Sometime during the dismal Cold War years, I read an article describing life inside the Soviet Union. The author vividly painted a bleak picture; in smokestack-darkened cities the miserable proletariat toiled in virtual slavery. Shuffling home to their tiny apartments -- shared with dozens of relatives, of course -- everyone sipped watery soup while singing mournful songs. Boy, it made me grateful to live in the good ol' U.S. of A., where I could read a shocking feature like that in Reader's Digest.
I remember that the article's description of Soviet newspapers particularly fascinated me. What appeared in the newspaper wasn't all that important, the author wrote; more significant was what didn't appear. Soviets would typically assemble dozens of news scraps to deduce important but suppressed information.
In the last month, I'm sad to say I've found myself often reading between lines like that. Worse, the newspaper guilty of this chicanery is our only daily journal of record: the Santa Rosa Press Democrat.
January 1: On New Year's Day the staff produced an edition packed with excellent storm coverage. Photos by Kent Porter and John Burgess demonstrated once again why the PD photographers regularly win awards; the graphics showing river levels were models of clarity. With so many exciting articles to read, readers probably overlooked a small page four item headlined, "Reilly to push for study on river runoff impacts."
January 2: The very next day, that modest article was chosen as an editorial topic. County supervisor-elect Mike Reilly "...believes the county should make a thorough study of the relationship between flooding and development," the PD wrote. "It is worth studying. But any answers will only be useful well in the future."
January 5: That editorial lead was followed by business columnist Brad Bollinger in a Sunday offering titled, "The river vs. development," Bollinger wrote, "...if such a study must be undertaken, it should be done in the name of knowing the answer to what causes the river to flood, not as a whipping post for development." Besides, he wrote, it's the benefits of development that makes it possible for "people to live year-around in a pristine region that once was made up primarily of summer-only weekend cabins for Bay Area escapees."
January 7: Like tag team wrestlers, the editor follows Bollinger's theme of blaming flood victims. Flooding is common throughout the state, the PD opined; state and local governments should discourage people from living in risky locations. "Along the Russian River, victims of last week's flooding live year-round in cabins originally built for summer use only."
January 26: Skipping ahead a few weeks, we find a Sunday front page story: "Development impacts minor -- Main cause of floods? It's Rain." The big feature begins, "Suburban sprawl, logging, and farming are little more than footnotes in Russian River floods."
January 28: Reflecting on the Sunday feature, another editorial repeats earlier themes: "...A study of the county's changing population and its impact on flooding and flood damage might be worthwhile, as long as it didn't deteriorate into an effort to pin the blame."
My goodness, that's a lot of newsprint to debate such a small proposal by a newly-elected official. But even more remarkable was that Mike Reilly did not call for a study at all -- the entire controversy was fabricated by the Press Democrat.
So why did the Press Democrat manufacture this controversy? One possibility is that nobody at the newspaper read beyond the Jan. 1 headline, which inaccurately claimed Reilly was pushing for a study. I don't believe that, of course. More likely is that the editors wanted to set up a "straw man" that could be easily knocked over -- answering a question that no one had asked.
Is there any evidence that the Press Democrat intentionally placed a spin on the story? Maybe so; but to consider this possibility we must read deeply like our Russian comrades, looking for sidestepped facts and connections not made.
Start with another January 7th article, titled, "Flood could have been 10 feet higher." Interviewing officials with the Army Corps of Engineers, the Press Democrat accurately noted that the Warm Springs and Coyote dams each kept about five feet of water from rushing downstream. But an extremely important point is barely mentioned: If the Russian River was ten feet higher on January 1, it would have been the worst flood in recorded history -- more than five feet above the 100-year flood line.
Perhaps even stranger, our brush with history wasn't mentioned at all in the big Jan. 26 weather feature describing the worst floods -- an article that repeatedly states that Russian River flooding is common. Seems to me like a writer would want to include a little fact like that.
The feature does include several interesting statements, however. Quoting an ex-engineer at the Water Agency, the point is made that only about 100 of the 1,400 square miles in the watershed are urbanized. True enough; but as reported in the Monitor, supervisor Reilly cites a study showing that this urban development is almost entirely in the Santa Rosa plain -- the watershed's most sensitive recharge area.
