Media Beat, Aug. 9, 1995
By Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon

Media Brass Keep Secrets for Bohemian Grove

The founder of USA Today recently gave a speech to 1,500 of this country's most powerful men.

What did he tell them?

Sorry -- it's a secret.

Al Neuharth spoke at Bohemian Grove, the all-male encampment in Northern California where much of America's government and corporate elite gathers each summer for two weeks of speeches and fun activities like mock-Druid fire rituals.

A few days ago, we got an unauthorized peek at the official program -- which described Neuharth's topic as ''a look inside media newsrooms and boardrooms.'' That sounded interesting, so we called and asked for the text of his speech.

The normally talkative Neuharth was tight-lipped. ''I went there with the understanding that I would adhere to their privacy rules,'' he replied. ''I think I'd have a little ethical problem giving you the text... I just don't want to do what they would consider unethical.''

But THEY -- the managers of the Bohemian Club, which sponsors the ultra-exclusive retreat -- didn't rigidly insist on secrecy. Thanks to a ''waiver,'' Neuharth said, he was allowed to write his impressions in a USA Today column: It was all harmless relaxation for some great guys. ''No nudes. No Druids. Fun and fellowship... ''

The Bohemian Grove program identified Neuharth as chairman of the Freedom Forum -- a $ 700 million foundation dedicated to a ''free press.'' So, we might ask: Why did the head of that foundation agree to get together with other power-brokers to deliver speeches when everyone present was sworn to secrecy?

The day before his own speech, Neuharth was among 2,200 men who heard an address by House Speaker Newt Gingrich. And what did Gingrich have to say to the assembled movers and shakers?

''I'm sorry,'' Gingrich staff writer Robert George told us. ''We do not have a copy of that speech, and it will not be transcribed... The Bohemian Grove events are basically private functions.''

But matters of great public concern are discussed at Bohemian Grove. The day before Gingrich's speech -- with a crucial telecommunications bill gliding through Congress and some humongous media mergers in the offing -- a top AT&T executive supplied an assessment of ''the complex web of futuristic communications.''

A week later, former President George Bush spoke at Bohemian Grove. In fact, every Republican president since Coolidge has been a member. Presidential campaigns have been hatched there.

In modern times, participants have included secretaries of state (Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, James Baker), Jimmy Carter, William Randolph Hearst Jr., Walter Cronkite, David Gergen and David Rockefeller. Notables have also included the presidents of such media outlets as CNN and the Associated Press.

All of this gets very little news coverage -- a fact that has long frustrated Sonoma County businesswoman Mary Moore, an activist who lives five miles from the deluxe camp. ''The media trivialize everything about Bohemian Grove,'' she contends.

Yet many diligent journalists have tried to report about what goes on there. ''The problem is,'' Moore says, ''when the story gets to the top boardrooms, then it gets killed.''

Journalist Dirk Mathison found out the hard way.

In July 1991, when Mathison was the San Francisco bureau chief of People magazine (owned by Time Warner), he hiked over back-country trails and sneaked into the Grove's 2,700-acre spread three times. But on his third foray, Mathison ran into a Time Warner exec who recognized him -- and threw him out.

Mathison had already learned a lot. For example, a former secretary of the Navy, John Lehman, presented a lecture containing a Pentagon estimate that 200,000 Iraqis were killed during the Gulf War a few months earlier. The Pentagon had not released its death count to the public; at Bohemian Grove, Lehman was more candid.

But Mathison's eyewitness report never made it into the pages of People. The story was mysteriously killed. The Mathison episode illustrates how difficult it can be for journalists to report fully on America's political and economic elite when their bosses are loyal members of that elite. Today, amid media mega-mergers and deregulation fervor, the conflict between gathering news and protecting the powerful is more severe than ever.

A dramatic instance of that conflict can be found each summer at Bohemian Grove. So, we have a suggestion for Al Neuharth if he really believes in a ''free press'': Provide a Freedom Forum grant for Dirk Mathison to update the story that People magazine refused to print.

home | more articles | book a lecture
Cable News Confidential
My Misadventures in Corporate Media

Wizards of Media Oz
Behind the Curtain of Mainstream News
w/Norman Solomon
Common Courage Press

The Way Things Aren't
Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error
w/Steve Rendall et al, New Press

Through the Media Looking Glass
Decoding Bias and Blather in the News
w/Norman Solomon
Common Courage Press

Adventures in Medialand
Behind the News, Beyond the Pundits
w/Norman Solomon
Common Courage Press