Journalism is supposed to be the first draft of history, not the first rewrite of press releases and sound bites. In recent weeks, some journalists reporting on the Estero controversy say “they would not touch the science,” not realizing the irony that they are essentially saying they are reporting without knowledge. The word ‘science’ itself comes from the Latin scientia, ”to know.”
To report on scientific issues, it is not necessary for reporters to ‘do’ science. For example, to return to the issue of sound as a major impact in the Estero: when the NPS and its EIS consultant substitute the sound of a high- powered jet ski for a small four stroke outboard–as National Park Service did in preparing the Environmental Impact Statement–and claim the Estero is damaged by the sound, it raises issues that can only be answered by the basic journalism questions, Who? What? When? Where? Why?
The standard for journalistic coverage of the Drake’s Bay Oyster Company controversy seems to be based on guilt by six degrees of separation. The bulk of the recent reporting on the ‘ right wing conspiracy to destroy the wilderness act’ claim against DBOC is based solely on the fact that one attorney representing DBOC’s Kevin Lunny is a Republican who worked in Washington for a few months for a charity funded by right-wing interests.
By these standards, we assume that if the oyster-farm opponents report to the press that a lawyer supporting DBOC had defended an arsonist, this would be proof that Kevin Lunny, the DBOC owner, is burning down the Estero. Much of the general press has shown an equal lack of standards in the other allegations against DBOC, with no real investigation, relying instead on unsubstantiated claims in the press releases of oyster-farm opponents, the latest of which is merely the last in a long line of attempts by National Park Service and its supporters to smear the Lunny family and present them as some sort of environmental criminals.
The press has no excuse for this type of journalism, which merely restates claims from anti-oyster-farm press releases without even the most basic fact checking. There is a marvelous expression in the British press, ‘Churnalism,’ which aptly describes much of the press and TV coverage, e.g. the regurgitation of recent press releases from Amy Trainer of West Marin Environmental Action Committee and the PBS Newshour report, “Strange Bedfellows Join Fight to Keep Oyster Farm in Operation.” There is simply no excuse for this type of inept and biased reporting.
Minimal research uncovers the facts. Both the National Academy of Science study (which found NPS had misrepresented the science), and the Marine Mammal Committee report (whose experts found no incompatibility with oyster operations and the seal population), have summaries and complete lists of all documents on their website. These including letters from the oyster-farm opponents and supporters. Likewise, the response to the draft EIS contains statements from National Marine Fisheries, Cal Fish and Game that conflict directly with the allegations of the oyster-farm opponents.
Small local papers like the Russian River Times report stories that impact their communities, often over several years, while the larger press tends to only pick up on the sensational, often from unsubstantiated press releases and statements from advocacy groups. The truth is that NPS and its allies have conducted a long national campaign to portray the Lunnys as environmental criminals, damaging wilderness for personal gain. Locally, the Lunnys are known as a third-generation ranching family, well respected as responsible stewards and valued members of the community. Examples include their assistance with grazing research to support rangeland carbon sequestration, supporting shellfish restoration in San Francisco Bay, local composting projects, and working with endangered species restoration.
Ironically, the NPS also celebrated the Lunny’s contributions in a 2007 publication about stewardship in National Parks entitled, ‘Stewardship Begins with People.’ Page 45 shows a photo of Kevin Lunny and Seashore rancher David Evans and the statement that ”…both have been recognized for their environmental stewardship and innovation.” In a currently available on-line version of this NPS document, Lunny has been literally airbrushed out. He was made to disappear! What is disturbing is that the Lunny’s environmental stewardship is ignored in most of the press coverage where NPS and its allies have attempted to destroy the Lunny’s reputation for stewardship. Not five months after the publication date back in 2007, Point Reyes Seashore Superintendent Don Neubacher told Marin County Supervisors that Lunny was an environmental criminal.
