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The 404 Reports

Summaries of under-reported news, updates on previous Monitor stories

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The awkward business of Israeli spies


Israel, Neo-Con Ties At Core Of New Spy Probe

Israel's Albatross: U.S. Neo-cons

The Albion Monitor is proud to announce the creation of the "Murray" award for exemplary clear thinking in journalism. The award -- created on a whim for the sole purpose of introducing this item -- is named after Murray Kempton, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for Newsday who died a few years back. Kempton had an unerring talent for piercing the fog. Opening at random his last collection of essays, "Rebellions, Perversities, and Main Events," we find this concise 1976 portrait of Reagan: "His friends from Hollywood remember a Ronald Reagan who talked about nothing but politics. Now that he is a governor, he talks more and more about Hollywood. He is that pleasant, distinguished visitor who is doing something else." No finer thumbnail of the man will ever be sketched.

Our first Murray candidate is Terry Neal, whose "Talking Points" column appears on (Note this is different from being a Washington Post print columnist, and the online columnists are not easy to find on their website.) In his May 23 offering, Neal opines thus on the silencing of the press:

A certain and clear pattern has emerged when a damaging accusation or claim against the Bush administration or the Republican-led Congress is publicized: Bush supporters laser in on a weakness, fallacy or inaccuracy in the story's sourcing while diverting all attention from the issue at hand to the source or the accuser in the story.

Often this tactic involves efforts to delegitimize the entire news media based on the mistakes or sloppy reporting of a few. We saw this with the discrediting of CBS's story on irregularities in President Bush's Texas Air National Guard service in the 1970s. Although the CBS "scoop" was based on faked documents, the administration's response and backlash from both conservative and mainstream media essentially relieved Bush of having to deal with the story. In other words, the allegedly "liberal" media dropped the story like a hot rock.


[W]e saw this most recently with the Newsweek debacle, in which the news magazine repeated an accusation that military interrogators had flushed a Koran down a toilet. The Newsweek report was used by militants in Afghanistan to incite violent protests in which 17 people died. The ensuing backlash among conservative critics has included accusations that the report proves that media hate the military, hate the United States, hate George W. Bush and purposefully lied to hurt all of the above.

Neal's entire column is worth reading and closes by debunking the conservative's "liberal media" bleat by noting his own paper ran 415 front page stories about Monicagate in 1998 alone.

The weakness here is only that Neal doesn't go far enough. Yes, the press is easily cowed into silence by the right -- but it also protects itself from criticism by walking tip-toe around certain stories. Near the top of that list is the awkward subject of the Israeli spies.

Laura Bush made a whirlwind tour of the Holy Land last week, stopping by Jerusalem May 22 to visit sites sacred to Jews, Muslims, and Christians. To the apparent surprise of the Americans, she was not entirely welcome. During her visits to the Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock she was heckled. In the mosque a man yelled, "How dare you come in here! Why your husband kill Muslims?" An old woman shouted "Koran, Koran" at her in Arabic. At the Jewish site, and later at a tea with the wife of Israel's president, she was confronted by dozens of right-wing Zionist activists chanting "Free Pollard now" in organized sign-waving protests. "Pollard" is Jonathan Pollard, a former analyst for the U.S. Navy who was sentenced in 1987 to life imprisonment for selling American military secrets to Israel.

Before tackling all things Pollard, it's worth looking at U.S. press coverage of the heckling. Americans were far more likely to learn about the Muslim confrontations; virtually all news sources used one of the angry-Muslim quotes, and some shorter accounts (including a version sent over AP) didn't mention the Israeli hecklers at all. Israeli police locked arms to protect Mrs. Bush at both the Western Wall and the mosque, but the Muslim crowd was more often portrayed as threatening. At the mosque, CNN reported, Bush was "surrounded" by "angry Muslim protesters" as police "forced a pathway for the first lady's entourage through the crowd." CNN also reported, "A boy made his way up to the first lady, and one guard momentarily pointed his gun at the boy, who ran away." The protesters at the Jewish site were more likely to be described politely. According to the Chicago Tribune/ Knight-Ridder version, it was downright festive: "a few dozen rightist Israelis held up pictures of Jonathan Pollard, an American Jew serving a life sentence in a U.S. prison for spying for Israel. 'Free Pollard Now,' they sang." Credit where due: AP reporter Nedra Pickler and the Washington Post's Jim Vandehei wrote fair and balanced accounts, with extra Brownie Points to the Post for noting that most of the crowd at the mosque was actually Israeli media, who "rattled the first lady's staff by pushing and shoving." Maybe the boy threatened by the Secret Service agent was a cub reporter for Kibbutz Life.

