How the Mainstream Media Failed the Public During the ‘Save the Torrey Pine’ Campaign

by on August 30, 2016 · 10 comments

in Civil Rights, Culture, Environment, Health, History, Media, Ocean Beach

OB Torrey mediaBy Frank Gormlie

During the recent campaign to save the Torrey Pine on Saratoga, whenever there was a show down – or the promise of one – between those tree-hugging residents surrounding the infamous Pine and the Atlas tree chopping crews, you’d be sure to find television cameras and reporters at the scene.

The reporters – and their producers at the station – must have loved the Torrey Pine story –  for all the times San Diego television viewers were shown the latest news-clips about those colorful OB residents trying to save that old tree.

However the particular station spun the story – newscasters would smile wryly as if to say, ‘oh, those cute but misguided OB tree-huggers, look what they’re up to now …’ and their viewers would then catch sight of protesting residents – with even one who climbed up into the giant Torreys – all set in conflict against the the city staffers, cops, and the tree-cutting crews … with the buzz of saws in the background.

It made for good visuals, for good stories, and many times the teasers leaped out at viewers.

We all know the media love conflicts – they thrive on them – and sensational stories or stories they can sensationalize are prime meat every night on the tube.

So, the video cameras would always show up if there was promise of some kind of conflict that had good pictures, something riveting, like a young woman protesting in the tree, like a man standing in front of one and refusing to budge until shown the necessary paperwork. Like colorful local residents sitting down around the tree.

The reporters would come out at those great moments, and interview locals filled with “passion” and then would interview city staff on hand for “balance”, of course.

And to be fair, the protesters wanted the media involved. Emails of events or show-downs were sent out to the town’s media, in efforts to get the word out about the city’s plans for removing the tree, trying to compete with the city’s narrative – that the Torrey was unstable, unhealthy and the only option was to chop it down (but hey, we’ll give the wood to an artist who will make a tribute to OB so y’all can feel better) -.

And this online journal, the OB Rag, tried our damnest to get the word out as well, to counter the city’s narrative, to inform and alert the OB public at large.

Naturally, on the day that Esperanza, the Torrey, died – August 22nd –  they were all there – cameras whirring catching the passion, the anger and grief of residents, reporters interviewing locals and city people for balance … (Ed Lenderman gave the most fair report, in this reporter’s view).

But by and large, the media, this town’s TV media especially, failed in their job – the job of adequately informing the public, getting the real story out. In plain fact, the mainstream media did not report the true and complete story.

Sure, they did those interviews of residents and city people at the tree site – but that was it. None of them dug any deeper. None of them actually hunted down and reviewed the numerous reports that the city used to validate their demand that the tree be removed. No interviews of bureaucrats deep inside the city’s bowels for explanations. No queries offered to scurrying politicians.

There was no research done, no digging around to see if what the residents and their biologist friends were saying actually made sense. No in-depth coverage.

Which is what TV news is famous for, right? – no depth, no real research on the common, everyday news. But even the local print media didn’t use any excavating tools, no shovels, not even a spade – heck, not even a spoon.

It just wasn’t that big of a story. But it sure made good news. Splashy, sexy news.

Of course, one of the biggest problems with the media – in the vacuum of not having any of their own research to rely on – is that they then tend to rely on the city’s statements, the city’s information – the city’s narrative. The city says the tree is failing – so it must be failing. The city says the tree must be removed. So it must be removed.

By not doing any of their own digging into what Torrey Pines are, how they grow, what their failure and falling rates are – especially compared to other local trees, or refusing to do any interviews of any independent Torrey Pine experts, or even arborists, the media failed to perform their basic function.

Here are some examples (taken from the online text of TV stations).

In this 7SanDiego report about the removal on August 22nd, it states:

This is a moderate threat and we don’t know when this tree will fail,” said Jeremy Barrick, City of San Diego Planning Department Urban Forestry Planning Department.

City officials met with members of the community last week, Barrick said. He acknowledged that there was a community forum planned for August 24 but the action had to be taken because of the increased risk.

