Los Angeles Times, Nov. 26, 1991

Can the Press Cover the Old Boys Club That Owns It?

It was pure luck that a Time Warner journalist ran into a Time Warner executive this summer at a redwood retreat 70 miles north of San Francisco. It was also bad luck, at least for the journalist. The Time Warner executive threw him out.

You see, it wasn't just any retreat. The chance meeting occurred at the exclusive, super-secret Bohemian Grove, where the old boys (no women, ever) of America's government and corporate elite gather each summer for two weeks of laid-back schmoozing and speechmaking, not to mention the club's mock-Druid fire rituals.

And it wasn't just any journalist. Dirk Mathison was, until recently, the enterprising San Francisco bureau chief of People magazine, owned by Time Warner. Since reporters are banned from Bohemian Grove, Mathison hiked over back-country trails to sneak into the July "encampment" three different times. The third time, he ran into the Time Warner executive who recognized him and tossed him out.

Mathison had already learned a lot. Contrary to the claims of the grove, Mathison saw more than just summertime relaxation. Former Secretary of the Navy John Lehman, for example, gave a lecture in which he stated that the Pentagon estimated 200,000 Iraqis were killed during the six weeks of the Gulf War. The Pentagon never gave the rest of us an official count. Other speakers included Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and former Health, Education and Welfare Secretary Joseph A. Califano, speaking on "America's Health Revolution -- Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Pays."

Expecting to read all about it in People? It won't happen. Even though Mathison embarked on the Bohemian Grove story with his editor's approval, and even though Mathison says his article was so well received that extra space was allotted for it, the story was mysteriously killed.

People's managing editor told my researchers that although he had authorized Mathison to infiltrate the grove, he later killed the piece after realizing that he had authorized "trespassing." He denied any pressure from Time Warner higher-ups.

Mathison said a full explanation would be elusive: "It's easier to penetrate the Bohemian Grove than the Time-Life building."

But one need not penetrate Time-Life to realize what this episode says about journalism today: It can be difficult for journalists to report fully on America's political and economic elite when their bosses are loyal members of that elite.

Every year at Bohemian Grove, media executives hobnob with news makers. Walter Cronkite, for example, resides at the same lodge at the grove as George Bush. But the grove -- whose membership includes every Republican President since Coolidge, and on whose premises presidential campaigns have been fueled and the Manhattan (A-bomb) Project conceived -- is off-limits to news coverage.

Since the grove is such a closed institution, it is admittedly difficult for journalists to cover. But what about other issues that affect reporters' new mega-corporate masters? How tough can the public expect major media to be in covering mergers, buyouts and executive greed in an era of middle-class downturn and layoffs?

Well, working journalists are part of that middle class, with reason to be cautious. After Time merged with Warner to form the biggest media firm in the world, Time Warner Chairman Steve Ross told Variety that journalists "cannot afford to be anywhere but part of a strong, diverse company with global reach and responsibility. . . . A diverse, financially strong media company makes it possible for managers to attract and nurture talented journalists."

Instead of nurturing journalists, Time Warner -- thanks largely to debt incurred during the merger -- recently laid off 600 magazine employees, including 19 of Time's 75 correspondents, to achieve a savings of $30 million (This after Ross, the nation's most highly compensated chief executive, made $78 million last year in salary and stock profits).

And what about Dirk Mathison, the enterprising journalist who tried to cover the lords of free enterprise? He's one of the 600. He's been notified that his San Francisco bureau will be shut down Dec. 31 in a cost-cutting measure.

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