Albion Monitor

Editor's Note: This guest editorial, written by Monitor reporter Nicholas Wilson, raises important questions about the ethics of journalism and bias at the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. The Albion Monitor stands behind Wilson in making these serious charges.

In previous editorials I've explored stories that this New York Times-owned newspaper has ignored, such as federal investigation of the Columbia/HCA hospital chain. This case is far different. Wilson believes that the Press Democrat will have a large measure of guilt if defendant "Bear" Lincoln is harmed following the trial. I agree. In the aftermath of the death of Princess Diana, both the public and community of professional journalists have heatedly debated irresponsible acts by the media. I'll submit that this is another kind of shameful misbehavior.

I welcome your comments on this: If you live in Northern California, what do you think of the Press Democrat's lopsided coverage? Send me a letter to the editor.

-- Jeff Elliott, Editor Albion Monitor

It's time for the Santa Rosa Press Democrat to take responsibility for its continual biased coverage of the Bear Lincoln case, before it results in violence, and maybe even the death of an innocent man.

It's a volatile situation in Mendocino County now. Although Lincoln's supporters hope for (and expect) an acquittal, they fear that the Press Democrat's steady drumbeat of pro-prosecution reporting will result in a misguided attempt at vigilante frontier "justice" against the Wailaki Indian man. One radio show caller recently called the newspaper's coverage a "media lynching" that could lead to a real lynching.

Anyone relying only on the Press Democrat's coverage would be shocked at an acquittal, feeling that there had been a miscarriage of justice and that a "cop-killer" had gotten away with murder. They would grumble that Lincoln got off only because he had a slick lawyer, like O.J. Simpson. Or only because crucial facts were hidden from the jury, or because the judge was a liberal (he isn't). They would be unaware of evidence of Lincoln's innocence because the evidence simply didn't appear in the Press Democrat's pages. All of this might be enough for someone to justify taking the law into their own hands and attacking Lincoln.

Impossible? Don't bet on it. After all, as recently as the 1960s there were stores and eating places in Ukiah that would not serve Indians. The wild west still haunts -- this was a county where some of the worst 19th century genocide was perpetrated against the native people by white settlers who murdered, enslaved, starved, raped, and infected them, then stole from them their land, culture and wealth. A bounty was paid for Indian scalps here as recently as the first decade of this century.

The Press Democrat reports covering the past two and a half years reveal an apparent assumption of Lincoln's guilt. Since the trial began July 29, the consistently pro-prosecution bias has stood it apart from all other local and regional news media. Unfortunately, it also is the largest circulation daily in the region, with home delivery throughout Mendocino County.

Let me be clear: this isn't a simplistic alternative vs. mainstream press mudfight. The conservative Ukiah Daily Journal has received very good marks for reporter Dan McKee's accurate reporting of the Lincoln case. And I don't mean to imply that the Press Democrat's coverage is totally fact-free; reporter Mary Callahan covered the trial briefly and turned in stories that seemed objective and unbiased. But my opinion -- which is shared by many in Mendocino County -- is that the Press Democrat's coverage has been desperately and continually slanted.

What bias has the Press Democrat shown? Most obvious is the use of baited language -- such as leading almost every story by branding Lincoln an "accused cop-killer." More subtle examples abound. On September 9, the newspaper reported that Lincoln was "unaware a bullet from his gun might have killed Davis." But Lincoln actually testified, "I don't believe it was my bullet that killed Officer Davis." Do you see the difference? It's not just splitting hairs.

Repeatedly the newspaper has neglected to mention courtroom evidence that supports Lincoln's innocence. It has told readers about older, unsworn statements that favor the prosecution while omitting trial testimony given under oath that repudiates those same statements (many of which were hearsay). In sometimes bizarre examples, the P-D has locked onto minor details in witness testimony while ignoring weighty points that belie the District Attorney's case. Ignored has been cross-examination that challenged prosecution witnesses' credibility.

A less apparent (but more insidious) form of bias is selective reporting -- leaving out facts that don't fit the writer and/or the editor's opinions. A textbook example is the Press Democrat coverage of the bloody trail.

