A controversial alliance between a government accountability group and Drakes Bay Oyster Company hit the chopping block on Friday when the company and three of its pro bono law firms split with Cause of Action. The conservative watchdog has stirred unease for both oyster farm supporters and wilderness advocates due to its director’s historical ties to the Koch brothers.
The decision came after the discovery of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request sent by Cause of Action to PBS concerning a news report on the legal battle and asking for copies of all interview footage.
That request has since been rescinded, and though Cause of Action declined to comment to the Light a spokeswoman said they “hope for nothing but the best for Drakes Bay Oyster Company and the Lunny family.”
After a 10-minute report by NewsHour’s Spencer Michels titled Strange Bedfellows Join Fight to Keep California Oyster Farm in Operation aired on May 1, Cause of Action sent a letter stating that the segment “misconstrued key facts, withheld material information, and misled the audience and an interviewee.”
The firm believes that Drakes Bay supporter and environmentalist Phyllis Faber, who said she was “disturbed” that Cause of Action wanted to set a precedent for commercial operations on public lands, had been misled about the group’s mission and intentions.
Drakes Bay operators Kevin and Nancy Lunny say they did not know about Cause of Action’s FOIA request until after the fact, when they saw a blog post about it on the Internet. Nor did they approve of the request. “While we believe that the PBS broadcast perpetuated biased reporting, we nevertheless steadfastly defend the freedom of the press,” they wrote in a letter co-signed by supporter and scientist Corey Goodman.
The association between the oyster farm and Cause of Action, which joined Drakes Bay’s legal team late last year, has been scrutinized in national media after it was reported that the group’s head, Dan Epstein, worked for a foundation run by Charles G. Koch, one half of a pair of conservative billionaire brothers.
The FOIA request, Dr. Goodman said, “plays into the distraction” that has brought anguish during the lead-up to a ruling by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that will determine the future of the historic farm and cannery.
Requests under FOIA are typically made by the news media to government agencies. Cause of Action argued that its plans to disseminate the requested information to the public, along with PBS’s government funding, kept the request within those boundaries.
Dr. Goodman said he hopes the conversation about Drakes Bay shifts from a “narrative of conspiracies” and political agendas to the issues at hand. “It certainly is going to take one of their big narratives away,” he said of environmentalists.
Requests for comment from the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin and the National Parks Conservation Association were not answered by press time.
Although Mr. Lunny said he is sad to lose what he described as Cause of Action’s “fantastic legal assistance,” he acknowledged that the group has motives that he does not share. “They have goals that they’re trying to achieve that are bigger and more broad. That kind of became clear in their letter to PBS,” he said.
As far as the segment itself, Dr. Goodman and the Lunnys expressed disappointment that NewsHour made no mention of the “scientific misrepresentations which are central to the story.” “Our efforts to explain the situation to Mr. Michels were ignored,” they wrote.
Mr. Michels, a Marin County resident who has worked at PBS NewsHour since 1983, dismissed allegations of bias. “I have never worked for an organization that is more fair and balanced and unaffected by the ideology than the PBS NewsHour,” he told the Light. “We bend over backwards to make things as fair as possible.”
Regarding the charges of scientific misconduct, Mr. Michels said that his job “isn’t to sift through all the scientific stuff and decide who’s right.” There was an avalanche of scientific arguments, he said, and “the bottom line is, I’m not writing a Ph.D. thesis, I’m doing a television report.”
Mr. Michels added that he was surprised at the fervor he encountered as soon as he began to work on the segment. “My phone started ringing and my emails started going nuts,” he said.