Cover photo: Historical Eureka newspapers from the collection of Jack Irvine.
by EMILY GURNON
IT WAS 150 YEARS AGO THAT THE HUMBOLDT TIMES, as it was known then, began publication. First as a weekly, then a daily, the Times ran under a variety of names, including the Times-Telephone and the Daily Evening Telephone. Its merger in 1967 with the Daily Standard created the newspaper we know today as the Times-Standard.
For most of its history, it has been a staunchly conservative voice, both in its editorials and its news copy. Its record is one of championing local industry -- fishing, oil exploration and timber -- and advocating what it viewed as "progress," be it the coming of the railroad or the building of the Redwood Highway or the plans for the Butler Dam in the 1970s.
As the only daily newspaper in the county, it also helped shape public opinion on the most wrenching, divisive issues of the time -- from the Indian conflicts of the mid-1800s to the expulsion of Chinese workers in 1885 to the timber wars that continue today.
"It has tremendous influence," said Susie Van Kirk, a historic resources consultant who is cited by local librarians as the foremost authority on Humboldt County newspapers. "It was extremely important early on because it was the only paper that had some broader circulation [beyond an individual city or community], and that has continued."
It also served as the sole source of news, other than word-of-mouth among residents, Van Kirk said.
"In those early days, there was no other access to news, absolutely none," she said. "So the paper had a tremendous impact, because it was the source of information."
Local historian Ray Raphael [Photo at left] , author of the new book Founding Myths: Stories that Hide Our Patriotic Past, said the paper has been an "invaluable resource" for him and for others who study Humboldt County history, because few other primary sources, such as letters and diaries, exist from the early days of European settlers. "We would be nowhere without the recording of that information," he said. "This weekly [then daily] chronicling of what people thought was important was invaluable, partly just by their choice of what they thought was important."
The men who started the Times in 1854, among them editor and co-owner J.E. Wyman, were "shameless self-promoters of Humboldt: Everything was perfect, the future was rosy, there were always wonderful opportunities going on," Raphael said.
One example was the way the paper treated the Petrolia oil boom of 1865. The paper's owners -- like all Humboldt bigwigs of the time -- were also investors in the companies that went after the oil, Raphael said. "They're trying to attract outside money. They need capital. This is a hard thing to drill for oil in the middle of nowhere. So they're just touting this thing. Everything is going crazy [they wrote], and the description of how much oil was gushing from these wells -- a year later, of course, all these companies were belly up."
But far more harm was done, Raphael said, through the paper's reports on the conflicts with Indian tribes whose homeland they had invaded.
"They would report any incident in which the Indians supposedly did something bad to whites as this great grievance, and simultaneously, any time the whites did something bad [the paper] would be very, very proud of it."
Raphael said that, as shocking and racist as those old reports are, they reflect their historic context.
"The people here are in immediate conflict. They want this land. It's basically in their vested interest to portray the original inhabitants of the land, the indigenous, as somehow subhuman or cruel or un-Christian, some way to legitimize their takeover of the land."
The voices of those who wanted a more peaceful end to the conflicts "are not really registered in the Times," Raphael said. "They did exist."
A horrendous exclamation point on the conflicts came, of course, with the massacre at Indian Island on Feb. 26, 1860. In the subsequent edition of the Times, the paper said it could not "approve" of the slaughter. But the emphasis of its coverage is on the atrocities that had been suffered up to that point by whites.
Other papers took a markedly different approach to the story. Bret Harte was working at the time as a young writer and occasional editor at the Northern Californian, a weekly paper published in Union, the town renamed Arcata. Under the headline, "Indiscriminate massacre of Indians, women and children butchered," he wrote:
Elsewhere, too, the coverage was different. The San Francisco Bulletin wrote:
The Chinese: "Coolie" labor
The Times gave similarly racist treatment to the issue of the Chinese workers who, after having been expelled from Humboldt County in 1885 because they were viewed as an economic threat, among other things, returned in 1906 to work at a cannery on the Eel River.
The cannery workers were shipped out the following month because loggers objected to their presence.
The Chinese were not the only workers looked upon with derision in the pages of the Times and Standard. The newspapers' approach to labor issues overall was to support the barons of industry and criticize workers who dared to challenge their bosses.
"They celebrated the people of wealth," Van Kirk said. "The men who labored 10-12 hours a day in the woods and mills to make the county's Vances and the Carsons wealthy and successful men found no supporter at the Times."
In 1935, lumber workers in Humboldt County organized as the Lumber and Sawmill Workers Local 2563, according to The Great Lumber Strike of Humboldt County 1935 by Frank Onstine. They demanded a raise from 35 to 50 cents an hour, and a reduction in their work week from 60 to 48 hours. On May 15, they joined a general strike of the West Coast lumber industry, Onstine wrote. The Times described the action as "a terrorist campaign launched by communist leaders." Local workers, the paper wrote, were caught in the middle.