The existence of a blood spot trail from the shooting scene to near Lincoln's cabin a quarter-mile away was first revealed July 29 in opening statements by defense attorney J. Tony Serra. He said expert testimony would show the blood may have come from slain deputy sheriff Bob Davis. The Press Democrat story on the opening statements didn't mention the blood trail. In cross-examination August 4, Deputy Dennis Miller testified he recently learned of the DNA lab report showing the blood may belong to Davis. The Press Democrat again failed to mention it.

A couple of days later, evidence specialist Detective Paul Lozada testified he had collected samples from a trail of suspected blood spots. Now the P-D reporter finally grabbed the ball -- but ran the wrong way with it. The August 7 Press Democrat played the "Trail of Blood" story for maximum sensational value, including a banner across the top of the front page. The story itself topped Page One of the local news section under the headline "Lincoln Blood Trail Detailed."

Yes, it deserved to be the lead story -- but not the way the Press Democrat misreported it. The newspaper claimed that "experts later in the trial are expected to confirm (the blood trail) matches Lincoln's blood type. It also suggests a reason why a possibly injured Lincoln went into hiding for four months before surrendering to authorities."

This was exactly the opposite of the real courtroom events. Press Democrat readers couldn't know that nothing was said about the blood matching Lincoln's. What's worse, the readers received not even a hint that the blood likely belonged to Davis, even though that fact had come out twice before in court.

What difference would it make if the blood trail was matched to Lincoln? When he turned himself in to authorities August 16, 1995, he said he was at the scene when his friend Leonard Peters was ambushed and killed, so a match of the blood trail to Lincoln to prove he was at the scene is redundant. If the events unfolded according to the scenario told by deputy Miller, it would be no surprise if Lincoln had been wounded and bled on his way down the road.

But a blood match to Davis is a bombshell which puts the lie to Miller's testimony and bolsters the defense theory that the two deputies (or Davis, at least) chased Bear Lincoln down the road because he was a witness to their wrongful ambush killing of Leonard Peters. In Miller's version of events, there is no time when Davis could have run down the road a quarter-mile and then back to the hilltop, where he died instantly from a gunshot to the head. Miller said there was only about a five second interval after the first gunfire when Davis was out of his sight, and there was only a one second interval when Miller said he later fell off the road, rolled, and came back up. An autopsy photo shows a graze wound across the back of Davis' hand deep enough to expose the finger tendons. The coroner said the hand wound would likely have bled if Davis had moved about actively.

Amazingly, the Press Democrat reporter ignored this part of the testimony.

Instead, the newspaper printed speculation that later testimony would show the blood was Lincoln's -- a claim that was never made in court. Prosecution witness Dr. Martin Fackler, M.D., later said he had examined Bear Lincoln's entire body for bullet wounds and found none. He found no other fresh wounds that could have been the source of the blood trail. The prosecution rested, with no claim linking the blood trail to anyone, and no sign that the prosecutor made any effort to find out whose blood it was. Perhaps they didn't want to know.

The defense called witness Joyce Pardo, a criminalist from the California Department of Justice DNA lab, who testified the blood could not have come from Lincoln, Leonard Peters, Arylis Peters, or deputy Miller. She said the blood matched Davis' on the two genetic markers she evaluated. But the next day, this expert's testimony was not mentioned in the Press Democrat.

Finally, a day later, the Press Democrat reported the DNA link to Davis, but clung desperately to the hope that it was not so, writing, "Left unexplained to jurors is why the other three blood samples found along the trail weren't tested to determine whose blood types they might match."

Let's add it up: first the newspaper ignored the blood evidence twice when it was said to be tied to Davis. Then it breathlessly published groundless speculation that it would be tied to Lincoln. Faced with expert testimony directly linking it to Davis, the writer first delayed reporting it, then caved in -- but still grasped at a straw by raising doubt about why the DNA test wasn't done on all four samples taken from the single trail of blood spots.

Now remember, tens of thousands of readers don't know that all this information is being suppressed. Unless they have another source reporting on the same story -- such as the Monitor, the AVA, or the Ukiah Daily Journal, the Press Democrat stands as the "journal of record."

