A Pulitzer Prize for Advocacy Journalism?

By Joseph Farah, 1993

Last year the Sacramento Bee won journalism’s highest honor, a Pulitzer Prize for an exhaustive, five-part series on environmental problems in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, which, it is claimed, were caused by logging. A closer look at the actual facts, however, shows manipulation of figures, and omission of facts, which has many journalists and foresters fuming.

In conducting eight months of research and some 200 interviews for a 1992 Pulitzer Prize-winning five-part series heralded as “a clarion call to stop the insidious destruction of the Sierra Nevada mountain range,” the Sacramento Bee chose not to talk to a single forest industry source.

Though it has been almost a year since the Pulitzer board awarded journalism’s highest honor to the powerful capital city newspaper, industry representatives are still fuming about what they view as the series’ one-sidedness and outright deceit.

Encouraged by recent apologies for ethical lapses by NBC News and USA Today, California Forestry Association leaders are hoping that their complaints—summarily dismissed by top Bee news executives after the 1991 series was published – will get serious scrutiny by an introspective media.

Among other specific charges levied against the Bee series written by reporter Tom Knudsen are:

* A prominent, four-column photo used to kick off the series on page one was highly misleading and deceptively captioned. The photograph showed a badly eroded piece of land in Plumas County while the captions in different editions of the paper attributed the scarring to either a “clear-cutting” or “intensive logging.” In Fact, say several foresters intimately familiar with the area, it was a 1987 fire and subsequent rainstorm — not logging –that devastated the site. “What they say happened, simply didn’t happen that way at all,” says Lloyd Britton, the area’s retired forest supervisor.

* The 19th-century law created the national forest service system was misquoted in a way that, in the context of complaints about the series’ pro-environmental bias, raises the suspicion that the Bee deliberately revised the words of the statute. As quoted in the Bee without ellipses, the Organic Act of 1897 reads: “No national forest shall be established, except to improve and protect the forest or for the purpose of securing favorable conditions of water flows.”

The actual excerpt from the law reads: “No national forest shall be established, except to improve and protect the forest within the boundaries, or for the purpose of securing favorable conditions of water flows, and to furnish a continuous supply of timber for the use and necessities of the citizens of the united States.” (Italics added to show words deleted by the Bee without any indication of abridgement.)

* The paper manipulated statistics to make environmental problems in the Sierra Nevada seem like a crisis. For instance, the Bee series stated that the number of trees cut on public land is growing, choosing 1980 as a starting point and 1989 as the end. Critics of the series point out that in the early 1980’s the nation was in a deep recession and grew out of it through the rest of the decade. In fact, the high point for timber harvests was 1968, and, adjusting for some market fluctuation, there has been a general downward trend since. The Bee also neglected to mention that much of the harvesting done in recent years is inflated by salvage operations of dead trees that would simply be left to rot if they were not cut.

* Readers may have been misled into thinking that giant sequoias have been harvested for timber in recent years by the following statements: “In the 1980’s, some of the world’s last unprotected sequoia groves were toppled by logging crews and sent to a sawmill– under a policy created by the Sequoia National Forest.” In fact, the limited logging that takes place in those groves is young trees–mostly fir land pine –and designed specifically to permit sequoia seedlings to get the sunlight they need to grow and thrive.

“It was a preconceived hatchet job with little or no basis in fact and very selective reporting,” said Dick Pland, vice president of timber operations for Fiberboard Wood Products in Standard Calif. “It tells me you can’t believe anything you read.”

Sacramento Bee Executive Editor Greg Favre declined to discuss specific criticisms of the series, but said the paper stands behind the work.

“I think it was a balanced, fair, accurate picture of what was going on in the Sierra’s,” he said. “Tom Knudson is a thoroughly professional reporter and journalist with the highest integrity. That’s all I really care to say about this.”

Knudson, who is on sabbatical from the Bee and teaching out of state, was unavailable for comment.

Written and published by Joseph Farah, a freelance journalist, in Dispatches a national newsletter.

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