mark hertsgaard

Independent Journalist & Author

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Too many rumors, too few facts to examine eco-activism case

Book Review by Mark Hertsgaard
    The Secret Wars of Judi Bari: A Car Bomb, 
      the Fight for the Redwoods, and the End of Earth First! 
    by Kate Coleman
    Encounter Books: 262 pp., $25.95

The Secret Wars of Judi Bari could be assigned in journalism schools
to teach how not to do investigative reporting. Which is a shame,
because there is a valuable, intriguing story to be told here, one
full of personal neuroses, political idealism, corporate greed and
police treachery. At the book’s heart is a mystery: Who was behind the
1990 Oakland car bombing that put environmental activists and
erstwhile lovers Bari and Darryl Cherney in the hospital and then
under arrest, accused by the FBI of planting the bomb themselves? The
bombing cast a national spotlight on the age-old battle over logging
in California’s forests, a fight that continues today.

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But author Kate Coleman isn’t interested in the broader California
timber story. Her focus is on Bari, her radical past, shifting views
about eco-sabotage and, above all, on who wanted her dead. This
narrower frame could yield an engaging, illuminating book.
Unfortunately, the reporting is thin and sloppy and the humdrum prose
is marred by dubious speculation.

The book has been attacked by some of Bari’s friends and associates,
including ex-husband Mike Sweeney, whose website lists 351 alleged
errors. Sweeney has his own ax to grind; Coleman accuses him of
physically abusing Bari and suggests that he was responsible for the
car bombing. But one need not trust Sweeney nor buy his assertion of a
right-wing conspiracy to have grave doubts about the factual
underpinnings of Coleman’s presentation.

One example not on the website: Coleman writes that in 1989, the FBI
thought Bari and/or Cherney might be the Unabomber, whose letter bombs
had killed and maimed supposed representatives of the
techno-industrial complex. It’s an explosive assertion, but Coleman,
to judge from her inadvertently revealing Notes section, didn’t
check it with the FBI. Her sole source is a Sierra Club activist who
doesn’t explain how she knows what the FBI was thinking. In short,
mere hearsay from someone with no reason to know the real story.

The book abounds with such shoddiness. Coleman disparages the
tree-sitting activist Julia Butterfly Hill as a hypocritical sellout
solely on the basis of rumors swirling through the Earth First!
Grapevine.

People say lots of things to an investigative reporter; it’s a
reporter’s responsibility to verify information and evaluate a
source’s relevance, motives and credibility before publishing it. You
can’t cherry pick facts to fit your thesis. Yet Coleman’s case
against Sweeney rests largely on just such a rickety foundation. She
cites the conclusions of Vassar College English professor Don Foster,
who first identified Joe Klein as the anonymous author of Primary
Colors after comparing the novel’s linguistic idiosyncrasies with
those of the Time columnist. Foster analyzed three threatening letters
in the Bari case that warned of, then exulted in, the bombing.

Coleman says Foster decided Sweeney most likely wrote the letters. But
she fails to mention that his credibility has been shattered by his
two-faced involvement in the murder case of child beauty queen
JonBenét Ramsey. Foster first assured the girl’s mother that he could
clear her, for he had identified the real killer, this time from
textual analysis of Web postings. When his identification was proved
wrong, Foster told police in Colorado that he had determined that the
mother was the killer after all. CBS’ 48 Hours revealed all this
about Foster in 1999, so Coleman must not have examined Foster’s bona
fides closely before reporting his version of the car bombing.

Coleman doesn’t explore the very plausible theory that angry loggers
may have bombed Bari. Her thesis is that Bari was a pot-smoking
egomaniac who latched onto the timber wars to fulfill her dream of
political martyrdom — a dream the car bombing fulfilled six years
before her 1997 death of breast cancer.

The FBI had to withdraw its accusation that she bombed her own car
when the physical evidence pointed elsewhere, and she posthumously
triumphed when an Oakland jury ruled in 2002 that FBI agents and
Oakland police officers had wrongly arrested her and Cherney to
silence their political speech.

Coleman may be 100% correct, but who can know based on the mash of
fact, rumor and speculation she presents here?

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About Mark

Independent journalist Mark Hertsgaard is the author of seven books that have been translated into sixteen languages, including Bravehearts: Whistle Blowing in the Age of Snowden; HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth; and A Day in the Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles. He has reported from twenty-five countries about politics, culture and the environment for leading outlets, including The Guardian, Der Spiegel, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Time, Mother Jones, NPR, the BBC and The Nation, where is the environment correspondent. He lives in San Francisco.

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