The “smear Lunny” campaign began in the spring 2006 Sierra Club Yodeler magazine by Gordon Bennett, then Chair, Marin Chapter. Even an internet review will show that much of the campaign against the Lunnys originated with one individual, plus the direct involvement of a then-retired major Sacramento political player, active in West Marin after leaving his job with a major environmental lobbying group under a cloud.
Anything beyond the most cursory examination would find multiple cases of hidden and misrepresented data, not to mention deliberately altered photographs used without permission, known false statements about endangered species and the creation of a new hypothesis of harm each time previous claims were discredited.
Oyster-farm opponents and NPS would have you believe that sound (violations of soundscape standards) is a major problem in the Estero, implying that the experts on the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) panel and the seal experts on the Marine Mammal Commission (MMC) panel made a serious mistake in failing to identify sound as a major issue. In their 2009 letter to the MMC, which lead to its investigation, Neil Desai of NPCA and Gordon Bennett, then of the Sierra Club, failed to even reference sound or raise the issue.
Gordon Bennett became involved in West Marin environmental activities after he sold his Westbrae Natural Foods business to the Hain Group in 1997. He unfortunately invested much of the proceeds with the infamous Bernie Madoff before becoming active in West Marin environmental issues. Bennett, in his role as Chair of the Marin County Sierra Club group, posted in an article in the Spring 2006 Sierra Club Yodeler, with false claims about criminal destruction of eelgrass, misleading claims invasive aquatic species, and distorted claims about marine debris (conveniently omitting DBOC’s clean-up efforts at Drakes Estero both on shore and in the Estero.)
Bennett is also the first author of the false claims that Lunny was obliged to vacate the lease by 2012. (See Russian River Times “What Was the Deal?”) Bennett appears to have become obsessed with eliminating the oyster company, filing multiple complaints with multiple government agencies, relying on convoluted ‘interpretation’ of documents.
The classic was a September 2009 letter from Bennett, as Sierra Club Marin Group Parks Chair, to multiple government agencies, claiming that DBOC was violating its NPS permit by illegally selling condiments in violation of his Special Use Permit, thus becoming a restaurant! Locally, this became known as the “illegal catsup complaint”.
The letter was addressed to California Department of Fish and Game, Marin Department of Health Services, State Board of Equalization and Point Reyes National Seashore. Bennett bases his complaint on the one-letter difference in spelling between complimentary (i.e. given for free) and complementary (i.e. adding to something), ignoring the fact that DBOC, by the specific terms of its NPS permit, was legally allowed to sell the produce of the family’s adjoining ranch. (The complaints about the shellfish are dealt with here.) This is just one example of Bennett poring over reams of documents in an attempt to find some supposed glitch in language or definition to cause trouble for the Lunnys.
Bennett’s LinkedIn page shows that he ceased to serve as a Sierra Club chairperson in March 2011. The Sierra Club has declined to made any statements regarding his removal, but Congressman Pete McCloskey, author of the endangered-species act and supporter of the oyster farm, informed the Russian River Times that he had been told by the executive director of the Sierra Club that Bennett had been ‘fired.’
Bennett resurfaced with Neil Desai of NPCA, co-signing an August 16 2011 complaint to the Coastal Commission, in which Bennett signs as President of Save Our Seashore. The letter makes unsubstantiated statements like”…their oyster operations within the Estero are considered unmanageable by many in the public”, and “chronic lateral channel inclusions which can include amongst other things, humans, boats and loud music, which can prevent seals from using what would otherwise be suitable habitat.” These are not ‘facts,’ but allegations, none of which were accurate.
