Distorting the News in a Timber Company Town

The other day I was walking in downtown Missoula when a new ad campaign on the newspaper boxes of our daily paper, the Missoulian, caught my eye. The ad features a businessman silhouetted against a sunrise with the words: “Start your day informed: Missoulian.” I got a good chuckle out of that. However, a better reflection of our experience with the local daily would be “Start your day misinformed: Misleadian.”

Why in the world would I say this? Well, I’ve been working on forest and public land issues here in the Northern Rockies for the past 10 years and over that time I’ve had my share of opportunities to work with media outlets–large and small–all around the country, and even internationally. Without a doubt, the Missoulian has done a remarkable job–particularly over the past few years–of setting itself apart from the rest of the media world when it comes to consistently misleading and biased news coverage and editorializing on forest and public lands issues.

This is seen in not only what the Missoulian chooses to cover in the paper, but also by what the Missoulian chooses not to put in the paper.

I can guarantee you that if our organization was to file a lawsuit against the Forest Service today for failure to follow the law or apply the best science when managing our public lands that the next day’s paper would have a superficial news article about the lawsuit on the front page, above the fold. This would likely be followed by an official editorial from the paper blasting us for being “obstructionists” and for filing “frivolous lawsuits.” How do I know this would happen? Because it’s happened time and again over the years.

Yet, just last week it was reported by the Associated Press that the Bush Administration and the timber industry appealed a federal court ruling that struck down the Bush Administration’s gutting of the “Roadless Rule” in their attempt to allow logging and oil and gas drilling in some of the remaining roadless wildlands on our public lands. The article reported that the three-page notice of appeal signed by the U.S. Justice Department “gave no grounds or reasoning behind the appeal.”

Did this AP article make it in the Missoulian? Nope. Did the Missoulian write an editorial blasting the Bush Administration and timber industry for being “obstructionists” by filing a “frivolous lawsuit” that threatens 58 million acres of pristine, public wildlands, including over 6 million acres here in Montana? Nope.

I guess the Missoulian never noticed the news-flash that the Bush Administration is having a hard time following the law when it comes to logging, roadbuilding and oil and gas development on public lands, or anything to do with the environment for that matter. Does this really come as a surprise to anyone?

While the term “frivolous lawsuit” is nonchalantly tossed around by the newspaper, elected officials, industry lobbyists and in a consistent flow of letters to the editor the public should know that the term “frivolous lawsuit” is a legal term and any attorney filing a “frivolous lawsuit” could be disbarred and seriously reprimanded. It’s the equivalent of malpractice in the context of doctors and hospitals. Yet, when was the last time you saw the Missoulian write an editorial accusing a local doctor’s office of malpractice, much less making such an accusation without even contacting the doctor’s office directly? Of course that would never happen, yet our organization receives such treatment on a regular basis.

And if our lawsuits are “frivolous” in nature, then why does our organization win close to 80% of our lawsuits? Must be all those “Liberal Judges,” right? Hardly! We’ve had success in front of judges appointed by Bush, Reagan, Carter and Clinton and judges of all different shapes and sizes and interpretations of the law. Clearly, to have such a successful track record, our lawsuits have merit. It sure would be nice for the Missoulian to do an in-depth feature on why the Forest Service, especially under the Bush Administration, is having such a difficult time following the law.

But I won’t be holding my breath. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that the Missoulian might never take an in-depth, un-biased look at the issue. Perhaps this is due to the fact that, more than any other city in America, Missoula is a Forest Service company town. And apparently the Missoulian is comfortable regurgitating the government and timber industry’s propaganda in much the same way that most of the state’s papers did 100 years ago when Montana was ruled by the Copper Kings and Anaconda Copper Company. For a clever look at this issue, check out this letter,
Newspaper blames the messengers“, which recently ran in the paper.

The Missoulian’s misleading coverage and biased editorializing on forest and public lands issues has come to a head recently specifically in regards to an article and editorial which contained false information that our organization is getting rich filing lawsuits to make sure the government follows the law.

About a month ago I was called by Perry Backus, the Missoulian’s environmental reporter, who said he was doing a story about how the Forest Service has problems finding money to complete restoration work. I spoke with the reporter about the fact that Congress never provides the Forest Service with the money needed to do even a small portion of the needed restoration work and how our organization for years has urged Congress to increase funding for restoration on public lands. I explained how the new funding mechanism of “stewardship contracting” also has problems because it only funds restoration work through timber sales and given that there is literally tens of billions of dollars of needed restoration work there’s no way we can fund all that restoration work through more logging.

During the interview I also told the reporter about the problems the Bitterroot National Forest has had funding promised restoration work following the wildfires of 2000. The problem resulted because the agency decided to take nearly $26 million in restoration funds set aside to complete this work and instead used those funds to cover costs associated with the 2002 wildfire season. To date, $7.1 million in restoration funds is still missing and the restoration work has still not been completed. Right after the interview, I emailed the reporter with documented figures obtained from the Forest Service via the Freedom of Information Act to verify my statements.

You can imagine my surprise when, on March 11, I opened up my front door and picked up the Missoulian and right on the front page was an article titled, Forest Service struggles to finish restoration.

Nothing in the article talked about how the Forest Service on the Bitterroot is still missing $7.1 million in restoration funding that the agency itself took from the forest. Apparently the paper felt that this fact has nothing to do with the Forest Service struggling to finish restoration work.

