Unabomber II: Britain Calling
By Gar Smith / The-Edge
November 28, 2004
The unending string of media calls had become such a leitmotif to my life by this point, that I started making a joke about how I'd been interviewed "by everybody but the BBC." I should have known better.
|Before the cameras start rolling, BBC Producer Joanna Head and Earth Island Journal Editor Gar Smith compare notes and prepare to record an interview. Credit: Edge photo by Cynthia Mahabir|
It was a six-person crew that arrived on behalf of Britain's Channel 4. They commandeered two vehicles and came equipped with a costume trunk. As I gaped in disbelief, two of the crew struggled into "FBI outfits" -- dark suits, dark glasses (one "agent" even strapped on an empty shoulder harness under his coat to give the appearance of carrying a concealed pistol).
As the cameras rolled, I was asked to re-enact the events of that distant June morning. Behind the door of my house, I waited for my cue -- three knocks on the door. I emerged and began to engage the agents in conversation.
Since there was no sound recording for this portion of the production, the "agents" and I -- maintaining the grimmest of faces -- began to improvise. When I realized I could say anything I wanted to these FBI stand-ins and I would remain impervious to censure, I began to fling the most outrageous insults I could imagine. It was a liberating six minutes.
Inside the house, the film crew set up booms, light poles, reflectors and cameras. Once again I was invited to relax on the living room sofa for the interview. I observed that, having read the now-published Manifesto, the Unabomber struck me as a man whose political perspective was somewhat passe, a man whose mind was "stuck in ideological amber." That comment, and the encounter-on-the-porch, was absorbed by millions of Britons in June 1996.
Upon receiving a copy of the tape, I was stung to see that I had been positioned in such a manner that a Cuban Youth Festival poster mounted on nearby wall appeared over my right shoulder. And, despite my pleas, I was once again introduced as a "radical environmentalist."
The BBC Meets Frontline
|When a half-a-dozen members of a BBC film crew do the media version of a home-invasion, it can really clutter up the living room. Credit: Edge photo by Gar Smith|
The Channel 4 crew was working in a rare joint production with PBS' Frontline to film a US-UK co-production on the search for the Unabomber. In early production meetings, Chris Clarke and myself had argued that the production should not focus on the Unabomber as an individual but on the social grievances that drove him.
"If you focus on one individual," I said, "your entire production can rise or fall in the event that the bomber is identified. Focus instead on the broader issues of neo-Ludditism' and you will still have a strong, valid documentary whether the bomber's identity is known or not."
Channel 4 followed this suggestion. Frontline did not. Consequently, when Kaczynski was arrested, that lead to the cancellation of the Frontline project. The Channel 4 crew flew back to the US from London, headed straight for Montana and returned to the Bay Area for a follow-up interview with me in my Berkeley office.
When I finally saw the broadcast tape, I was startled to see that I had been filmed in such a fashion that, over my right shoulder, the audience could read the single word "Acquitted!" (It was part of a news-rack placard announcing the OJ Simpson verdict. I had grabbed it some months earlier to save as a souvenir.)
An Outbreak of Claussen-phobia
A Sacramento Bee reporter called and dutifully noted my objections to the "ecobomber" scenario. He laughed appreciatively at my comments about GOP "anarchists" and presidential serial bombers. What he didn't reveal, however, was that he had some new information. Barry Claussen, a private researcher in the northwest, who specializes in marketing questionable allegations about environmental groups, had come up with a five-year-old edition of an environmental publication called Live Free or Die that contained a "hit list" of 10 corporations.
"What are the chances that two of the organizations named on this list would be targeted by the Unabomber?" Clausen asked the networks' cameras pointedly later that day on the evening newscasts. The answer of course was "pretty good," when you see that the list included Exxon, Louisiana-Pacific, Georgia Pacific, the American Cattleman's Association. But if this publication was supposed to have inspired the Unabomber, I wondered, why the delay of five years?
For some reason, this patently flimsy theory was promoted to the press by the FBI and, once, again, the press was off on the trail of weary environmentalists. KGO's anchor Richard Brown went so far as to describe Life Free or Die as an "eco-terrorist" publication.
Within hours of the Bee's publication, the staff at the Ecology Center was again being phoned and filmed by the media. ABC sent camera crews to the Ecology Center for the second day in a row. Earth First!er Karen Pickett, wearily repeated that EF "has an unbroken history of nonviolence." Terrain editor Chris Clarke told ABC that the only environmentalist he every knew of who had advocated violence was an FBI infiltrator. "I made a point of giving them his name," Clarke said.
"I'm getting tired of all these people calling themselves environmentalists, running around committing violent acts -- groups like Dow Chemical and (timber giant) Georgia Pacific," Clarke cracked ironically to the ABC film crew. To his chagrin, ABC used only the first part of his sentence, obliterating he point about corporate greenwashers and falsely reinforcing the false idea that there were "environmentalists running around committing violent acts.".
The next day, an embittered Ecology Center staff was seriously considering a new tactic for dealing with the media -- "a strategy of non-cooperation."
"I Am Not a Crank"
|Confronting the media's twisted logic: Just because a letter-bomber likes trees, that doesn't mean that people who like trees send letter-bombs. Credit: Edge photo by Maxine Miller|
I eventually had to admit that my one-man campaign to defuse "connect-the-dots journalism" -- when linking the Unabomber with enviros, any two dots seemed sufficient to justify a headline -- were not succeeding.
Steven Dunifer is a free-speech activist and radio pirate, not an environmentalist, yet the press continued to put us both on their must-interview lists. In a tabloidesque manner, Dunifer and myself (neither of us knew the other) seemed to be romantically linked. We were like two prostitutes who remained strangers but shared the same johns.
