Steven Talbot, featured at last weekend's Second Annual Boonville Film Festival, is best known for his award-winning work as producer of PBS's Frontline series. This year, Talbot is also teaching at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism. Saturday night at the High Pockety Ox, Boonville's premier brewpub, he showed his documentary from 1991 "Who Bombed Judi Bari?" and talked about the film after the showing, informing the audience that the late Bari had told him that she thought her ex-husband, Mike Sweeney, almost certainly bombed her.
Former local public radio KZYX news person Annie Esposito seemed quite put out by both Talbot and his film, arguing that Sweeney, who these days serenely functions as Mendocino County's lead garbage bureaucrat, was only one of several suspects who, Esposito claimed with zero evidence to support her argument, included Big Timber and the FBI, which Talbot had not included in his film. But he had. Esposito made it clear, as she rambled boorishly on with Talbot swatting her uninformed and often demonstrably false assertions like so many practice tennis balls, that she's unable to make basic distinctions. She said the arson Sweeney is assumed to have committed in 1980 when Sweeney, via an explosive device, undoubtedly burned down a hanger at the old Navy Air Field near Santa Rosa (and adjacent to Bari and Sweeney's home at the time) was merely a form of monkeywrenching. But it was nearly murder because a young man was asleep in the hangar when it went up in flames. That guy, jolted awake by the explosion, had had to run for his life, and would almost certainly have been killed if, as designed, Sweeney's ignition device had ignited the huge fuel tank buried nearby. A decade later, the Bari Bombing was murder, slo-motion murder. Bari had been in perfect health before she was attacked. Seven years later she was dead. The bomb killed her.
At one point in her monologue directed at the gentlemanly Talbot, who clearly wanted to shake free of the monopolizing Esposito to allow other people in the audience to ask questions, Esposito turned her cadaverously pale, unnervingly spectral, ghostly gray self towards me and said in that breathy, oddly muffled, underwater burble of hers, "You slander people all the time, right, Bruce?" I must admit that I briefly panicked. Had Dr. Death sent his administrative assistant to prepare me for Final Departure? I grabbed a full glass of beer out of Irv Sutley's startled hands and was gulping it down as the last I'd ever enjoy when Ms. Death mercifully returned her befuddled attentions to Talbot.
I've never been formally introduced to this person and here she is calling me by my first name! Liberties aside, Ms. Esposito, if you'll take out your handy dandy reporter's notebook and listen very carefully here's a second simple distinction a reporter ought to be able to make: Slander is spoken untruth; libel is written untruth. Both are deliberate, conscious lies. Of course most non-ideological, adult-type persons also know that there's a difference between libel and slander and mere error. If errors are not corrected, well, maybe then you can talk libel and slander. Funny thing about it was, while Ms. Esposito was slandering me Saturday night at the Ox she was waving an article written by the late Bari at Talbot as if Talbot hadn't read it, as if he hadn't long ago responded to it, as if both articles hadn't appeared in the AVA, the only media entity on the Northcoast where the case has been fully discussed, complete with the deliberate evasions and libels of me in my own paper by such dogged male simpletons (and Sweeney surrogates) as John McCowen and Nick Wilson. If KZYX were anything like the "free speech radio" it advertises itself as it would have been fully discussed on local air years ago.
I, ahem, want to make the simple point that Sweeney hasn't sued me because (1) I am convinced he made the bomb that killed his ex-wife and he also wrote the Lord's Avenger Letter taking credit for the bomb and (2) the people who say they don't sue me because I don't have any money, and that's a long list of allegedly libeled persons stretching back to former Congressman Bosco, and which includes such notables as Jared Carter and former supervisor Marilyn Butcher — in other words the halt, the lame and the guilty — invariably neglect to mention that their allegedly wounded honor could be healed by a winning libel action awarded to them in the token amount of one dollar. Or they could get an injunction against me. Or meet me in the woods with hatchets alone. Whatever, as the non-verbal young say. It's been done. By serious people, too. Have the allegedly libeled in this case ever sought non-mercenary satisfaction? Never have. Have I ever libeled anyone? Yes, and I quickly apologized. Have I made mistakes? Thousands of them. It's the nature of the hurry-up, deadline-driven newspaper business. Have I ever refused to correct those errors? I hope not.
But Esposito is indeed representative of the Northcoast's see-no-evil media where the Bari case is concerned. At KZYX Esposito made sure dissenting opinions of the Bari Bombing were never heard. At the Ukiah Daily Journal Glenda Anderson, Mike Sweeney's then-girl friend, now with the Press Democrat without Sweeney, but still working the propaganda desk for the icy little psycho, wore the censor's cap. At the Press Democrat, the three staffers who long ago wanted desperately to dig into the case were pulled off it by the paper's gutless management who claimed they were afraid Sweeney would sue the paper, knowing that Sweeney, over the years, has often threatened to sue a variety of media — print, audio, television — but has never sued anyone. He's written that he doesn't sue me because I have a rich nephew, an evasion so transparently child-like I can't think of any other place in the English-speaking world where it would be accepted as a rational excuse for legal inaction.
In theory, when the cops don't do their job, as the FBI and the Oakland Police Department didn't do theirs in rounding up the bomber while Mendocino County's law enforcement apparatus expressed zero interest in a crime which clearly originated here, the media are supposed to keep the pressure on to find out who did it. In this case the local media went way out of their way to keep the pressure off. The case can be solved. Clinching DNA evidence exists. Match the known DNA with that of no more than a dozen likely perps and it's case closed. Will that ever happen? Maybe, but I'm not optimistic. This is another case where a wealthy perp — Sweeney — has been able to elude justice because he's smart and has the resources to insulate himself from accountability, that and a cowardly local media. Susan Faludi's ever pending book, "Cut Her Down Quickly" may shake something loose, but then again, this being Mendocino County where history starts all over again every day, and people are whatever they say they are, the truth isn't in great demand. (Faludi said Tuesday no publication date for her book "is on the horizon," although both the Barnes and Noble and the Amazon websites list the book's release date as May of this year.)