"The paper was continually indicating that Humboldt County workers were not dissatisfied with their situation and that they in fact supported their benevolent employers," Van Kirk said. "So things just went from bad to worse, and they erupted in June 1935." [Photo at right: Susie Van Kirk]
It was on the morning of June 21 of that year that "reds" gathered at the gates of the Holmes-Eureka mill, today the site of Bayshore Mall, and striking workers clashed with police, who shot and killed three men -- two workers and a bystander -- and arrested 141 others. The five police officers who were wounded were pictured by the Times; there were no photos of the dead men. The event, later referred to by workers as a "massacre," was described by the Humboldt Times as "mob violence." Its stories made victims and heroes of the police and the "special officers," men who were later determined to be paid enforcers of the mill, according to a 1995 Times-Standard story.
The 1935 event was described by the Times this way:
Pepper spray 'flap'
The Times-Standard's coverage of the logging industry historically has been seen by critics as decidedly pro-timber. Whether through outright pro-business bias or a lack of rigorous reporting, the paper failed to jump on one of the most explosive local issues in recent years: the infamous pepper-spray incidents of 1997, which are now the focus of a lawsuit by protesters against then-Sheriff Dennis Lewis, Sheriff Gary Philp, sheriff's deputies and Eureka police scheduled to begin Sept. 7.
When groups of timber protesters were pepper-sprayed at the Scotia headquarters of Pacific Lumber Co. on Sept. 25, 1997, the Times-Standard ran a front-page story under the headline, "9 Jailed after PL offices invaded."
The paper referred to the pepper spray in the third paragraph, quoting a Sheriff's Department statement that said "liquid chemical agents" were used on the protesters "who refused to release themselves from the steel devices and leave the building." An unnamed protester was quoted as shouting that pepper spray had been used. The article included no further discussion of the chemical.
The second of three pepper-spray incidents did not make the paper. It involved two men who attached themselves to a Pacific Lumber bulldozer in the Bear Creek watershed near Stafford, according to a later story in the San Francisco Chronicle.
The third incident involved a protest against the impending passage of the federal Headwaters appropriations bill on Oct. 16, 1997 at the offices of then-Rep. Frank Riggs in Eureka. Four women were arrested after they chained themselves into metal sleeves around a stump that protesters had dragged into the office. This time, the Times-Standard didn't mention the pepper spray use until the ninth paragraph. The paper noted that one protester shouted "Stop torturing people" as the women were removed from the building, and that the skin around the women's eyes was red.
Twelve days went by with no further coverage of the use of pepper-spray. Then, when protesters filed suit Oct. 30 in U.S. District Court in San Francisco -- and showed Bay Area reporters the videotape of officers swabbing and spraying the chemical in the eyes of the nonviolent activists -- all hell broke loose.
The Times-Standard ran a wire story about the lawsuit on page A5, the last page of local news. Meanwhile, the videotape was being aired on TV stations all over the country, and the pepper spraying was reported in major newspapers nationwide.
The following day, the Times-Standard ran an Associated Press story on its front page under the headline, "Law enforcement under pepper fire." The lawsuit alleged the pepper spraying violated standard police practices, the story read, and the AP reporter quoted then-Humboldt County Sheriff Dennis Lewis as saying that the tactic was "something new."
The Times-Standard filled out its coverage that day with two of its own stories: one involving an interview with Lewis headlined, "Pepper spray safest method, sheriff says," and a brief article entitled, "Riggs office closes early after death threats made." The following day, the paper ran a front-page story under the headline, "`I thought I was going to die,'" quoting Riggs' office workers saying how afraid they were of the "terrorist" protesters, and another front-page story in which local officials criticized the media "flap" over the use of the spray.
In a Nov. 2 editorial, the paper acknowledged that the videotape "represents an offensive image of Humboldt County to the rest of the nation." But it does not go so far as to denounce the spraying. "Whatever the courts decide about the tactics police and deputies used, it will not excuse the protesters' vandalism and mayhem," it writes.
Gerry Adolph, publisher of the Times-Standard since 2002, said this week that the paper's coverage over the years reflects its readers. "In World War II, there was a different sentiment. In World War I there was a different sentiment. The true owners of the paper are the community."
On the question of bias, Adolph said it depends on whom you talk to. "We're trying to cover from all angles, and one day it may sound like we're pro-timber and one day it may sound like we're pro-environment. I think you can put one story in front of six people and they'll walk away with six different impressions."
Move to center?
Humboldt State journalism Professor Mac McClary said that the paper has undergone significant change since he first moved to Humboldt County 37 years ago. "I think that the paper has moved more to the center politically in the last couple of years. I think there are more pro-environmental voices in the Times-Standard than there were years ago. And I'm surprised how liberal the editorials are. They always used to be tagged with the pro-timber label, and I don't think that's true anymore."
After being under a single local owner from 1941 to 1967, the Times-Standard was acquired by the Brush-Moore newspaper group, which in turn was purchased by Thomson Newspapers, a Canadian company, later that year.
In 1996, Dean Singleton's MediaNews Corp., a $738 million company based in Denver, bought the paper. (See "Dean Singleton: Vilified newspaper mogul beginning to see the light?," below.) Many predicted that it would go downhill under Singleton's leadership, McClary said. But the paper "is much better than his detractors would have predicted."
Adolph said the Times-Standard has added reporters, improved wages and upgraded equipment since Singleton took the reins. "I think the future is pretty bright.
Research assistance provided by Susie Van Kirk, Joan Berman, Edie Butler and Gisela Rohde.