“In this case, this is a public safety issue. We need to move forward with this before it comes down,” Barrick said.

So, Barrick is quoted as saying that the tree had to be removed on the 22nd, even though there was supposedly a forum scheduled for the 24th, because, as he says, “…this is a public safety issue.”

Now, if the 7SanDiego reporters had even read the few reports the city was relying on them, they would have known that nowhere in any of the documents are  there statements or conclusions that the tree was in imminent danger of falling or collapsing. In fact, of the 3 reports used by the city, one said the tree was “low risk”, one was “high risk”, and the last one was “moderate”. And the community-funded arborist report submitted to the city stated the tree was “low risk”.

Therefore, there was no reason to rush the cutting down of the Torrey. And Barrick gets away with saying that, without any questioning, because the reporter has not down their homework.

Likewise, in the following quote from Channel 7’s report:

... The City told NBC 7 that four different arborists have looked at the Torrey Pine and determined the tree is hazardous. NBC 7 was able to obtain these reports.

Well, again, this is just not true or accurate. There weren’t 4 different arborists at all. And if NBC 7 had obtained the reports as is stated, they would have known that. There was 1 Atlas arborist (Matranga), one city arborist (Barrick) and one city biologist (Aries).

Then the report states:

The tree is rooted adjacent to where two other similar large Torrey Pines were removed earlier in the year, after El Nino storms caused them to uplift.

“Uplift” is such an excitable term, especially used next to Torrey Pines. And there is some doubt as to just actually how much “uplift” had been caused by the recent storm.

In regards to these two Torreys, the city acted so quickly, without any notice to the community or transparency, when it quickly removed these 2 other Torrey Pines on the same block. No independent arborist was allowed to make an assessment; there was no community forum; there was no time provided for the community to react.

Torrey Pines have been demonized. The City swooped in back last February and chopped down two large Torreys without any independent review or notice.

Here’s another example, provided by the Times of San Diego (they received their report from City News Service). Their report of the August 22nd incident stated:

City officials contended the nearly century-old Torrey pine at 4652 Saratoga Ave. was in danger of falling and planned to cut it down 10 days ago, but area residents convinced them to have the tree examined further by outside experts.

None of the city reports said that the tree was in danger of “falling”. The reports did say it was in danger of “failing” – perhaps too easy to get confused, but there are big differences between a falling Torrey Pine and one that was failing. It went on:

According to Jeremy Barrick, a board-certified master arborist and the city’s urban forester program manager, three arborists affiliated with the city agreed the tree had to come down while two hired by residents split in their opinion. …

This is just not true. There weren’t three arborists with the city. There was the Atlas arborist – in a position that was a clear conflict of interest – and there was Barrick himself. (Barrick is new to San Diego and it’s unlikely he’s had much experience with Torrey Pines as they don’t grow in that many places.) There was another city person, but he was not an arborist.

Plus the report quotes Barrick as saying that residents hired two arborists, who were split in their opinions. This is just not true either. Only one arborist was hired by residents, Bradly Brown, and he assessed the tree as low risk. And why didn’t the reporter ask the residents about this?

Then again we have the myths. The report says:

Two nearby Torrey pines were uprooted by storms over the most recent winter, according to city officials.

“Uprooted” is even worse than “uplift”, clearly.This is a falsehood perpetuated by the media – and the city.

Many of the reports about the tree were not updated. A report that ran on August 11th was basically the same report that ran 11 days later. CBS8

One CBS report did state:

The city says strong winds from a previous storm weakened the root system and made the trees unstable, causing a hazard in the residential area. They say the tree could fall at any moment.

“They”? Who said that? Who exactly said the “tree could fall at any moment”? The city of San Diego is huge.

This recurring theme – that no one from the city was taking responsibility – is simply carried by the media. And without their own homework, the media relies on the city, and continues the city’s narrative, which feeds into the fears and myths about Torrey Pines, and actually helps the city in cutting down the Torrey Pines.

