balcony.
On Friday, “Citizen McCaw” made its world premiere at the Arlington to a sold-out crowd of about 2,200 people. The buzzed-about documentary chronicles the mass exodus of the Santa Barbara News-Press under the ownership of Wendy McCaw.
The 85-minute film was well-crafted. The editors and producers, who included high-profile names such as Peter Seaman, screenwriter from “Shrek the Third,” made the messy News-Press situation easy to follow.
Unless you’ve been living on Pluto, or simply have no interest as to what’s going on in Santa Barbara, you’ve most likely heard of the News-Press controversy that began a little more than a year-and-a-half ago.
In the summer of 2006, five editors and long-time columnist Barney Brantingham resigned from the News-Press. According to the documentary, the reporters charged a breach of ethics and accused McCaw and Editorial Page Editor Travis Armstrong of interfering with the news content of the paper. Since then, more than 70 staff members have either been fired or resigned.
For the most part, the film was comprised of testimonials of former News-Press reporters, editors and personnel. The film also included interviews with journalism professors from across the country, as well as legends such as Washington Post Editor Emeritus Ben Bradlee and former NBC News reporter Sander Vancour.
“The role [of the press] is to uncover the truth and to have no sacred cows. And there’s nobody that you can’t write about and there’s no friend of the publisher,” Bradlee said in the film.
“Citizen McCaw” was both tragic and hilarious. Although the film has been criticized for being biased, McCaw refused several times to be interviewed for the film. The laughable quotes from her editorials were preposterous, making it impossible to feel any compassion for the multi-millionaire.
The child pornography allegations made against former News-Press Executive Editor Jerry Roberts were not only horrifyingly personal for front-page news, but also unjustified. In a press conference in the film, Roberts called McCaw’s smear campaign “false, defamatory, and malicious.”
In the film Robert’s wife, Linda Kiefer, was seated next to him at the conference, teary eyed and clearly distraught with what was happening to her husband.
“He will not back down from the truth,” Kiefer said. “He spent his entire career in journalism fighting to get out the facts, the truth and honesty.”
Images of News-Press staffers, outfitted in all black and duct-taped their mouths shut, was a powerful moment in the film that gave me the goose bumps. Reporters said that a gag order had been placed on them, forbidding them to discuss the internal affairs of the News-Press. McCaw had refuted the reporters’ claim. The gesture was dramatic and effective.
As a journalist, I found “Citizen McCaw” both compelling and inspiring. Reporters have an incredible power and duty to the people to report the news fairly and without bias, and it is often easy to forget what being a journalist really means.
In a time when someone like Wendy McCaw has the ability to control the news, “Citizen McCaw” is a wake-up call, reminding the audience that in this day in age money buys power.
Walking out of the theater, the contagious spirit of the thousands of people around me seeped into my skin. I wondered, “What did everyone else make of the movie?”
I had only one question on my mind: Who owns my news?
Additional screenings of “Citizen McCaw” will take place Saturday, April 5th at 8 p.m., and Sunday, April 6th at 3 p.m., at the Marjorie Luke Theatre located at 721 E. Cota Street in Santa Barbara.