Judi Bari, the FBI, and the Press Democrat: Reporter Mike Geniella on an Unsolved Case


  • Photo by Pete Geniella

Mike Geniella, former reporter for the Press Democrat, moved to Ukiah in 1985, where he began covering the timber beat. Before his retirement in 2008, he wrote about everything from sawmills to tree-spiking. Geniella says he didn’t know “one end of a redwood tree from another” when he started, but after much talking, reading and studying old newspaper clips, he began to gain context and understanding of the nascent, jumbled and tragic battles between the timber industry and Earth First! activists in Mendocino and Humboldt counties. He was on the scene when tensions escalated—pushed to a fever pitch by the clear-cutting practices employed with increasing regularity after Texan oil executive Charles Hurwitz, CEO of the Maxxam conglomerate, purchased Pacific Lumber.

Sometime in the late 1980s, Geniella was introduced to Judi Bari when she dropped by his office with Darryl Cherney, who introduced the future Earth First! leader as his “sidekick.” Bari would soon go on to surpass Cherney in terms of influence and power within the environmental movement. Geniella describes Bari as “quick and clever” and “savvy about her leadership role.”

“That’s when I first saw how determined she was and how bright she was,” explains Geniella during our conversation at a Healdsburg coffee shop. After publishing an article in which he connected operations by the FBI against Earth First! in Arizona, Montana and California, Geniella ended up on the FBI radar. It’s still unknown just how much of an influence a staggering FBI memo had on thwarted attempts to remove Geniella from the timber beat in 1990. Quite the old school reporter, Geniella salted our conversation with liberal “goddamns” and “fucks” (edited out for the sake of editorial brevity), as he talked with a frank and direct honesty about nearly losing his job at the Press Democrat in the early 1990’s.

What was it like covering the timber beat during the era of Judi Bari, Earth First! and Charles Hurwitz?

It was an intense period and everyone was getting scrutinized, including the newspaper. It was a very difficult time for everyone, including me. It was in this climate that the bombing occurred.

What are your thoughts on the bombing itself and the initial accusations that Bari and Cherney had bombed themselves?

I never bought too much into that theory. Knowing Judi at that point, the notion that she would knowingly sit on top of a bomb that had clearly been placed under the front seat of the car was inconceivable. Whatever Judi was about, killing herself in the name of martyrdom was not one of them.

How did the whole FBI memo situation come about?

For being a jaded newspaper man, I do have a Pollyanna side to me. I was approached by a freelance writer. She wanted to do an interview about my coverage of the timber beat, thinking that I was explaining how the newspaper works, and providing insights into the working of the media business. The writer (Lynn Dahl) typically was published in the North Coast Journal, but she decided to give the interview to Bruce Anderson and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. Anderson re-crafted the lede of the story to focus on Redwood Summer. The story starts off as if the point is Redwood Summer, rather than some, ‘who is this guy?’

What happened next?

The editors of the PD were angry that the interview appeared in the AVA. It was like the police breaking the code of silence. The issue became that the interview ended up in the AVA. We got into a conflict and they said they were going to take me off of the timber beat. I suggested to them that if they took a high profile reporter off of a high profile issue, that probably was going to raise a lot of unpleasant issues, and of course, it did.

I went down first to talk to them about it. It was a Monday morning, and Bruce Kyse and Chuck Buxton said we need to meet you—I think it was Cloverdale, some restaurant—and that’s when they informed me that they were taking me off the timber beat. I was very unhappy about that. One, I just thought it was unfair and bullshit. But more importantly, I realized that what they didn’t see at the time was that it was going to create an even bigger problem. And it did. The paper became the object of the notoriety. The Columbia Journalism Review ended up laying in on them. So this was not just a spat locally. I felt horribly caught in the middle of it all.

Two, it’s funny how we as humans in crisis act, and sometimes the bad decisions we make. In this case, I made the first mistake. They made the second big mistake, beyond taking me off. That was an internal decision. The publicity got to the point where they wanted me to make a statement that I had agreed with them. That I had agreed on my removal, and that my actions had created “the possibility of a perceived bias.”

