When Dirk Mathison, San Francisco bureau chief for People magazine, infiltrated the exclusive Bohemian Grove retreat this summer, he got a view into the US elite that very few reporters have glimpsed. Unfortunately, that elite includes the management of Time Warner, the owner of People, which prevented Mathison from telling his story.
Bohemian Grove, a secluded campground in California’s Sonoma County, is the site of an annual two-week gathering of a highly select, all-male club, whose members have included every Republican president since Calvin Coolidge. Current participants include George Bush, Henry Kissinger, James Baker and David Rockefeller — a virtual who’s who of the most powerful men in business and government.
Few journalists have gotten into the Grove and been allowed to tell the tale (one exception is Philip Weiss, whose November 1989 Spy piece provides the most detailed inside account), and members maintain that the goings-on there are not newsworthy events, merely private fun. In fact, official business is conducted there: Policy speeches are regularly made by members and guests, and the club privately boasts that the Manhattan Project was conceived on its grounds.
Given the veil of secrecy that surrounds the Bohemian “encampment,” a reporter needs to enter the grounds covertly in order to get a full portrait. Mathison entered the grounds three times July 1991, aided by activists from the Bohemian Grove Action Network.
He witnessed a speech — “Smart Weapons” — by former Navy Secretary John Lehman, who stated that the Pentagon estimates that 200,000 Iraqis were killed by the U.S. and its allies during the Gulf War. Other featured speakers included Defense Secretary Richard Cheney on “Major Defense Problems of the 21st Century,” former Health, Education and Welfare Secretary Joseph Califano on “America’s Health Revolution — Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Pays,” and former Attorney General Elliott Richardson on “Defining the New World Order.”
Mathison’s entree into the secret world of the Grove was cut short on July 20, however, when he was recognized by two of the participants in the festivities — executives from Time Warner, People‘s publisher. More loyal to the Grove than to journalistic endeavor, they had the reporter removed from the premises (San Francisco Weekly, 8/7/91).
Mathison already had plenty of material, however, and turned in an article to his editors, which was scheduled to appear in the Aug. 5, 1991 issue. They were pleased with the piece, according to Mathison: “They liked it enough to expand it a bit,” he told Extra!.
But then the story was suddenly killed. Landon Jones, managing editor of People, told Extra! that the decision had nothing to do with the Time Warner executives. “It was cut partially because he hadn’t been there long enough to get a complete story. Secondly, we felt very uncertain about reporting what we did have, because, and this is my fault and I take responsibility for this, I simply didn’t realize it was technically trespassing.”
For his part, Mathison said he did not know why the story was killed, and implied it would be nearly impossible to find the real reason. “It’s easier to penetrate the Bohemian Grove than the Time-Life Building,” he told Extra!.
But the story raises questions about the ability of a media entity to report critically on an elite when its executives are enthusiastic members of that elite. Indeed, the Time organization was noted for sending a corporate plane to the Bohemian gathering every year, according to long-time Grove-watcher Kerry Richardson.
Time Warner is not the only media corporation with Bohemian connections. The list of Fourth Estate bigwigs who have been members or guests is extensive: Franklin Murphy, the former CEO of the Times Mirror corporation; William Randolph Hearst, Jr.; Jack Howard and Charles Scripps of the Scripps-Howard newspaper chain; Tom Johnson, president of CNN and former publisher of the Los Angeles Times.
When Associated Press president Louis Boccardi spoke at one of the Grove’s “Lakeside Talks” about kidnapped reporter Terry Anderson (Spy, 11/89), he referred to his audience as men of “power and rank” and “gave them more details than he said he was willing to give his readers.”
Walter Cronkite, now on the CBS board, hangs out at the same lodge at Bohemian Grove as George Bush and the former chairs of Procter & Gamble and Bank of America; Cronkite’s voice has served as the voice of the Owl of Bohemia, a fixture in the club’s mock-druidic rituals.
The media figures attending the retreat all agree not to report on what goes on inside. The prohibition seems to apply to reporters who are not guests or members as well: In 1982, NPR got a recording of Henry Kissinger’s speech at the Grove — but declined to air it (Spy, 11/89). Also in 1982, a Time reporter went undercover as a waiter in Bohemian Grove; like Mathison’s People article, his story was killed.