SOLOMON: Smearing Earth First!

"A lie can go halfway around the world before the truth even gets its boots on," Mark Twain once said. Sometimes, accurate information is able to catch up and prevail. But too often, we're kept in the dark while truth fumbles with its laces.You remember Richard Jewell -- the Atlanta security guard who found a bomb just before it exploded during the Olympics last July. News media soon proclaimed that Jewell was the FBI's prime suspect. Only in late October did federal authorities admit they'd been wrong. When that happened, the mass media provided Jewell with very sympathetic coverage.Time magazine devoted seven splashy pages to Jewell's ordeal and exoneration, complete with pictures of him and his mother weeping. The article began by describing Jewell as someone who had faced "powerful antagonists" -- namely, "the FBI and the media."Fair enough. For three months, an innocent man had endured the kind of public hounding that many of us would have found unbearable. Naturally, he wanted the media record set straight.Judi Bari has a similar wish. But she's still waiting for corrective action from news organizations that took a wild FBI smear and plastered it on America's front pages more than six years ago.Apparently, when it comes to defaming outside-the-system environmental activists, being the FBI -- or mainstream media -- means never having to say you're sorry.Bari was driving down an Oakland, Calif. street when a bomb exploded under her shortly before noon on May 24, 1990. Her companion, fellow Earth First! activist Darryl Cherney, suffered minor injuries. But shrapnel tore into Bari's body, shattering her pelvis and decimating vital organs.Two days later, as Bari fought for her life in a hospital bed, a front-page New York Times article reported that she and Cherney -- "two leaders of a radical environmental group" -- had been "charged with possession and transportation of an explosive device."Prodded by the FBI, which was hostile toward Earth First!, the Oakland police claimed to have solved the crime with lightning speed. The Times article spotlighted a police lieutenant who "said the authorities believed that the bomb had been placed in the car by its occupants and that it had detonated accidentally." The officer added ominously: "We're making the assumption that if the bomb was built, it was meant to be used."Nationwide, this was very hot news, evoking images of bomb- toting eco-fanatics. But the story quickly unraveled.Eager to depict the bombing's victims as its perpetrators, police announced that the bomb must have been plainly visible on the back-seat floorboard. Actually, clear evidence -- confirmed by an expert FBI examiner -- showed that the bomb had been concealed under the driver's seat. What's more, the explosive device was designed to detonate from the motion of a moving vehicle.Before the bomb went off in her car, Bari had received death threats because of her prominent work to save ancient redwoods. She kept calling for nonviolent direct action to block rapacious timber interests.After arresting the two activists with great fanfare, police lacked any evidence against Bari and Cherney. Charges were quietly dropped -- and national media yawned at the official turnaround. The hot story had cooled, so why dwell on it?If Bari and Cherney had been high-paid lobbyists instead of grass-roots activists, the FBI and major media would not have created an image of them as likely mad bombers. It's easier to smear people who wear jeans and defend old-growth forests instead of plying their trade in three-piece suits on Capitol Hill.For several years now, Judi Bari has been working hard on a lawsuit against the police and the FBI. She and Darryl Cherney want public acknowledgent that there was an official campaign to neutralize Earth First! efforts. "The FBI knowingly lied about the evidence in order to bring about our arrest," Bari says. And news media were much more interested in spreading the lies than correcting them.The wheels of litigation grind slow -- especially when the government is doing all it can to put sand in the gears. Justice may never reach the court docket or the mass media.Meanwhile, the truth about the bombing that nearly killed Judi Bari is still struggling to get its boots on.

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