That’s a mouthful, isn’t it?

That was like a professional death threat, had I signed it. They had it all typed up. They wanted me to sign it and they were going to distribute it. They wanted me to be removed because I had created this possiblity of a perceived bias. It was a death warrant. Would any other newspaper hire a reporter who said, “I was so dumb I created a bias, a potential bias”? Now, it became a very difficult situation. It ended up with my demand that I be returned to the timber beat. They were trying to whitewash it. My refusal to sign the document, of course, prolonged that. I simply had to say no. It was a very tense period. I was being advised by people about potential litigation.

There was a gentleman by the name of Elie Abel. He had been a White House Correspondent for the New York Times, the NBC White House Correspondent, the Dean of the Stanford School of Journalism, and the Dean of the Columbia School of Journalism. By chance, his daughter lived in Ukiah. She was the director of the local museum there.

The PD editors set a deadline. They said: you need to sign this by noon Saturday or we’re printing the story. And when I said I’m sure I can’t do that, I was warned that they were going to take the public hammer to me with this possibility of perceived bias. The night before the deadline, I’m sitting at home—my wife and I had four little boys at the time. I felt that my future as a journalist and our family’s economics were at stake. But my wife looked at me and said, “You have to do what’s right and if that means that we have to pack our bags and move on, then we have to do that.” So that’s how serious it was.

How did Elie Abel end up helping you?

We spoke on the phone for about an hour. I met him at the office the next day and he helped me draft a response to the editors.

Here’s this distinguished man who comes in and sits down. And I looked at him I said, well, I guess I have really fucked up. You get doubts in your own mind, even though I was sure, I still had that kind of doubt. He held up his hand and said, “You did nothing to warrant this. They are totally overreacting. I’m astounded that they would ask you to take the bullet for them.” Although, as we now know, that’s a very common practice in many places. But that was the watershed moment. He even offered to help me find a job.

Did you end up leaving the Press Democrat?

I decided that if they would return me to the timber beat, I would stay. I really didn’t want to uproot myself. On the other hand, though, I knew it was inevitable that I had to be returned. That was probably October 1990. So the editors and I entered into a kind of truce. Mr. Abel had advised me not to demand to be returned immediately. In my statement back to them I said a journalist should be judged by their work, not by what they might do.

They asked whether I had participated in Redwood Summer and I said that I had been asked for my observations about Redwood Summer. Huge difference.

What happened after you returned to the paper that January?

It was still a difficult period and I don’t know if anyone was happy. I don’t know if it was ever resolved. As soon as I returned to the timber beat, officially, it was as if it never happened. I proposed an ethics discussion so people could avoid this crap. Whatever I did, what I told Abel, whatever I did and whatever red flags it raised, it was unintentional. I hadn’t turned into some political activist. My whole point was that we should talk about this as reporters and professionals. But that never happened. I still believe that it was a missed opportunity, professionally.

How did you find out about the FBI memo? What did were the contents of the memo?

Three or four years later, when Judi was involved in the lawsuit against the Feds for civil rights violations, her defense team got access to all of the files. Judi’s role in all of that was organizing those files, reviewing them. It was an immense undertaking for her, but she did it. She called me one day, and she says, “So Geniella, I have a little document here that you’re going to find most interesting.” And I said, “What’s that?” And she said, “Oh, I won’t even talk about it, I’ll just fax it to you.” And I thought, again her credibility was such, that I thought, “okay.” A minute or so later, here comes this fax.

It’s this memo from Richard Held at San Francisco FBI headquarters to William Sessions, who was the FBI director at the time in Washington, D.C. I still have a copy of it somewhere. The subject was “Mike Geniella.” I was going, “What the. . . ?” An then it goes off and explains who I was, how I had covered these logging issues in Northern California, how I had gone to Arizona and Montana doing a bigger piece on Earth First activists, and essentially saying the basis of that and the investigation of a lot of accusations and few substantiated charges filed. From an FBI perspective, I’m sure they didn’t want to read that, but in fact that was the case. They’d already begun to trod out terrorism – “They were terrorists.” But it was a good, solid story.

