Its a fairly well known secret that shortly after taking office, Hutchens went to the Orange County Register and asked them to stop covering her in a negative light....And they acquiesced.
“He did have a hot story he was following: That of newly appointed Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens stand-off with the Board of Supervisors. Santanas stories about Hutchens aired the concerns of gun owners who had had their concealed-weapons permits taken away and pointed out instances in which Hutchens misspoke during hearings before the board.
Earlier this year, he heard that Hutchens and Orange County Sheriffs Department spokesman John McDonald were going to sit down with Register staffers. They were unhappy with the way they were being covered.
Stay calm, Santana recalls one editor telling him.
He knew something similar had happened a few years earlier with Mike Carona, the disgraced ex-sheriff. Reporter Aldrin Brown had shed light on the sheriffs departments prisoner abuse, excessive use of helicopters for personal business and misplaced crime reports. Carona complained in 2004 and was granted a meeting with the papers editorsBrown wasnt invitedand, Brown says, the Register ended up running a clarification of one of his articles. Brown, now at the San Bernardino County Sun, told the Weekly he thinks the paper treated Carona, who faced federal corruption charges and was convicted of felony witness tampering earlier this year, with kid gloves.
Santana says he was happy to meet with Hutchens about his articles. But the sit-down was scheduled for the same week Santana was set to go on furlough (mandatory, unpaid vacation). While on furlough, Register staffers were told they werent allowed to check e-mails, listen to voice mail, or do anything work-related from home. They were, for that week, not staffers.
Santana asked if they could please move the meeting with the sheriff. He says his request went unanswered. When his furlough week came, he went Jeep-riding with his wife and son in the high desert. But Santana says that while he was away, Hutchens and McDonald had lunch with Register editor Ken Brusic, Knap and at least one other reporter. Neither McDonald nor Knap would discuss that meeting. But, Knap says, public figures regularly complain about coverage. I always defend the reporter, Knap says. I always tell the public figure that if they want better PR, they need to return the reporters phone calls.
In an e-mail to the Weekly, Brusic says that the idea for a sit-down came up while he was having coffee with the sheriff. He asked if she thought the paper had been fair; she said that some of her staffers had concerns. The meeting was a general clearing of the airan attempt to keep communication open, he wrote. They had some concerns; so did we.
According to Brusic, Santanas reporting was not the focus of the wide-ranging discussion, though coverage of the concealed-weapons issue did come up. Santana says he was told that former Register reporter McDonald had called his articles too aggressive and unfair without offering any concrete examples. When he returned from furlough, Santana says, he was told to be fair when covering the sheriff.
Im not sure what Chris Knap told Norberto after the meeting, but an editor reminding a reporter to make sure all sides get fair treatment in our stories is pretty common advice around here, Brusic says.
But Santana bristled. To him, be fair was code for back off.
Im sitting there, looking at an editor, going, Have we ever not been fair? Santana recalls. That, to me, was a death knell to my time at the Register. They have every right to run that paper however they see fit. But then I have to decide whether I want to work there.”