So what of Pollard? With the exception of CNN -- which obliquely described him as "an American imprisoned for passing security information to Israel" -- all accounts included a terse mention that he is a convicted spy or traitor and left it at that. Nowhere can be found even an additional sentence or paragraph explaining why his supporters are agitating for his release at this time.

But in the Israeli press, Pollard is big news. He currently has an appeal to Israel's Supreme Court asking that he be recognized as a "Prisoner of Zion" for alleged abuses in the U.S. prison system. This would require Israel to do everything in its power to seek his release.

Pollard's charges make the torture at Abu Ghraib seem like merry fun. In his appeal, Pollard says he was chained to an iron chair as guards sprayed him with ice water. "He could not sustain the pressure of the ice water tossed at his face with enormous force. "The water was so cold, so that they burnt his whole body. This abuse had taken away his will to survive," the appeal reads. He also claims he was beaten, zapped with cattle prods, "thrown into an unheated dungeon cell" during winter without clothes or bedding, and spent over a year naked in solitary confinement at a prison for the criminally insane. Pollard is currently in a North Carolina federal prison.

Even without "Prisoner of Zion" status, Israel has tried to spring him several times, most famously during the 1998 Wye River Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, when President Clinton reportedly agreed to release Pollard. True or no, the U.S. intelligence community believed the president wanted a peace deal with Israel badly enough to do it, and leaked details of the Pollard case became public for the first time to checkmate Clinton.

Pollard, who had high security clearance with the Navy's Threat Analysis Division was a Major Spy; his life sentence was only a government plea bargain to keep the full details of his espionage from coming out at a trial. For 17 months he stole piles of secret documents, sometimes so many that he needed a handtruck to haul them to his car. His Israeli handlers had to rent a Washington apartment and install a special high-speed photocopier to keep up with it all.

Jonathan Pollard's defenders argue that his sentence was harsh because he was spying on behalf of America's close ally, and not a hostile foreign power. But as Seymour Hersh pointed out in a must-read January 18, 1999 New Yorker article, the U.S. believed Pollard was really an ersatz Soviet agent:

A number of officials strongly suspect that the Israelis repackaged much of Pollard's material and provided it to the Soviet Union in exchange for continued Soviet permission for Jews to emigrate to Israel. Other officials go further, and say there was reason to believe that secret information was exchanged for Jews working in highly sensitive positions in the Soviet Union. A significant percentage of Pollard's documents, including some that described the techniques the American Navy used to track Soviet submarines around the world, was of practical importance only to the Soviet Union. One longtime CIA officer who worked as a station chief in the Middle East said he understood that "certain elements in the Israeli military had used it" -- Pollard's material -- "to trade for people they wanted to get out," including Jewish scientists working in missile technology and on nuclear issues. Pollard's spying came at a time when the Israeli government was publicly committed to the free flow of Jewish emigres from the Soviet Union. The officials stressed the fact that they had no hard evidence -- no "smoking gun," in the form of a document from an Israeli or a Soviet archive -- to demonstrate the link between Pollard, Israel, and the Soviet Union, but they also said that the documents that Pollard had been directed by his Israeli handlers to betray led them to no other conclusion.

Along with the "Prisoner of Zion" news, the U.S. press also mostly ignored Pollard's first-ever visit by an Israeli ambassador earlier this month. Only the Washington Times sought White House comment: "No change. He is serving his sentence for spying," Scott McClellan said.