The climate was such in Mendocino County and the North Coast, were all these people dangerous or not? This memo then cited that series of stories. The second paragraph said that they believed this reporter had distorted and manufactured facts, to deliberately set out to embarrass the FBI and diminish their case. This kind of scathing thing. So, in conclusion, it was asking Washington, should we voice our concerns to the publisher of the Press Democrat or should Washington take the concerns to the New York Times, the owners of the Press Democrat? It wasn’t a question of should we do this, it was where is this complaint going, to Santa Rosa or the New York Times? There was some allusion about the removal. There was something about bias. Even though it was three or four years after the fact, it was pretty stunning.

What was the timing of the memo in relation to the attempts by PD editors to remove you from the timber beat?

The memo was sent out roughly 35 days before I was taken off the timber beat. The timing was horribly coincidental, if you want to believe in coincidence. It was not only stunning to see that I was the subject of some FBI bullshit, but then, of course, as Judi quickly had pointed out, she said you need to look at the date very closely. So I’m stunned by reading the contents, and my second sock to the stomach was the realization that this was 3-4 weeks before I was taken off the timber beat.

I don’t care which side of the street you’re on, it raises the question; Did they talk to the publisher and/or to the New York Times management? And did I inadvertently give them the excuse to take me off the timber beat?

But here’s the problem with all of this crap. And that’s what it is, when it gets down to it, crap. So, I was back, writing great stuff about timber-related issues.

You stayed on the timber beat? You were never actually taken off?

I returned after that two month period and I stayed. Then, I did two things. I first went to the editor—Bruce Kyse, who’s now the publisher—and Chuck Buxton, who was actually the editor in charge of all of this.

I went to them and showed them a copy of the memo and I asked them if they’d ever been contacted by the FBI, and they insisted that no conversation ever occurred between them and the FBI. Professionally, I’ve accepted that because that’s what they assured me, and I have absolutely no reason to suggest that they aren’t telling the truth. However, I think that they would agree that the mere fact that that document exists raises the legitimate question of “did someone pressure or convince either the. . .” It doesn’t take much to imagine the New York Times executive management picking up the phone and saying, “I don’t care what this is about, get that asshole off the beat, we don’t want this.” I’m not saying that happened, but it’s certainly legitimate given what we all know about FBI memos and collusion and all of this.

So I was assured that there was no contact, and I accepted that.

From the PD editors, but that still leaves the New York Times

It leaves the question still open. I’m not going to weigh in on that. My bottom line is that I asked and was assured that the local editors did not have anything to do with anything, or any contact. I think that’s crucial to say—contact. So I’m going to accept that. But I have no problem talking about it because, frankly, I think the FBI memo speaks for itself. What did you boys do? And who did you talk to?

So to follow that up. There’s such a thing as the Freedom of Information act. So I went through that process thinking, well there’s a paper trail somewhere and it will tell me perhaps who was in contact with whom and what time?

I get this official letter back from the FBI saying, we have no file on you.

But your name was the subject of the memo…

So I filed another one, and then followed it up with a call to the FBI person in Washington who handled these things, and said, “I have a real issue with this.” Because I’m sitting here with an official, FBI memo in front of me. It’s initialed. It is an FBI document and it says “Subject: Mike Geniella.” Not Redwood Summer. And are you telling me that there’s no file and that this document doesn’t exist? And they said, “We don’t know. Where did you get that?” So I told them, “Well, it’s part of litigation but frankly it doesn’t matter. Where is Mike Geniella’s file? That’s what I want to see.” We don’t have it. Doesn’t exist. They never confirmed the existence. I said, “Well, what about this memo that I have?” And they said, “We can’t comment.”

The FBI just shut down. They said there was no profile on Mike Geniella, which was hard to believe given Redwood Summer and the whole cast of characters that they did have files on. But more importantly, clearly Mike Geniella was the subject of an FBI thing and it’s in a file someplace. And that was kind of the final roadblock. I couldn’t go anywhere, other than, thank God, I have a copy of it. I provided a copy to everyone I thought should have a copy of it.

Sonoma County Library