Another myth carried by the news media – one promoted by city propaganda hand delivered by Bill Harris on August 4th – was that a Torrey had fallen on that block about twenty years ago and damaged one of the houses. This is a complete inaccuracy.

It is true that a tree fell and damaged a house on that block about 2 decades ago. This reporter lived only a few blocks away and remembers the incident well. I actually went to the site and examined the tree and its damage. It was not a Torrey Pine but a much smaller tree, a deciduous I believe. But in the absence of any research, this myth was kept alive by the media, and perpetrated by some residents themselves.

One weekend, the tree savers shot themselves in the foot, so to speak. A group decided to send out a press statement essentially agreeing to the city’s position that the tree was unhealthy and had to come down. The mainstream media jumped on this. Here – finally – was the affirmation of the city’s narrative by the tree huggers themselves. All the stations, the U-T, the Beacon ran the story that the residents had given up.

But, no reporter was sent to investigate the apparent complete turn around by the residents, the 180-degree switch about. If they had, they would have found a much more complicated and nuanced situation. They would have found a lot of residents were not ready to give up – and in fact, the residents who had been mobilized had set up a GoFundMe page, had raised over $1000 and had hired their own master arborist.

This fact – the fact that the community-the residents themselves – raised enough money to fund an independent arborist – was lost on the the media, and in the reporting – and hence it was lost to the television-viewing audience and the newspaper-readers of the region. The independent arborist who assessed the Torrey as having a “low risk”didn’t get any air time. Too complicated. Too against the city and their own narrative.

So, despite movement and momentum to the contrary of any supposed “surrender”, another turn about just didn’t fit in nicely.

The media does like to show resolution of a sorts. City comes to chop down tree. Resident protest. There’s a debate. Residents admit they were wrong. City chops down tree.

Here’s a headline from CBS8:

After long debate, Ocean Beach Torrey Pine comes down”

Yet, there was no debate. There was no debate or discussion at a community forum, one requested by residents. There was no dialogue with the city. Yes, there was one meeting, attended by one or two residents, but that was it. And at least one of those residents was literally waiting for a response from the city at the moment the tree was taken down.

And when the City put out this press statement when there was a temporary suspension of the removal:

While it continues to monitor the condition of the 73-year-old Torrey pine, the City will work more closely with community members to discuss the tree’s condition, safety concerns and replacement tree options.

No one in the major media questioned this last phrase, especially in light of what came down on August 24th, but the phrase”the City will work more closely with community members to discuss the tree’s condition, safety concerns …” had no expression in reality. The city did not work “more closely with community members”, it did just the opposite. It ignored community members – and their call for a forum.

In sum, then, the mainstream media completely failed the public on the issue of the Torrey Pine that a bunch of residents, biologists and environmentalists were trying to save.

The media failed to do their own research; they took on the city’s narrative – for they lacked their own; they failed to do any actual investigations; they failed to do follow-ups or follow-throughs; and they failed to keep track of what was actually happening – except in those delicious moments of colorful conflict – which make for damn good stories.




{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Geoff Page August 30, 2016 at 11:45 am

Nice recounting, Frank. What is truly disturbing is how many people rely on the mainstream media for their information and all the media does is parrot anyone who is in “authority.” Journalism ain’t what it once was at all.


rick callejon August 30, 2016 at 12:26 pm

Shoddy journalism aids and abets feckless locally elected representatives.


OB Longboarder August 30, 2016 at 12:51 pm

Fourth Estate my a$$. Corporate media cannot be trusted for accurate information. Amazing what passes for ‘news’ these days of Faux/CNNBCBS/Disney news entertainment conglomerants.

