Letters + Opinion » The Town Dandy

Tree Falls

By Hank Sims



You've read and heard plenty lately about the decline and fall of the newspaper industry. We know that. But at the risk of boring you into never picking up this or any other newspaper ever again, let us share one more brief anecdote.

This week's cover story is written by veteran Bay Area reporter John Geluardi. It's a broad overview of the qui tam lawsuit brought by the former head of the California Department of Forestry against Charles Hurwitz, former owner of Humboldt County's Pacific Lumber Company (which, since the conclusion of bankruptcy proceedings last year, is now known as the Humboldt Redwood Company and is under new ownership.) The case was settled on Tuesday, as you'll see inside.

Here's a brief overview of the case, as might be pitched to an editor upon commencement of proceedings. It features the former chief of a California state agency suing a legendary corporate raider (sorry, Charlie) for allegedly defrauding the federal government during landmark negotiations over the fate of the Headwaters Forest. It asks for up to $750 million in damages. It features two of the best-known trial lawyers in the nation -- one who represented outed CIA spy Valerie Plame in her lawsuit against the Bush administration, another who prosecuted former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger for his role in the Iran-Contra scandal -- pitted against one each other. It would feature testimony from, among others, a sitting U.S. Congressman, a member of the House leadership, whose district lies just a few minutes' travel from the scene of the trial.

From a newspaper perspective, in other words, this is a case that pretty much has it all -- a can't-miss kind of story that looked to keep giving for weeks. And yet despite the trial taking place in the heart of the Bay Area, Geluardi was the only news reporter in the courtroom. If we hadn't harangued and begged him into taking the assignment (for miserable pay) there would have been no reporter present at all. The San Francisco Chronicle wasn't there. The Oakland Tribune and Contra Costa Times and Los Angeles Times weren't there. None of the wire services were there. The legal papers, the financial papers, the radio and TV stations ... apart from a very weak showing on the very first day of the trial, none of them were there. It seems that the only other coverage was from the KMUD news team, doing the best it could do, as always, by running daily interviews with the Humboldt County activists who had traveled down for the trial.

I'm at an utter loss to explain how this can possibly be. Seven years ago, your correspondent sat in the exact same courtroom for six weeks on end, covering Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney's civil rights case against the FBI and the Oakland Police Department. In that case, there were at least three reporters present for every single moment of testimony. On the crucial days there were sometimes as many as a dozen members of the press corps in attendance. Some outlets sent a small team, with two or three reporters and a cameraman or photographer. While it lasted, the Hurwitz trial was arguably even bigger than the Cherney/Bari case. Yet it very nearly went unreported.

There was one exception, apart from Geluardi: Portfolio magazine sent a writer, Peter Waldman, and he was present throughout the Hurwitz trial. Portfolio ceased publication Monday.


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