Another example of bias is misrepresentation of defense arguments. In an August 29 article, the Press Democrat wrote, "Defense attorneys claim Lincoln killed Davis in a 'moment of passion' after watching Peters gunned down by Davis and fellow deputy Dennis Miller." This is not even close to the defense position. (If it were, that would be conceding he is guilty of manslaughter.)

The Press Democrat took a defense motion completely out of context. The real defense position is that Lincoln fired blindly into the darkness in self-defense when he and Peters were fired on from ambush, and a few minutes later he fired one more shot in self-defense as he was again fired upon by unidentified people in the dark.

In an article and a Sunday editorial a couple of months ago, the Press Democrat misconstrued the defense's expected use of what it labeled "the cultural defense," in which historians tell the story of the horrible genocide perpetrated on the native inhabitants of this area by the white settlers of the last century and the continued mistreatment, attempts to wipe out their culture, and racial discrimination that continues today.

The purpose of the testimony was to show Lincoln could reasonably believe he couldn't expect fair treatment and would be shot on sight if he tried to surrender, even though he knew he was not guilty. If that's true, then the fact he avoided capture for four months can't be taken as evidence of guilt.

But the Press Democrat editorial said that the past history of mistreatment of the Indians does not justify Lincoln killing the deputy. No one said it did. The Press Democrat used the classic tactic of setting up a "straw man" to kick over. It also implied the defense was conceding Lincoln knowingly killed the deputy, but was trying to justify it by this "cultural defense."

Besides the consistent bias, the paper has frequently sensationalized its coverage, with lurid "teaser" banners or boxes at the top of the front page to promote rack sales.

It was the Press Democrat's lurid misreporting of Lincoln's alleged criminal history that Judge Golden cited as reason for closing many hearings to the public and media. During jury selection at least one juror candidate was excused after she said she couldn't be neutral after accidentally glancing at a P-D headline.

And the Lincoln trial has generated many sensational headlines in the Press Democrat. Maybe the worst abuse of the facts occurred in July, when it reported that the judge had ruled out evidence of any past Lincoln convictions -- then provided every subscriber in Northern California with a list of those alleged convictions too prejudicial to be considered by the jury.

Besides resurrecting a twenty year-old felony when Lincoln was barely out of his teens, several items listed were not convictions at all, but mere contacts with police that were apparently mislabeled. A listed auto theft conviction was only a suspicious traffic stop after Lincoln had just bought a vehicle -- no charges were even filed. Other "convictions" included misdemeanor traffic violations.

Did the paper correct its mistakes on Lincoln's criminal record? Sure -- in small type at the bottom of an inside page near the back of the section. And only after attorney Serra demanded the retraction.

Perhaps Press Democrat staff isn't aware of how biased most of their coverage appears -- and furthermore, I don't believe it is willful, deliberate, or malicious. It could be explained in terms of the trial testimony of Professor Robert A. Bjork about one of the root principles of human learning and memory: People tend to pay attention to and remember the things that agree with their previous beliefs and ignore and forget conflicting information.

Regardless of whether it is intentional, I believe the Press Democrat's coverage is prejudicial, irresponsible, and could easily lead to violence if Lincoln is acquitted.

For that reason, I am joining with others in calling for the public to phone or write the Press Democrat, even at this late date, and demand that they immediately take responsibility for and cease their biased reporting.

Coming up next in the case will be the judge's instructions to the jury and the crucial closing arguments by prosecution and defense. Those arguments will summarize the evidence and argue the facts and the law.

It's one last chance for the Press Democrat to do the right thing.

Press Democrat readers may wish to immediately contact Mr. Peter Golis, Editorial Director, Press Democrat, P.O. Box 569, Santa Rosa CA 95402, phone: (707) 546-2020, FAX: (707) 523-8073, E-mail: Other names to contact are Robert L Swofford, Managing Editor; Bruce W. Kyse, Executive Editor; Michael J. Parman, Publisher.

-- Nicholas Wilson
September 12, 1997

Albion Monitor issue 35 (

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