After the Santa Barbara News-Press requested access to correspondence between Santa Barbara City Councilwoman Cathy Murillo and PODER, or the People Organized for the Defense and Equal Rights of Santa Barbara Youth, via the California Public Records Act request between Jan. 2 to Jan. 12, the News-Press has since received two of Murillo’s emails.
The News-Press requested access to Murillo’s emails, internet browsing records and any written communication between the councilwoman and PODER on her city hall computer after Murillo expressed her support of the group’s boycotting of the newspaper for its use of the term “illegals” in a Jan. 3 headline when describing undocumented immigrants. Murillo attended PODER’s subsequent protests against the News-Press and has explicitly stated her disapproval of its headlines.
City Attorney Ariel Calonne provided the News-Press with the two emails that were received on Murillo’s city hall computer. The first was a short note encouraging her criticism and resulting action against the News-Press’ allegedly insensitive headline. The second was from a man whose son had been killed in a hit-and-run incident with a driver who was an undocumented immigrant.
News-Press Director of News Operations Donald Katich said transparency at all levels of government works as a “check-balance system” to ensure all elected officials and bureaucrats behave appropriately.
“The News-Press submitted a PRA to the city of Santa Barbara seeking correspondence between councilwoman Cathy Murillo and PODER to determine if Ms. Murillo abused her position as a council member by using taxpayers resources to pressure and intimidate the News-Press in exercising our first amendment right of free speech,” Katich said in an email.
Katich said the News-Press is questioning Murillo’s use of city power because of her outspoken support and alliance with PODER and other groups that protested the News-Press’ use of the term “illegals.”
“While it is unclear as to the coordination between PODER and Ms. Murillo in the organized effort to bully the News-Press to change editorial content, it is clear Ms. Murillo lead a group of people to the News-Press for the purpose of canceling their subscriptions,” Katich said in an email. “The public and the News-Press are left without the benefit of knowing if a local council member is actively attempting to manipulate the media in the truthful and accurate reporting of news that she finds offensive.”
According to Katich, Murillo’s refusal to release the emails insinuates the councilwoman wants to hide certain information from the public.
“The city attorney cites ‘deliberative process’ as a reason to hide the requested information,” Katich said in an email. “This confirms that there is some communication they don’t want the public to know. Deliberative process is usually used to shield city council business.”
According to PODER, the organization has made their own Public Records Act request against the News-Press as a result of alleged connections with some of the city councilmembers.
“We at PODER remain committed to speaking truth to power and refuse to be silenced by News-Press owners Wendy McCaw and Arthur von Wiesenberger,” officials stated in a press release. “For these reasons, we have issued our own public records request for all email exchanges between SBNP, its vigilante allies among the Minutemen, and councilmembers Frank Hotchkiss and Dale Francisco, who joined anti-immigrant counter-demonstrators at De La Guerra plaza on MLK Day in protest of PODER and other activists calling for unbiased newspaper reporting.”
According to PODER, the News-Press’ accusations against Murillo are unfair and the newspaper has allied with certain anti-immigrant groups in a fashion that PODER views as biased and unethical.
“We realize that the newspaper’s desire to censor PODER’s right to dialog with publicly elected officials is a thinly veiled attempt to cripple our effectiveness as community organizers by stifling us,” the press release stated. “The fact that the News-Press would seek to censor legitimate public dialog between a Latina representative of the city and a Latino advocacy group is worrisome given the News-Press’s open alliance with anti-immigrant hate groups like the Minutemen.”
Officials also stated the News-Press’ “long history of suing people it disagrees with,” such as the lawsuit against Murillo’s husband David Pritchett in a dispute over turning De La Guerra plaza into a pedestrian thoroughfare, a move that would have risked the newspaper’s customer parking privileges in the plaza.
“What is more, co-owner Wendy McCaw brought lawsuits against employees who attempted to unionize at the News-Press, as well as local businesses who showed solidarity with them by simply displaying signs in their windows,” the press release stated. “This is in addition to countless more lawsuits she has brought against other newspapers, journalists, websites, and former employees who have had the temerity to speak out against the News-Press’s biased and unethical journalistic practices.”
First-year undeclared major Emily Hudson said while it’s important to keep city officials in check in terms of how they use their power, she understands Murillo’s support for the protests because the headline may have affected her as well.
“I don’t see how a Latina council member supporting a Latino group is cause for such drastic measures by the News-Press,” Hudson said. “But I do understand the fact that officials in power can also abuse that power and use it to their advantage, so it does make sense that the News-Press wants to look into it.”
According to Hudson, despite the News-Press’ claims that they used “illegals” as a technical term, the word choice was poor due to its offensive nature for certain readers.
“I thought the headline was really insensitive and a lot of the negative backlash they received was called for,” Hudson said. “They most likely have immigrant readers that they are instantly offending, so it would have just been a better idea to use a more appropriate term.”
Katich said the News-Press will continue to strive for factual accuracy in their reporting.
“The News-Press will continue to shine the light of truth onto the activities of those in positions of power and authority,” Katich said in an email. “The News-Press will continue to provide accurate, fact based journalism without fear or favor of friend or foe. The News-Press will never buckle to intimidation by those who clearly have a bias.”
Councilwoman Murillo was unavailable for comment.