If l'Affair Pollard seems like ancient history, consider the case of Larry Franklin, who was arrested May 4th for passing top secret information to employees at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), including a draft on U.S. policy towards Iran. Franklin -- who worked for undersecretary of defense Douglas Feith -- was formally charged with passing classified military information, but not espionage. An FBI search of his home turned up 83 classified documents. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported May 29 that a Virginia grand jury is expected to indict his two contacts within AIPAC.

But like the Pollard story, news of Franklin's case is mostly covered outside the U.S. His arrest properly popped up on several American front pages the next day, but wasn't mentioned at all during the heavy coverage of the AIPAC convention in Washington three weeks later, when Ariel Sharon rubbed shoulders with our country's top political leaders.

One featured speaker at the gathering was House Minority Leader Pelosi, who ended her remarks with a flourish: "The United States will stand with Israel now and forever. Now and forever." She did not mention Israel's human rights violations of Palestinians, Sharon's apartheid wall that has crushed Palestinian society, or the suspicion of espionage against her own country that loomed over the very organization she was addressing. Pelosi didn't look at the messy truths of modern Israel, but instead gazed dreamily backwards to the romantic ideal of the plucky little nation fighting to survive in the wake of WWII. Many Americans share this myopic view, in large part because the U.S. press self-censors on topics such as the existence of Israeli spies.

Part of the reason is because the U.S. press long ago conceded coverage of all that smacks of "foreign" news to the handful of big newspapers, news magazines, and CNN, so the news hole for stories about other countries is always the smallest. Another cause may be that the story casts our ally in a bad light and there's fear of a reader or viewer backlash, or even boycott; the wingnut right of America claims Sharon's Israel as kinfolk and have rushed to Franklin's defense, even claiming it a victory that he was not formally charged with espionage ("Mr. Franklin [is] sloppy and careless, not as a spy," the Washington Times wrote in the only U.S. newspaper editorial to appear this month on his case).

But the main cause may simply lie with the "Passive Press," bemoaned in our MONITOR 2004 bad journalism awards. The Passive Press doesn't see explaining things is part of its job, so it's enough to describe Pollard as a guy who's in jail for selling secrets to Israel and leave it at that. Hey, if somebody wants to know more, they can always look it up on the web, or something.   (May 30, 2005)

Why Does The Press Ignore Whistleblowers?


Whistleblowers Demand End To Retaliation

Whistleblowers Sue U.S. Over Firings

Hundreds of Whistleblower Cases Thrown Out

Silencing The Whistleblowers

Bush, Blair To Whistleblowers: We Will Destroy You (2003)

Writing last week about letters to the ed, one category was overlooked: the Plea For Help. Mostly these come from those who found a Monitor article via a web search. Google presents our 1996 article about the Indian Trust Fund as #2 on a list of over two million, which results in a steady stream of letters asking when the government will pay up ($20+ billion is owed to hundreds of thousands descendants of the original Native land owners). Questions also regularly come from parents wondering if they can file a lawsuit over their child's brain damage from the DPT vaccine.

Saddest of all are the bulk mail appeals from victims of injustice or other great tragedy. Shotgun- mailed to every media address in the universe, these poor folks clutch desperately to the dream that someone will be moved by their plight to champion their cause and right their wrongs. Like Tillie Wiecek, the mom in "Call Northside 777" who knows her Frankie was wrongly convicted of murder, they have an underlying faith that an intrepid reporter can be their paladin. Bless 'em for still having that hope.

Whistleblowers likewise seek the media's help to obtain justice. These noble souls are usually risking everything and abandoning lifelong careers in order to expose wrongdoings for the greater good of society, and depend on a bright media spotlight to both ensure reforms and to provide some measure of protection against retribution. It's a misplaced trust; the media usually ignores whistleblowers, or treats them with suspicion -- if not naked contempt.

The poster child of abused whistleblowers is former UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter, who warned before the Iraq invasion that Bush was cherry-picking intelligence about Saddam's WMD capabilities to make him look dangerous. For this he was denounced as a traitor, or worse. CNN attacked Ritter in September of 2002 as a misguided, disloyal, "apologist for and a defender of Saddam Hussein;" Fox stopped just short of calling for tar and feathers.