Ignoring that point entirely, the Press Democrat feature repeated their conclusion that development plays no role whatsoever in flooding. Quoting again the ex-engineer (couldn't they find anyone still employed by the Agency?) the article says urban development adds "just a foot maybe" in worst situations. This expert opinion is apparently based on ten year-old "rough calculations" done at the Water Agency.
In some ways that little paragraph is the most astonishing part of the article. Does this mean that the Water Agency really has no idea how much water flows out of the Santa Rosa plain? Apparently so. And worse, they've never considered the question except for a long-ago guesstimate. Sounds to me like a serious investigation into the competence of the Agency is in order.
And it also sounds to me like someone should go back to journalism school. The reporter has just allowed a source to make an unsubstantiated claim; there is no effort to verify the information, provide supporting facts, or balance the quote. If I were grading that story in class, I'd flunk the author.
In a beautifully illustrated feature on the Laguna, writer Chris Coursey accurately notes that once a series of lakes could be found between modern-day Rohnert Park, Sebastopol, and Mark West Creek. Settlers "...saw them as impediments to progress -- wagons couldn't cross them and plows couldn't work them. So the natural dams that created the lakes were broken, and the Laguna drained away into the river."
Finally, the faithful Press Democrat reader finds an important clue to the puzzle. Parts of the area now covered with subdivisions were once covered with water. Where did that water come from? (Don't expect an answer from the Water Agency, of course.)
Look at old maps and you'll see that the Laguna once held enormous amounts of water. That "impediment to progress" was an extension of the river's natural waterbed; in some places, like forgotten Lake Jonive near Sebastopol, it was 60 feet deep. Now it's almost entirely filled in and paved over. Simply put, there's more water in the river because we've given it nowhere else to go.
Why couldn't the PD make that connection, and why did it present the "straw man" question? The January 28th editorial may shed light. Writing about pinning the blame, the editorial provides a rhetorical argument: "Your subdivision helped flood my house." "What do you expect, living in a flood plain?"
While the newspaper repeatedly pushed the second position in January, blaming flood victims for being stupid enough to live in low-lying areas, the first argument is far more interesting. Do subdivision-builders have any liability for the floods? Maybe. It's not hard to imagine a class-action suit emerging someday, river residents vs. Santa Rosa, et. al.
And many named as part of "et. al." would certainly be close friends of the Press Democrat, which has relentlessly pushed urban growth for decades. Although it's hard to say a particular contractor willfully contibuted to flooding by building a few houses, the PD's own back issues provide evidence that county and city governments probably haven't exercised due care in approving thousands of buildings along the highway 101 corridor. Start with that ex-engineer's quote in the January feature.
Such a suit would prove deeply embarassing to the Press Democrat itself -- not to mention its owner, the New York Times. (It looks darn bad when readers question if a newspaper is working in the best interests of the community.) Rehashed would be many of the paper's editorial positions, including its lobbying to build Warm Springs Dam in the 1970's -- although it was acknowledged at the time that it would have been cheaper to simply buy all property in the flood zone.
Why? Probably because nothing about it appeared on the big newswires: AP, Reuters, and New York Times. The only mention was found through Environment News Service (ENS), which we present here. Far smaller than operations like Associated Press, ENS has consistently produced scoops found nowhere else.
We're proud to offer stories from ENS, IPS, AR, and other services. We're also happy to announce that the Albion Monitor has also joined Alternet, so we can bring you features from the alternative press and still more sources like Pacific News Service. And we can now also boast of rights to Creators Syndicate columnists like Alexander Cockburn and Norman Solomon.
We're pleased to provide columns and articles of that caliber, and know that you'll enjoy reading them. And with these offerings, our mission is even more strongly fulfilled: to provide the "news you're missing."
Although most of our readership is currently outside Sonoma County, we'll continue to provide coverage of some local issues, too. Like our coverage of the flooding and questions about toxics in urban runoff -- and perhaps, a little more criticism for that other newspaper, whose readers deserve far more balanced coverage than they currently read.
Jeff Elliott, Editor
All Rights Reserved.
Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to reproduce.