Investigation of Bennett’s involvement leads to reports in the Nation of an amazingly revelatory discussion with Tess Elliot and Kevin Lunny, wherein Bennett candidly admits to lying. The conversation is included in letters to the editor about Elliot’s September 9, 2008 Nation article, entitled “Scientific Integrity Lost in America’s Parks” Here are the key excerpts: “Bennett made several confessions during our post-show chat. (Listen to the KQED program with Senator Feinstein, Gordon Bennett, Tess Elliot and others here) “The park knew it had no evidence when it made those charges,” he said, excusing his own malfeasance of lying to a 50,000-strong audience. He had also claimed that the Point Reyes Wilderness Act mandated the oyster farm’s removal in 2012. “You know the Wilderness Act says nothing about 2012,” I said. Again, Bennett acknowledged misleading listeners. “If you know these claims are false, why don’t you remove them from your website?” I asked. “The other side spreads misinformation, too,” he replied. I shamed Bennett for attaching the Sierra Club’s name to his false claims. He replied that he did so as a buffer against lawsuit.
Bennett’s LinkedIn page also claims that he has been President of Save Our Seashore, which he claims has existed since 1994, yet he has not released any information about to the public about the structure of his organization. Perhaps not coincidentally, Save Our Seashore is the name of an organization formed in 1994 by the late Peter Behr, one of the true founders of Point Reyes National Seashore, who did much in creation of the pastoral zone that protected the ranches and oyster farm and brought them into the park. Here is a 1969 TV interview with Behr regarding the Seashore, and on his views about environmental campaigning.
National Parks Conservation Association’s Neil Desai, is also a key player and founder of the SaveDrakesBay coalition website, since taken down and parked on GoDaddy.com, replaced with yet another site. His participation in the smear campaign was previously documented in the Russian River Times, involving nationally released false statements, doctoring photographs and making allegations that he knew to be misleading. Desai nationally distributed false information to deliberately distort public comments on the NPS EIS, authoring a notice that claimed four species at Drakes Estero, including the harbor seal, were endangered. According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, a sister agency to NPS, none were endangered (or even threatened).
He has worked closely with Amy Trainer, current EAC director who replaced Fred Smith after the start of the anti-Lunny campaign who herself has originated many of the misleading statements, such as this recent patently false claim that the Lunnys are making millions from the oyster company.
That campaign in many ways resembles the worst of the California initiative politics. This is not surprising, given the involvement of Jerry Meral, whose LinkedIn page not only shows his role with EAC, but that he ‘managed’ the former EAC executive director, Fred Smith. It also displays his well-known relationship with other environmental groups, specifically his role as executive director of the Planning and Conservation League (PCL). Meral resigned his position in 2002 after the defeat of Proposition 51. He then became active in local politics and with the EAC, contemporaneous with the start of their campaign against Drakes Estero.
A blunt editorial in the December 5, 2002 Sacramento Bee documents Meral’s methods: finding a cause, assembling a coalition, claiming to be protecting the public’s rights, and logrolling the various factions involved while seeking funding to drive publicity and enact the deal.
The editorial closes: ”Meral always argued that the ends justified his means. But (in the case of Prop. 51) the voters weren’t buying. When the questionable means come to overshadow the ends, maybe it’s time to retire the method, too.”
When journalists fail to ask basic questions before reporting on a story based on press releases from advocacy groups, they do little to inform the public, and contribute greatly to polarization. Journalism is not sticking a microphone in someones face and reading press releases. It is facts, documents and history and informed questions. The job of journalism is to make sure it is not being spun, and to inform, not incite. Tell the public the facts and what you have found out about ‘Who? What? When? Where? Why?’
We are including in the on line version of the article the full text of the Elliot letter in the Nation, and would point out that the article and its letters, including those from then Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope and Dr. Laura Watt of Sonoma State, who wrote her PHD thesis on the working landscapes of Point Reyes, are well worth reading. The editors removed Gordon Bennett’s response to Elliot because of factual errors.
You may read all of the Russian River Times reporting on the estero here.
Nation Web Letter
I once shared a homemade Pugliese tart with Gordon Bennett in a Starbucks in San Francisco. We had been guests on a show on public radio, along with Kevin Lunny of Drakes Bay Oyster Company. Bennett had made several claims that I knew were false. As we exited the sound room, I suggested we keep chatting, and over slices of pastry I had packed in my purse, I asked Bennett how he could lie on air.