Another case is Sibel Edmonds, the FBI translator who lost her job in 2002 after she charged that the Bureau's translation office was doing sloppy work and dragging its feet -- as well as being infiltrated by individuals with ties to terrorist groups. She challenged her firing in federal court, but last July, outgoing Attorney General Ashcroft invoked the rarely-used "state secrets privilege" to force the suit to be dismissed. On May 6, the Appeals Court upheld the dismissal in an unprecedented secret hearing -- Edmonds and her lawyers were even barred from the courtroom as the government presented its case. But aside from a segment on "60 Minutes" outlining her allegations against the FBI, media coverage of her alarming story has been dismal. Much attention was given to the Court of Appeals decision to close hearings to the public, but their ruling on her case merited no national press coverage except for a page-12 item in the Saturday NY Times late edition. (There's much more to Edmond's legal fight; Ashcroft even invoked "state secrets privilege" a second time, forcing two ranking senators to remove mention of her from their Congressional web pages. Read more in her own account of the battle.)

Still, Edmonds and Ritter are the lucky ones; most whisteblowers get little or no U.S. press coverage. Dr. Lester Friedlander, a former USDA veterinarian, maintains that the Agriculture Dept. is covering up cases of mad cow disease out of fear that disclosure would destroy the cattle industry (the USDA maintains only a single infected cow has ever been found). Friedlander says a USDA official warned him in 1991 to keep quiet if he ever came across an incident, and that other inspectors told him private labs have found cows that were declared safe by the feds were actually infected. Friedlander is a credible source; he was chief meat inspector at the largest hamburger processing plant in the country, and last month testified before the Canadian Parliament agriculture committee. But it's doubtful Americans have heard of Friedlander's charges, since only a handful of short articles have appeared in the last year, and those just on the small-circulation UPI wire. In Canada, however, over 40 newspaper articles mentioned Friedlander in April alone.

Whistleblowers have been coming forward in record numbers since 9/11, and last year Bush appointee Scott Bloch was sworn in as Special Counsel, entrusted with prosecuting whistleblower complaints and protecting them from reprisal. In his first year, Bloch threw out more than 1,000 cases -- and then congratulated himself for reducing the backlog. To make it easier to dismiss cases, Bloch created a new rule that prevented anyone on his staff from evaluating complaints with incomplete paperwork. When staff members complained, he threatened to transfer them to distant branch offices, then issued a blanket gag order on all employees preventing them from even speaking to members of congress without his permission. Bloch's greatest accomplishment to date is charging two Social Security Administration employees with violating the Hatch Act (which prohibits federal workers from engaging in political activity while on duty) for sending out a couple of dozen "Why I am supporting John Kerry" e-mails. A judge threw out the case.

Facing such outright hostility from the Bush Administration, 50 current and former employees of U.S. national security agencies appeared before Congress earlier this month to demand protections. The group, led by Sibel Edmonds, pointed out that workers at these agencies are specifically excluded from the protections afforded the rest of the federal workforce. And as if on cue, one of the group that testified was fired a week later. Russ Tice, who had an exemplary 20- year career in the intelligence service, was told his security clearances had been revoked and he could no longer work at the NSA. Tice had told superiors that he believed a co-worker was a Chinese spy.

There's no end to the stream of whistleblowers with newsworthy stories. Why don't we hear about Tice, Friedlander, and the rest? Where was the coverage of Edmond's (non) day in court? It's glib to blame the media's obsession with runaway brides and Wacko Jacko, but there's more to it than that.

Blame instead our old nemesis, the "Passive Press," which was the theme of the MONITOR 2004 bad journalism awards. The Passive Press prefers stories to be handed to them -- neatly wrapped gifts. The Passive Press likes stories that can be encapsulated into 1,000 words or three broadcast minutes. The Passive Press picks stories that can be wrapped up before the newsroom shuts down and everyone goes home at six. Whistleblower stories are none of these things.

Whistleblower stories are usually involved and messy; could the person be just a disgruntled crank? Vetting might require long research that won't even appear in the final article. Whistleblower stories are usually complex; explaining the background of Sibel Edmonds' case could be longer than a synopsis of the Star Wars movies. Whistleblower stories carry high risk of being stonewalled to death; asking the Bush gang for evidence of their own wrongdoing is the very definition of a quixotic task. In sum, whistleblower stories are the kind that mainstream editors and reporters cross the street to avoid.