Thanks Frank!


retired botanist August 30, 2016 at 2:27 pm

Yep, thanks Frank. One reason several activists refused to be interviewed by the mainstream media is because they splice up the commentary, thus removing the critical context, then rely too heavily on the City’s conclusions as their wrap-up. And no research whatsoever into the history,rarity of the species, or the specific ordinance protecting Torrey pines. And where were the questions about what was so imminently dangerous to public safety on that particular Monday in August?
How many actually looked at the sidewalk surrounding the tree at 4652? If that’s what the City calls “extensive sidewalk damage and uplifting” then the City should rush to another dozen sidewalk locations along the north end of Ebers where the sidewalks are totally mangled and there’s not a Torrey in sight. And I suggest they wear helmets to avoid getting whacked by a frond from one of the thousands of palms that drop them regularly.


Janet August 30, 2016 at 4:10 pm

No surprise here, even though it’s disturbing for our country as a whole….have you read the New York Times lately? Zero objectivity on the political front. Many opinion pieces on page one masquerading as news.
No wonder so many politicians maintain their seats despite their lack of real concern for their constituents….instead, it’s the wealthy donors that get the attention, most every time.


bob dorn August 31, 2016 at 9:17 am

Good on you, Frank. This really is one of those goofy knee-jerk stories
the city’s privileged on-air personalities regularly display. Oh, those OB
hippies… next, how a Clairemont widow saved a kitten up a tree with a
bowl of milk. We learn nothing from these cooked-up folk tales. But the
salaries are good for the so-called reporters.


patricia hume August 31, 2016 at 2:46 pm

I’m always surprised when I realize I’m not cynical enough. I was at the site among the cameras and reporters…they (the news) could have mentioned, the many ordinances and policies not being followed: the signs that were not up 24 hours in advance, the ridiculous security involved barracades and police force beyond the need, the 3 huge bird nests found (laws protecting migratory birds and active nests), the need for big trees regarding climate change in regard to erosion, shade, etc, the many inconsistencies with arborist reports, the lack of replanting (mandated) from the last 2 Torreys taken down- property values and big trees (20%…take a look at Sarratoga now…bleak), conflict of interest with Atlas-the tree trimmers-arborist and their “artist” who ended up with half of the trunk. Those of us interviewed mentioned ALL of these points. I watched Fox….they showed me in the crowd that wanted the tree down (there was no crowd that wanted it down). They interviewed a professional arborist who found the inconsistencies in the report and articulately pointed those out, instead they showed her saying it was a danger, completely out of context. (In newspeak…”endangered” becomes “danger” with a little editing.)
People not there had their minds made up. Like everything, it was black and white, safe or not safe. It was more complex than that, we had smart articulate people who had done their research asking questions about their community met with silence, smugness and an over the top police force. The one tiny thing we asked for when all was said and done was to keep the tree wood here. We had a place for it…no it wasn’t for souvenier Life is a Beach plaques…it was known that a furniture maker is part of the Atlas group…yep, tree cutters, arborist, and furniture makers…we didn’t want that to be part of the conflict of interest, something else to motivate. Guess where half the trunk is now? The city still gets it’s way. We’ve been told to hush and be placated. A nice bench from this rare 90 year old 75 foot magesty will eventually be brought to OB…and documented by an Atlas photographer! (I wonder if we are paying for that, too. )


tj August 31, 2016 at 9:16 pm

any ‘media’ who does not do their utmost to advance truth – has failed …

& if that is by design – they are propagandists …

& probably fascists.


retired botanist August 31, 2016 at 9:37 pm

Patricia, well said.
I had a call again today from the fellow at the Cabrillo museum who was interested in a piece of the wood to make the paddles for the Native American tule boat they are reconstructing. As mentioned, they are also making a film about the reconstruction, and the boat and paddles would remain at the museum and be conserved in perpetuity. Do we know where the rest of the wood is? I know all the limb wood that was on Saratoga is gone, but those were a little too small for the museum’s purpose. Is the larger wood still in the hands of Atlas? If you know could you message me through the group- would like to be able to assist the museum in their endeavor if we can- thanks!


Whys Cracker September 1, 2016 at 11:07 pm

Im guessing that the higher ups at Atlas are getting new pine fireplace mantles sculpted as we speak.


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