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Trees Don’t Read The Press Democrat

During the three-day period June 11-13, a story published on the Associated Press wire concerning a pair of massive redwood forest-to-vineyard conversions in the northwestern corner of Sonoma County, just outside the small town of Annapolis, was featured by newspapers, internet periodicals, and business trade publications throughout the United States.  It was a rare instance of at least one aspect of the wine industry's ecological impact receiving national attention, if only fleetingly.

The main conflict in the story, written by long-time AP reporter Jason Dearen, was captured by one of headlines that accompanied it in several publications, “Redwoods or Red Wine?”  While many of the North Coast's leading politicians and entrepreneurs would prefer to remain blissfully unaware of the fact, it strikes most people in this country as strange that hundreds of acres of redwood trees are on the verge of being cut to make way for wine grapes. That's particularly so given that this a region of the country where vineyards already dominate the landscape, and where there is such a glut of grapes that farmers are still having trouble unloading last year's crop at a decent price.

The two “conversions” the piece focused on, which we have mentioned repeatedly in the Anderson Valley Advertiser across recent years, include the 151-acre forest conversion proposed by the Spanish wine giant Codorniu (highlighted in last week's AVA piece “The Mendonoma Coast's Second Spanish Invasion”) and the roughly 1,700 acre “conversion” by the California Public Employees Retirement System (CALPERS)-backed corporate giant Premier Pacific Vineyards, owner of three vineyard estates in the Anderson Valley, along with roughly 30 others throughout California, Oregon, and Washington.

To avoid the deadening impact of strictly functional language, it should again be noted that in this context “conversion” is a euphemism for clear-cutting forest, removing the trees' stumps and root systems in their entirety, flattening out hilltops with massive bulldozers, and chemically sterilizing the land, as well as drilling deep wells, installing large water reservoirs, and putting a large new straw into an already badly damaged watershed. And that's not even to mention the sociological impacts on the region that these types of “conversions” entail.

Notably, among the publications that featured the AP story were the four largest circulation daily newspapers in Northern California: the San Francisco Chronicle, San Jose Mercury News, Sacramento Bee, and Oakland Tribune. The second largest circulation daily newspaper in the country, the Wall Street Journal, also featured Dearen's piece, as did another of the nation's most widely read publications, the Washington Post.

Among the business trade publications that ran the story were the two most widely read in their genre, Forbes and Business Week.  Online stalwarts like Huffington Post and Salon carried the piece in full.  Even a wine industry trade periodical, Wines and Vines, featured its own version of the AP story, albeit seemingly only to provide a platform for Premier Pacific Vineyards' geologist to tout what he claims are the ecological benefits of the company's permanent deforestation of a huge swath of the Gualala River watershed.

The story was conspicuously absent, however, from the pages of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, the North Coast's paper of record, which has as its stated purpose to report on matters of public concern in Sonoma County and other areas of the North Coast.  Just as interesting is that the story actually did appear on the Press Democrat's web site on June 12, only to be removed a short while later — as I noted last week.

The Press Democart's apparent blackout of the widely read AP piece prompted a member of Friends of the Gualala River to submit an inquiry to the paper's executive editor, Catherine Barnett. In response, Barnett wrote via e-mail: “Just to let you know, we chose to continue our tradition of original reporting on this topic rather than run the wire story.” She claimed not to have seen the AP story, a strange claim given that (a) it briefly appeared on her paper's web site and (b) she had just mentioned her involvement in determining that the PD should not feature the story.

Barnett's claim that the PD has a “tradition” of “original reporting on the topic” would seem to indicate that her paper has featured a piece or two on the Codorniu/Artesa conversion, which was first put forward close to a decade ago. But the PD has not once featured a story on the topic.

As environmental attorney Larry Hanson of Forestville, who acts as vice president of the Sonoma County-based organization Forests Unlimited, put it, “So the PD has never done a story on Artesa with their 'original reporting' approach?  And they won't print journalistic reports from other competing media? They seem to have it both ways to maintain a media blackout on a selected issue.”

The Press Democrat did feature a modest-sized story on the Premier Pacific Vineyard conversion in 2008, which is one of the most controversial issues in Sonoma County and was a subject of intense debate during one of the Board of Supervisors races of that year.  And the paper may yet feature a story on the Artesa project.

The PD's status quo with regard to the wine business,  however, as part of a pro-big business editorial posture generally, has almost always been to remain willfully ignorant of the wine industry's many downsides. It is rare for the paper to feature critical coverage of the industry, even more rare that its coverage takes stock of the industry's vast cumulative impact.

But the PD's treatment of the AP wire story may be the most blatant example of this tendency to ignore wine industry depredations to date. As of press time, Press Democrat Executive Editor Barnett had not responded to my requests for comment, which I made right before deadline. If she does offer a response, I will print it next week.

Of course, the PD is not unique among daily newspapers in its commitment to perpetual growth of favored regional economic sectors. An institutional imperative of capitalist newspapers in general is to support forms of economic growth that will increase their advertising revenue and attract well-to-do residents to the area, thereby generating more subscriptions to the paper. In the PD's case, the type of growth brought by the wine industry clearly fits that bill.

In the 1950s, when asked why he had consistently promoted development on beautiful orchard lands that turned San Jose into a large metropolis over a remarkably short period of time, a publisher of the San Jose Mercury News put it this way: "Trees do not read newspapers." In the wake of its black-out of the Artesa story, the PD could well adopt this pearl from a kindred agent of the corporate press as its official motto.

The AVA will continue a mini-series on the Artesa and Premier Pacific Vineyard forest-to-vineyard conversions next week.

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