In "Call Northside 777," viewers remember the heroic investigative reporter who risks his reputation to spring innocent Frankie Wiecek from prison. More accurate are scenes near the start of the film, when the same reporter whines that it all sounds like too much work, and anyway, he'd rather be chasing fire trucks.   (May 22, 2005)

Anatomy of an Astroturf


The Lost Art of Screed

Fake Letter From Soldier In Iraq Was Desperate PR Move (2003)

Millions Funnelled to Bush Via Phony Grassroots Groups (2000)

MicroSoftball Journalism (2000)

Anti-Global Warming Disinformation Campaign (1998)

Power Companies Use Sham "Grassroot" Groups In Push For Deregulation (1998)

FIGHT the LIES of the Liberal Media!

Dear Albion Monitor:

I just read that the Washington Post and ABC News released a new "poll" claiming that "by a 2 to 1 ratio, the public rejected easing Senate rules in a way that would make it harder for Democratic senators to prevent final action on Bush's nominees." The headline read, "Filibuster Rule Change Opposed"!

Well, that sure sounds convincing... until you look at WHO they polled, and WHAT they asked!

When you move past the erroneous headline and dig into the full poll results, you find that they asked mostly Democrats; they asked misleading, anti-Republican questions; and they didn't even MENTION the word "filibuster". This "poll" was RIGGED from the beginning.

Thankfully, there HAS been a truly scientific survey done to determine Americans' feelings on the issue of breaking the Democrats' unconstitutional judicial filibusters.

A national survey of 800 registered voters conducted by respected polling firm Ayres, McHenry & Associates reveals that 82% of voters agree that qualified candidates for our nation's highest courts deserve an up-or-down vote in the in the US Senate.

The "filibuster rule change" is NOT "opposed" -- it's SUPPORTED by an overwhelming majority of Americans!

How about reporting the FACTS on this issue?

Letters. Oh, lordy, do we get letters. After all the spam is sifted out and press releases tossed (does anyone actually read those things?) about one-third of the bulging mailbag come from students seeking help with schoolwork. Most are answered -- except for outright appeals to write their term papers -- but as the end of semesters near, the tone often become frantic and breathless: "I would really appreciate it if you could tell me exactly what countries have sweatshops. If you do not have a list, do you know of another sight [sic] or even a keyword I could look up in a search engine?"

Then there's correspondence from those with Internet access at the asylum, their poor brains crammed with every precise detail about The Conspiracy, and the spew from those who endlessly find inventive ways to write, "You suck." (If Hallmark were to develop a line of greeting card threats, these people would not lack for work.) Under it all is a steady flow of "astroturf" mail -- phony messages from special-interest groups intended to look like the message was a personally written letter.

There's nothing new about the basic trick; letter-writing campaigns are probably as old as newspapers, and a simple way to (try to) manufacture consent. As the Internet grew up in the late 1990s, lobbyists, special interests, and activists found it was an easy, inexpensive way to blast out the same message to hundreds, even thousands, of media sources. But it's a constant game of cat and mouse; no editor will knowingly touch a bulk-mailed letter, much less one that's really sneaky propaganda from a political or industry group.

While the quantity of astroturf e-mail had been growing for years, it didn't get much attention until January, 2003, when analysts documented that small-town papers across the country were being snookered into printing canned pro-Bush letters. (LINK) The source was, a web site operated by the Republican National Committee which urged visitors to click on a button to send the boilerplate messages under their own name. Participants were awarded "GOPoints" that could be traded in for mouse pads, t-shirts, and other junk.

Astroturf mail hit a new high-tide mark in the months leading up to the 2004 election, and has shown no sign of ebbing since. Much of it is shouting on behalf of the wingnut cause d'jour: Terri Schiavo's feeding tube, keeping Christ in Christmas, or urging Senate Republicians to "go nuclear" and kill the filibuster rule so Bush can pack the courts with idealogues.

