The Subpoena Man Always Rings Twice
by William Etling
It can't be much fun, being a subpoena man, driving around in a snappy suit and crummy white minivan, tracking down normally nice folks who greet you with all the warmth of deranged Dobermans, but that doesn't excuse telling out-and-out lies.
Like Keith Miller, subpoena man, did a couple weeks ago. He was on duty. I was upstairs in my home in the wilds of the Santa Ynez foothills,
blithely penning some airy paean to the happy deer and cute bunny rabbits and big squirrels in the sagebrush, when his white van of death pulled up at my door.
William Etling was subpoenaed at the request of Ampersand Publishing, LLC, parent company of the Santa Barbara News-Press.
Talk about big squirrels. It was like having Dan Abrams standing on the stoop, a cold, calculating, bright-eyed if not bushy-tailed, Terminator II cop kind of guy.
The suit rang the doorbell. I thought he was a missionary, so I ignored him. How do they get through the gate, I wondered. Is it an act of God?
Robocop rang again. The subpoena man always rings twice. Then he went and sat in his dirty vehicle.
Fifteen minutes passed. This anomaly had blown my train of thought right off its high, peaceful trestle. Here was either one determined soul-saver, or a burglar casing the joint. I determined to toss him off my private property upon which he was so contentedly trespassing. I walked out the front door and up to the van.
"What can I do for you?" I inquired, a bit hotly.
He jumped out. "I was just planning my next move. Are you William Etling?"
I was indeed. He handed me a folded piece of paper. Tag! You're it.
The sunflower yellow, one-page form stated "YOU ARE HEREBY REQUIRED AND DIRECTED TO APPEAR BEFORE an administrative law judge of the National Labor Relations Board at Bankruptcy Court Building, Court Room 202, 1415 State Street, in the City of Santa Barbara, California on the 14th day of August 2007 at 10:00 am or any adjourned or rescheduled date to testify in Santa Barbara News Press 31-ca-27950 et al." etc. Included was a check for $72.00 for my trouble. Generous, no?
This unwelcome attention did not come as a total surprise to me, although it certainly seemed idiotic. A year ago, I was writing a regular column about the Valley, which appeared in the newspaper now subpoenaing me. I was in their building once, to meet Editor Jerry Roberts, who hired me. I worked at home, and filed by e-mail. I knew as much about the inner workings of the beast as I knew about the dark side of the moon. But given the known tendency of the billionaire owner to cast a wide legal net, it had crossed my mind that this day might come.
"Who do you work for?" I asked Mr. Minivan.
"My name is Keith Miller. I'm working for the reporters," Keith Miller lied. "We're trying to settle this thing. I have one of these for your daughter, Leah, too. Is she still at the Tribune?"
A close look at the goldenrod writ later revealed that Miller was actually hired by Ampersand Publishing, parent company of the News-Press. Miller riffled through page after page of those he would serve. There may have been as many as 70, including reporters, secretaries, documentary filmmakers. He had a stack of pages with names in landscape mode on a cross-hatched grid, with little boxes for home info, job info, notes. He showed me my child's name.
The man was posing as a friend to stalwart writers because he wanted Leah's home address in San Luis Obispo County, where she had found work after she quit. I declined to provide it. Miller drove away, to spend the better part of two days stalking my daughter without success, before finally leaving the papers at her office.
Why is this all so awful to me? Apart from the personal drama, it's like seeing a madman take a claw hammer to the Mona Lisa. I've read the News-Press for forty-one years. Over a four-year tenure, Jerry Roberts and his team raised already high standards and morale, and made the paper the best it had ever been. One year after his departure, it's an international laughingstock.
Like most of the talented writers at the paper, Leah enjoyed her work, revered Roberts, and was extremely happy to live in Santa Barbara, running at Nite Moves and in the annual half-marathon, religiously visiting her four aging grandparents, thoroughly enjoying a career she'd carved out over ten years of hard work.