The FBI's Bay Area task force was actually questioning more Bay Area metalworkers than environmentalists or radio pirates, but no news story was ever headlined: "Unabomber a Heavy Metal Maniac" or "The Pied Pipe-Bomber of Berkeley."
The bogus link between environmentalists and serial bombers became such an ideé fixeé that I once spent 30 minutes on the phone arguing with a producer from 48 Hours who insisted that my appearance on her show was crucial because I was "an environmentalist who had been investigated by the FBI." I finally challenged her to name just one other Bay Area environmentalist who had been interviewed by the FBI. She was startled to realize that she could not.
I eventually was interviewed as part of a special 48 Hours "Unabomber" show that was scheduled to kick off the fall 95 broadcast season. But at the last minute, the program was blown off the tube by the jury verdict at the OJ Simpson murder trial. OJ apparently had more blockbuster potential than the Unabomber.
Don't Call Me an Environmentalist!
In interviews with the Berkeley Voice and San Francisco Examiner, I asked not to be identified as the editor of Earth Island Journal. It had finally become clear to me that to have an "identified environmentalist" denying the FBI's interest in environmentalists only served to perpetuate such a link in the public's mind.
I suddenly felt an odd kinship with every politician who has ever tried to declare his or her innocence to the media. Even if you claim your innocence, the very act itself suggests that you are under suspicion. I can hear the audience whispering: "Why is he denying it? He must have something to hide!"
There was, I found, a better way to discourage the press from prolonging my misery. The solution was a masterstroke. I simply insisted on being identified, not as a Bay Area environmentalist, but as a "longtime Bay Area journalist." (This was apropos since, as I reminded reporters, the FBI came after me because I had been a journalist. They had no idea I was involved in environmental work.)
Like the tap of a magic wand, this simple maneuver completely altered the flavor of every subsequent interview. From that point on, no radio, television, newspaper or magazine reporter would quote me. Apparently, my media colleagues found themselves more than a little uncomfortable at the prospect of running stories headlined: "FBI Unabomber Hunt Focuses on Bay Area Journalists."
I had found a way to shake the media but, alas, my environmentalist colleagues had not.
ABC Libels Earth First!
When the FBI announced the arrest of Unabomber suspect Ted Kaczynski in Montana's Scapegoat Wilderness, I breathed a sigh of relief. I would have wagered hard coin that the arrest of a former Harvard-Chicago-Berkeley university math professor would have put an end to the spurious bomber/tree-hugger equation. I would have doubled my bet after an excruciating FBI search of the hundreds of publications in Kaczynski's mountain cabin turned up three reference books on the Bible but not a single environmental magazine or book. I would have bet confidently. And I would have lost.
For on April 5, two days after Kaczynski's arrest, the Disney-owned ABC Evening News aired a long "investigative" feature in which reporter Brian Ross claimed that Kaczynski's name appeared on a list of folks who attended an Earth First! meeting in November 1994 and that Kaczynski drew two of his bomb targets from a list published in Earth First! Journal. "Over the years, Earth First! has been known as a violent group, spiking trees and blowing up logging equipment," ABC reported, adding as visual counterpoint, archival footage of a violent scuffle between loggers and Earth First! activists.
ABC's report was wrong on every count. The meeting was not an Earth First! conclave but an international conference hosted by the Native Forest Network. According to NFN, Kaczynski's name appears nowhere on any conference lists or records (in any form of spelling) and no one recalls seeing him at the event. The "hit list" did not appear in any Earth First! publication. It was published in a 1992 edition of Live Wild Or Die. Earth First! is a nonviolent organization whose tactics and manuals repudiate the use of weapons or bombs.
ABC's only on-air source for these charges was Barry Clausen, an admitted former drug runner and Wise Use proponent who styles himself an investigator of radical environmentalists. Clausen previously caused a media stir when called a press conference to claim that a list of environmental polluters listed in an old copy of Live Wild Or Die constituted a "Unabomber Hit List." The press swallowed the story but, when Clausen brought his find to the FBI, they dismissed both it, and him, as "not reliable."
But there was another off-air source. Rick Smith, a former FBI agent and spokesperson who had been involved in both the Unabomber investigation and the investigation of the car-bomb attack that nearly cost the life of Earth First! organizer Judi Bari. Smith retired from the bureau a few days before Kaczynski's arrest. He was hired by ABC within the week. Rick Smith reportedly was the source for the press leaks that attempted to link Earth First! and the Unabomber.
How the Chronicle Re-worked Judi's Op-Ed
Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby quickly echoed and amplified ABC's errors. His nationally syndicated column was even published by Bari's "hometown newspaper," the San Francisco Chronicle, which should have known better. The Chronicle subsequently claimed that the decision to run Jacoby's piece was made by an editor who was new to the Bay Area.
Judi Bari provided the Chronicle with a detailed refutation of the errors in the ABC/Jacoby reports. Her response was not published until May 14, allowing the original charges to stand unchallenged for more than a month.
When Bari's op-ed finally did appear, the editor's made two devastating decisions. First, the title of her article was changed to: "Earth First and the Unabomber." Second, the article was illustrated with an AP photo of the Unabomber. Perhaps it was only a coincidence, but the photo was aligned so that Kacynski's face (wreathed by a rare smile) appeared to be glancing over his shoulder at the part of the headline that read "Earth First" -- and smiling his approval.
The single lasting impression that I will carry away from this year-long torment is: given a choice, I would rather face a dozen FBI agents packing heat than than another team of pack journalists armed with pens, lenses or microphones.
Gar Smith is Editor Emeritus of Earth Island Journal, Editor of The-Edge, Associate Editor of Common Ground magazine and co-founder of Environmentalists Against War.
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