Speaking on behalf of the Sierra Club, Bennett alleged that Lunny’s oyster farm was a menace to seals and eelgrass. Each of us knew these claims were debunked in a report by the National Academy of Sciences, which found that the park had misrepresented its own data. There was no evidence supporting the claims that the park and Bennett had levied against Lunny for over two years. The academy report brought to light what many suspected: a campaign to portray the farm as a threat, and justify its closure.
Bennett made several confessions during our post-show chat. “The park knew it had no evidence when it made those charges,” he said, excusing his own malfeasance of lying to a 50,000-strong audience. He had also claimed that the Point Reyes Wilderness Act mandated the oyster farm’s removal in 2012. “You know the Wilderness Act says nothing about 2012,” I said. Again, Bennett acknowledged misleading listeners.
“If you know these claims are false, why don’t you remove them from your website?” I asked. “The other side spreads misinformation, too,” he replied. I shamed Bennett for attaching the Sierra Club’s name to his false claims. He replied that he did so as a buffer against lawsuit. “Why don’t you just tell the truth?” Lunny asked. “Then you won’t get sued.”
Bennett was quiet. I had an epiphany. This man, whose reckless behavior has shaped the Drakes Estero debate, does not hesitate to use the power of his title to mislead the public. For him, the end justifies the means. As he put it to me that day, wilderness is like a church. Bennett pursues his wilderness-church with religious zeal. When I wrote the article for The Nation I expected a response from Bennett–but the angry and libelous tone of his letter alarmed me. It is impossible to rebut the numerous false statements in this space, so I will pick only a few.
On May 5, the National Academy of Sciences announced that a Point Reyes National Seashore report “selectively presented, over-interpreted and misrepresented” studies of the oyster farm’s ecological effects. That day, Jon Jarvis told the press that he thanked the academy for agreeing with his conclusions. What on earth did he mean? The report explicitly dismissed his conclusions. Later I discovered that Jarvis had given the academy a corrected version of the park report, but had neglected to make this version public. The older versions of the report–each containing claims of harm–kept circulating, while the corrected version remained hidden. So Jarvis was pleased that the academy agreed with his secret retractions. But Jarvis did not stop there. “We agree with some conclusions in the academy report, and disagree with others,” he said. Everyone was confused. The academy had dismissed each of the park’s claims, and Jarvis’s only challenge was a tangential point that was not even in the academy’s charter, concerning whether or not native oysters existed in Drakes Estero and therefore influenced its historic baseline ecology. Jarvis said they did not. Yet the waterside shed where Lunny sells his oysters is a stone’s throw from a gigantic midden, a heap of shells left as proof that native peoples enjoyed the estero’s salty bounty.
In his letter, Bennett makes an outlandish reversal, claiming it is the academy–not the park service–that “selectively presented, over-interpreted and misrepresented” evidence. His proof? A two-page explanation written by a man with a math degree from the University of Pennsylvania that is so flawed it is laughable.
Meanwhile, he attacks Goodman, the biologist who uncovered the park service’s misuse of data. Bennett claims Goodman is not a biologist. In fact, Goodman graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Stanford University with a BS in biology, earned his PhD in zoology, with a specialty in neurobiology, from UC Berkeley, and was a tenured professor at both of those schools for twenty-five years. He is a former chair of the life sciences board for the National Academy of Sciences. Each of Goodman’s allegations was borne out by the academy’s report.
Readers must decide whether Bennett’s claims hold water. Readers must decide who is making ad hominem attacks. I have suggested that Jarvis, now approved by the Senate for directorship of the National Park Service, has shown disregard for science. His loyalty to the troops trumps his loyalty to the truth.
Oct 4 2009 – 2:14pm