A letter now making the rounds is shown to the right; about a dozen newspapers have been bamboozled into running it so far. This one comes from, which states its goal as, "to counter the well-financed antics of radical left-wing groups like, by appealing to the grassroots 'silent majority' to take action." Behind the web site is William Greene, who runs a company called Strategic Internet Campaign Management -- or, "sic 'em" for short. (For more on Greene's background as a conservative fund-raiser and activist, read Bill Berkowitz' excellent piece, "Deathbed Dollars," courtesy Media Transparency.)

Besides the ODD capitalization that makes it sound as if the writer was randomly being JABBED with a STICK, this particular letter makes several claims that merit debunking. First is the charge that the Post/ABC poll was "rigged" because it included more Dems than Repubs; there are more Democrats in the country, according to the National Annenberg Election Survey and Pew Research Center, among others. Thus any survey that doesn't show Republicans in the minority is suspect.

Comparing questions in the two polls is also apples 'n' oranges. The Post/ABC poll asked, "Would you support or oppose changing Senate rules to make it easier for the Republicans to confirm Bush's judicial nominees?" (66 percent were opposed.) The other survey asked if they believed, "If a nominee for any federal judgeship is well- qualified, he or she deserves an up or down vote on the floor of the Senate." (82 percent agreed.) Note that neither poll question mentioned the word "filibuster."

The quality of the second poll also invites scrutiny. Conducted by a company led by GOP strategist Whitfield "Whit" Ayres, and whose political client list includes the Republican National Committee plus a who's who of Congressional southern Republicans, the poll had more Repubs than Dems in the sample (see above), used a sample 20 percent smaller than the Post/ABC poll, and contained several loopy wild-card questions, such as asking if child pornography should be recognized as a form of free speech.

The "Action Alerts" section -- which is inactive, as of this writing -- promises supporters it will only take a moment of their time to spread the misrepresentations and misinformation:

TAKE ACTION: is using this fake "poll" to push their agenda in support of the Democrats' unconstitutional judicial filibuster. The liberal mainstream media is refusing to publish the results of the TRULY scientific poll on this issue -- so we need to FORCE them to report it. And it will only take you a minute or two to do it.

We've set up our site so that you can send messages to YOUR local media -- newspapers, television, radio, etc. -- DEMANDING that they report on the results of the SCIENTIFIC polling that shows that the majority of Americans do in fact agree that every judicial nominee with majority support deserves an up or down vote on the floor of the Senate.

You can only send to five local media sources at a time, but feel free to use our pre-written form repeatedly to FORCE the media to DO THEIR JOBS and report the FACTS. Click "Go!" above NOW to send your messages (we recommend you re-write the letter in your own words, to have a better chance of getting it published)!

And sure enough, enter any California zip code and the Albion Monitor comes up as number five on a list of 381 media sources in the state. Type in your name, address, and phone number (so you can lie to any screener who calls to verify you really authored the letter) then click checkboxes to pick your targets. It's so easy that a six year-old can probably voice his or her pre-school opinion on Senate rules.

The phony mail problem isn't confined to letters to the ed. Last year FCC Chairman Michael Powell made much stink over skyrocketing complaints about indecency on TV -- 240,000 complaints in 2003, up from a mere 350 in 2001. But Mediaweek found that nearly all the complaints (99.8 percent) were filed by the conservative Parents Television Council. In the group's annual report that year, founder L. Brent Bozell III boasted of having developed "cutting-edge technology to make it easier for members to contact program sponsors, the FCC, or the networks directly with a simple click of the button." The result, Bozell wrote, was "a more than 2,400 percent increase in online activism." Ain't the Internets swell?   (May 15, 2005)

Pepper Spray trial victory


Pepper Spray Activists Win Major Court Victory (2000)

Pepper Spray on Demonstrators OK'd by Judge, New Police Guidelines (1998)

Pepper Spray Trial Ends In Hung Jury (1998)

"A Little Pepper Spray In The Face Area" (1997)

Justice's wheels grind with frustrating slowness, even when there's a bright line between right and wrong. It took five years for French courts to absolve Alfred Dreyfus of treason at the end of the 19th century, and it took seven years (plus three trials) for an American jury to tell cops that no, you can't torture non-violent protesters who resist arrest.