"I loved my job, my home and my friends in Santa Barbara and now I am hours away from there. I have a good job here in Paso Robles, but every week this year has been a struggle," she e-mailed.
Leah literally grew up at the News-Press. She won an essay contest in fifth grade, and was a featured guest on KSBY 6 Action News, a ten-year-old reading her work on live TV. She was unstoppable after that, penning pieces for kid's magazines on a regular basis, including her correspondence with Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the Secretary General of the United Nations, on the subject of world peace. One essay won an award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. After News-Press reporter Mark van de Kamp wrote about her work, she was invited to intern at the paper in her junior year of high school, their youngest intern ever.
She worked at the News-Press part-time while getting a history degree at UCSB on a Regent's Scholarship, and returned there after earning a Master's degree from UC Berkeley's famed journalism school. She won a national award from the Associated Press Sports Editors, another from the National Education Writers Association. Her work was recognized by the California Newspaper Publisher's Association.
As for me, I wrote 333 columns that appeared in the paper, a labor of love. The starting pay was $50 a column. Sometimes it took all day to write one. Occasionally it took a week. You don't do it for the money.
Then came the meltdown. I considered quitting when Jerry Roberts bailed out. I've always been a fool for martyrdom. But I was afraid they would take any "disloyalty" out on my daughter, so I stuck around. This quandary was solved for me after I mentioned Roberts' remarks at a community forum in my column, and the Montecito columnist interviewed some citizens who were not kind to the publisher. A few days later, all five community columnists (Santa Ynez, Goleta, Montecito, Carpinteria, Santa Maria) were dropped, "to eliminate bias," it was later explained.
While reporters try hard to be neutral, columnists are supposed to have pithy opinions. Think Arianna Huffington, Ann Landers, George F. Will. That's why they printed those awful headshots with our work. A disclaimer: "The opinions in this column are Mr. Etling's and not necessarily those of the newspaper" followed every piece.
At that point, Leah really wanted to quit, but I still advised her against it. A prudent daddy who's read The Executive Recruiter's Guide, I counseled, "Look for a job while you have one. It's a better bargaining position." She did, but journalism jobs these days are few and far between. The profession is imploding. All options involved relocation, steep pay cuts, or both.
Things in the big white house of horrors got worse and worse. There was a East German atmosphere to the place, spies and constant stress, scary new security guards, more cancelled columns, firings, talented friends disappearing in disgust, punitive reassignments of beats and hours.
Finally, one night, out in the parking lot after just leaving the building, she called me in tears, begging, "Can I quit now? Please, Dad? Please?" She didn't have another job yet, but enough was enough. And that was that.
A few days after my subpoena, I received a notice by courier from the attorneys. If I would agree to testify when called, I would not have to hang around the hearings, with my life on hold, from Aug. 14 until forever. That worked for me, and I have not heard any more from anybody, but Leah got a call from the law offices of Capello & Noel, LLP. If she would agree to a telephone interview, she could skip the trial.
They asked, Did she have a job lined up before she quit? Why did she quit? Did she look for jobs outside the Central Coast? How did her new job compare financially to her old job? What was the circulation of her new paper? Did she have better opportunities for career advancement in her new job? Did she have previous connections at the Tribune?
If anyone can put this all in perspective, it's former Washington Post national reporter Lou Cannon, one of the most respected writers in journalism history, and the author of "Reporting: An Inside View," a landmark study of the working press that examines the craft in minute detail. Mr. Cannon has been a frequent vocal critic of Wendy McCaw, and he says that honest journalism is really what's on trial in Santa Barbara.
"I don't know if people in other communities know how important this is," Mr. Cannon told a reporter. "What's at stake here is much bigger than the fortunes of a few former reporters and editors at the News-Press."
William Etling is a 41 year resident of Santa Ynez, and the author of Sideways in Neverland: Life in the Santa Ynez Valley.