Instead, the basic premise of the article was that the Forest Service struggles to complete restoration work solely because when the government is found guilty of violating the law they sometimes pay attorney’s fees through the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA). In the case of the Lolo Post Burn logging project, which the article zeroed in on, the government paid approximately $175,000 in legal fees to private law firms. It should be pointed out that nearly $40,000 in attorney fees were incurred directly because the timber industry appealed this case to the U.S. Supreme Court. Fortunately, the Supreme Court–that bastion of “liberal judges”–refused to hear the case.

Nothing within EAJA mandates the Forest Service to take these attorney fees directly out of money set aside for restoration. If the agency did that in the Lolo Post Burn case (something which still isn’t clear) it was 100% the agency’s decision and nothing they were forced to do through EAJA.

It should also be pointed out that the reporter never once asked me any question about EAJA or attorney fees related to the Lolo Post Burn case. Doesn’t that seem strange? I mean, you have the executive director of the organization on the phone and you don’t even ask him a question related to legal fees? Yet that’s basically the whole premise of the article. For the same article the reporter interviewed a logging industry lobbyist who made completely false allegations that our organization gets to keep these fees to “keep their lights on” and “pay their mortgages.”

Two days after the article ran, I wrote the Missoulian reporter an email and said, “I wish you would have asked me a specific question about fees related to our Post-Burn lawsuit, especially because the article includes Julia Altemus’ mistaken notion that WildWest gets money from lawsuit winnings and because Supervisor Austin’s implications that attorney’s EAJA fees must come out of the Forest Service’s restoration budget.” The email went on to state, “I also think it would be a good idea for you and others at the Missoulian to sit down with us to talk specifically about the legal and scientific issues that affect Forest Service projects as well.”

I got no response, is pretty typical. But the Missoulian wasn’t done misleading. Next up would be a biased and misleading Missoulian editorial. And sure enough, like clockwork, on March 19 the Missoulian erroneously wrote, “the Equal Access to Justice Act has become a self-funding mechanism for environmental groups fundamentally opposed to prevailing national forest management direction.”

That’s simply not true. 100% of the legal fees that we have rightfully requested to be reimbursed through the Equal Access to Justice Act go to private laws firms, not into our organization’s coffers as a “self-funding mechanism” as the Missoulian claimed.

Did Steve Woodruff, the Missoulian’s editorial page editor, bother to call to fact-check and get our side of the story? No. Did the Missoulian’s environmental reporter who wrote the March 11th story bother to share my email on the subject with his colleague? Apparently not, or if it was shared it was ignored. Has the Missoulian published a retraction or correction? No.

You could simply chalk this up to sloppy journalism, but only if these same type of shenanigans didn’t happen so often. Figuring that following an article and editorial, which contained false accusations about our organization, the Missoulian would at least afford our organization a column length piece on the opinion page I set to work writing.

On March 27 I submitted an 857-word piece–well within the word limit that the Missoulian allows for such opinion pieces. Twenty-one minutes later came the response from Steve Woodruff, “I can’t accommodate you with a column-length piecelet me put you back to work condensing your thoughts to 300 words.”

Say what? Apparently the Missoulian can “accommodate” itself to printing articles and editorials with completely false information accusing our organization of getting $110,000 in winnings from a lawsuit, but can’t “accommodate” itself to printing a column-length piece in response.

But wait! It even gets more ridiculous because on April 8 the Missoulian did, in fact, run a column-length piece on EAJA, lawsuits and the Lolo Post Burn case. However, it wasn’t explaining our side of the story. Rather, it was over 1,000 words of misrepresentations and mistruths from former Forest Service employee Mike Hillis of the Ecosystem Research Group (ERG). ERG is the company that, behind closed doors and after the public comment period was already over, worked with the timber industry and self-selected conservation groups to re-write the Beaverhead-Deerlodge forest plan. Word on the street is that since the Forest Service has refused to accept this behind-closed-doors (and tardy) re-write that the timber industry and others are looking for congress to legislate the forest plan into law.

The next day the attorney who represented our organization on the Lolo Post Burn case, wrote the Missoulian asking, “Is it the Missoulian’s policy to spread misinformation and prevent others from correcting it, other than by the occasional marginalized letter to the editor? I have to confess, I’ve never encountered a newspaper before this one that was so intent on providing a forum for governmental lies and timber industry propaganda while at the same time refusing to provide equal space to those who would have the temerity to dispel the mistruths.”

Our attorney then provided the Missoulian with a point by point response to the misrepresentations and mistruths in Hillis’ piece and challenged the paper to print it as a column length piece. The paper ignored the request, except for this condescending comment from Woodruff: “Tom: Thanks for finding time to offer feedback.–Steve.” All of this information was also provided to the Missoulian’s publisher and editor, but we haven’t heard back from anyone at the paper.

All we are asking for is a fair shake from the Missoulian and for the paper to present all the facts to the public in an unbiased way and certainly, when the paper prints information it knows to be false, that they correct the mistake rather than continuing to print false information. It is my belief that when it comes to reporting and editorializing on forest and public land issues that the Missoulian is failing in this responsibility to the public and our community. The account provided above is just one such example. If our daily paper cannot take this responsibility seriously, perhaps they should at least consider a name change to the Misleadian.

MATTHEW KOEHLER is executive director of the WildWest Institute. You can learn more at http://www.wildwestinstitute.org.