A San Francisco jury unanimously decided April 28 that California's Humboldt County and City of Eureka violated the 4th Amendment to the Constitution when sheriff's deputies and police sprayed and rubbed pepper spray directly into the eyes of eight shackled activists during 1997 logging protests. The case became best known because of the police-made videotape showing the officers methodically swabbing the burning fluid directly to the eyeballs of screaming protesters with Q-tips.

For those unfamiliar with the story, good background on the case can be found here and in other MONITOR articles listed at right. The first trial in 1998 ended with a hung jury, and the judge tried to cancel a retrial, ruling "as a matter of law" that no reasonable jury could find that the deputies had used excessive force. The activists won rights to a new trial on appeal to the 9th Circuit and later, to the Supreme Court. A 2004 jury deadlocked 6-2 in favor of the protesters.

It was an important courtroom victory. Police -- and increasingly, civilians -- are reaching for pepper spray more and more, often indiscriminately (more about that later). An industry expert at the trial conceded that over 100 deaths have been associated with use of the chemical agent. "It's incredible," Noel Tendick, one of the eight plaintiffs in the case told the Eureka Reporter. "The great thing is that they can't do this to people again. I think they made a bad decision and needed to be held accountable."

But if you read any coverage of the verdict that appeared in the mainstream press, it was the victory that wasn't. The single AP article, picked up by about 20 newspapers and broadcasters nationwide, leaned hard on the angle that the jury awarded the plaintiff's only symbolic damages of $1 each. The Santa Rosa Press Democrat, the largest daily north of San Francisco, blurred the picture further by calling it a "split verdict" due to the small award and because the jury didn't hold the individual officers liable. And coverage by the California-only Media News Group chain of small dailies said the verdict was "claimed as a moral victory by plaintiffs" but the token award was really a win for the County, because it probably wouldn't have to now pay the other side's legal fees. (You can find all reporting including trial coverage at the activist's web site.)

Whether the roots were bias or ignorance, all were examples of pitiable journalism. Money really wasn't the issue; famed attorney Tony Serra was donating his services, and the activist's had twice offered to settle, in 2003 and 1998. What they really wanted was for law enforcement to agree to stop harassing and mistreating non-violent protesters. Nowhere were these important aspects mentioned.

Further ignored was the remarkable hubris of the lawyers and back-country bureaucrats who risked bankrupting their community over this. In those seven years, was there no soul-searching in Humbolt County over their defense of morally reprehensible police brutality against minors? Apparently not. In a wrap-up column last week, Judy Hodgson, publisher of the North Coast Journal Weekly, writes that the county's outside lead attorney, Nancy Delaney, marshalled their forces to stand firm:

All those years she was reassuring the supervisors they had a good case... Delaney advised the supervisors to fight, to stonewall, to file every motion, every appeal up to the Supreme Court in the pepper spray case -- to do whatever they had to do short of admitting a mistake was made and promising never to do it again.

The shoddy coverage of the trial saddens also because this country needs to have a serious dialogue about indiscriminate use of pepper spray by police. In just the week following the verdict, incidents nationwide showed widespread abuse of the chemical agent. Three days later, Boston made a $5 million wrongful-death settlement with the family of a college student killed by police who fired pepper spray pellets on a crowd of Red Sox fans last fall; authorities in East Lansing, Michigan opened an investigation of an April incident where police aggravated a rowdy crowd after a basketball game by attacking them with tear gas and pepper spray; and Washington D.C. Metro Transit Police sprayed a crowd of fighting girls, dousing several bystanders on a crowded subway platform. The Nexis database also reveals numerous incidents during that 7-day period of law enforcement officers using pepper spray to routinely subdue suspects or prisoners.

And increasingly, civilians are reaching for pepper spray canisters to vent anger in incidents that range from the bizarre to tragic. Also in this last week a man in upstate New York was charged with attacking an ATM machine that ate his card, pepper spraying the device as well as kicking and beating it with a crowbar. A few days later, police charged a woman with dousing a 2-month-old baby with pepper spray during a feud that broke out between two families at an Idaho Wal-Mart.   (May 7, 2005)

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