Nat Geo puts justice ahead of ratings

Dan McDonald
Staff Writer

When Plumas County’s district attorney mentioned what he was planning to do, I had a bit of a choking episode.

You probably know the kind — drinking coffee and breathing in the same motion. It wasn’t pretty.

“Wow (cough). Good luck with that! You are wasting your time,” I said as I mopped my desk with the sleeve of my sweater. “You would have a better chance winning the lottery.”

He didn’t hear me. Email exchanges don’t work like that.

The next morning I had a phone message from him. Something about “Big news.”

I couldn’t believe it.

He pulled it off.

David Hollister somehow convinced a national television network to pull a major segment of one of its most popular shows’ season premiere. … And he did it just a few days before it was supposed to air.

What the … ? How in the … ?

For the sake of seeing that justice was fairly served in a rural Northern California community, National Geographic agreed to pull a segment of its acclaimed “Wild Justice” series.

The episode featured graphic footage at the scene of a shooting July 2, 2011, near Antelope Lake.

A Susanville man died after being shot in the head that night. A Reno man is in the Plumas County jail charged with killing him and shooting two of his friends with an assault rifle.

Turns out a film crew for National Geographic was tagging along with Fish and Game wardens who were the first officers on the scene.

I viewed some of the episode footage. It’s not for everyone, but you’ve probably watched something similar if you’ve ever tuned into “Cops.”

Hollister, who will be prosecuting the case when it goes before a jury Sept. 10, was horrified. Not by the footage. He’s seen much worse.

But he knew the chances of finding 12 impartial jurors in Plumas County — which will be a daunting task already — would be many times tougher with those TV images burned into people’s mental screen savers.

Even the defense attorneys, Richard Young and John Ohlson, of Reno, agreed with Hollister.

Both sides want a chance to present their case. Who knows? The “Wild Justice” footage might even be used as evidence during the trial. But the attorneys want the evidence to be presented in context, not a blunt-force broadcast into the living rooms of potential jurors and their kids.

Not to mention the trauma it could cause victims’ families.

The attorneys joined forces to plead their case to the network.

Hollister told National Geographic executives that if the trial had to be moved out of the county because of the pre-trial hype, Plumas County taxpayers would have to pay for the change of venue. … The cost could reach $100,000.

The amazing part of this story is that the CEO of National Geographic was listening.

Keep in mind, this was the season premiere of “Wild Justice,” which the network had spent tens of thousands of dollars promoting to a nationwide audience.

This was no small deal.

And it is beyond rare for a network to even consider this sort of self-censorship without a legal injunction.

If anything, the media tends to recoil and stand up for our constitutional rights when someone tries to tell us how to do our job. That sort of outside pressure actually prompts us to try harder to get the story out to the public.

And I’m just talking about local news and our 20,000 readers. Multiply that number by 50 and you are getting close to National Geographic’s March 11 audience.

But National Geographic stepped back, took a look at the situation and decided that “Wild Justice” shouldn’t stand in the way of true justice in our small community.

Instead of trying to win the ratings war, National Geographic thought about what was best for the family of a dead Susanville man, the family of a Reno man accused of killing him, and 20,000 people — 12 of whom will be jurors in September.

When I spoke to National Geographic Channel’s communications director, she said the network was simply trying to do the right thing.

Fairness ahead of ratings and profits? That’s refreshing.

I was already a big National Geographic fan. And the gesture they made by pulling this show says an enormous amount about the network’s culture.

They aren’t denying us a chance to watch the “Wild Justice” episode. They are just waiting to air it at the appropriate time.

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