Farmers' plight given its due

Oregon conflict among 2001's wrongly neglected stories, site says, but Denver dailies did cover it

Feb. 10, 2002, Rocky Mountain News

by David Kopel

What were the most important stories ignored or underreported by the mainstream media? The left-wing Project Censored ( ) and the right-wing World Net Daily ( ) each produce their own annual lists. This year's Project Censored list hasn't been released yet; the right-wing "10 Most 'Spiked' Stories of 2001" was published a few days ago, and includes a story that Colorado media had a special obligation to cover. Did they?

In Klamath Falls, Ore., 1,400 farm families are finding it impossible to farm after the federal government cut off their irrigation water rights from Upper Klamath Lake in order to protect three species of endangered fish. For property rights advocates, destruction of the Klamath community is seen as an outrageous abuse of power, and a terrible example of how the Endangered Species Act and some environmental activists make fish more important than people.

Conflicts in the West over the environment and property rights are important to Colorado, where many similar issues arise, and because Colorado's Gale Norton is Secretary of the Interior, the federal official who is required by court order to cut off the water to the Klamath families.

Did The Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News "spike" the Klamath story?

The Post ran a story about farmers in the San Luis Valley fearing that they may be next for the Klamath treatment (July 20), a syndicated opinion column on Klamath (by Debra Saunders, July 17), and mentioned Klamath briefly in three other stories (Jan. 9, 2002; Oct. 14 Perspective; Oct. 5).

The News offered a short news article (July 25), a photo of the convoy of trucks that brought supplies to the Klamath families in a major national protest (Aug. 24), a column reprinted from The Wall Street Journal's online OpinionJournal (July 26), and a brief mention of Klamath in an in-house editorial (July 29). Then, last Monday, the News, but not the Post, carried an Associated Press report about a new study from the National Academy of Sciences which concluded that there was no good scientific basis for believing that depriving the farmers of water would help the fish.

The Post and the News haven't "spiked" the Klamath story, although it hasn't received major coverage. Both papers have overlooked Klamath's role in the great disappointment that many conservatives feel with Norton, since they view her as not having fought hard enough to protect the Klamath farmers. Regular readers of the Post and the News know how often Norton gets attacked from the left, by environmental lobbies that want to limit property rights, but readers have been given no clue about the pressures on Norton from the right.

A pair of Post columnists highlight the diversity of opinion on the Post editorial page -- and also the need for more active editing.

Conservative Christian Ellen Makkai is one of the Post's "Colorado Voices," who write every two weeks during a three-month stint. Colorado Voices has done a great job of presenting a wide variety of opinion beyond the standard fare found on most newspaper editorial pages. Gay columnist Liz Winfeld writes as part of "Compass," contributing one column a month for a year-long stint. Both Winfeld and Makkai write provocative, interesting columns.

But not long ago Makkai wrote a column warning of the alleged satanic connection to the Harry Potter books. Some of her arguments had clear factual support (e.g., the Bible says that witches are real and are evil), but Makkai also cited an ex-satanist who claimed that "Potter characters execute satanic ceremony and technique as practiced today." As one letter-writer (Dec. 9) pointed out, this inflammatory accusation was made without a single example of support.

Books such as The Satanism Scare and How Claims Spread(both edited by University of Delaware sociologist Joel Best) have detailed how the "satanic ritual abuse epidemic" stories of the 1980s and 1990s turned out to be false. The Post should have demanded more evidence before letting itself become a vehicle for a new round of claims.

Makkai's Nov. 18 column touted a new book, Coming Out Straight: Understanding Homosexuality, by psychologist Richard Cohen. Cohen is a "former homosexual" who is "now a married father of three." Cohen traces his own homosexuality to his dysfunctional and abusive family, and he advocates "reparative therapy" for some (but not all) homosexuals whose current sexual orientation might have its origin in childhood problems.

On Jan. 23, Winfeld shot back with her column "Reparative therapy doesn't work." Had the column detailed social science evidence regarding reparative therapy, it would have been a great contribution to the debate. But instead, Winfeld offered little more than a mean-spirited string of ad hominems.

Winfeld offered no evidence that she had read Cohen's book, yet she asserted that Cohen's "sexual orientation is the same today as it was at birth," and that Cohen's wife is "a woman with a sense of humor." Winfeld praised herself for her own "respect for another person's religious convictions" even as she slammed Cohen for converting from Judaism to Christianity. She concluded by claiming that Cohen was "unrelentingly miserable and sick."

Memo to Post editors: If your columnists want to write about a book, insist that they at least read a few chapters first.

Clarification: My last column dealt with how a mass murderer was stopped at Appalachian Law School. Working off MSNBC's report of the crime, I mistakenly said that one armed student had thwarted the killer, when in fact there were two students, both of whom had law enforcement experience.

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