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Tuesday, November 3, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Erik Lacitis

Lead Stuntman In Anti-Whaling Drama Is One Seasoned Actor

Seattle Times Staff Columnist

A Lexis-Nexis electronic library search shows Paul Watson's name in the news 586 times in the last 12 months. So I think it's safe to say that the founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, the militant animal-rights activists, is an old hand in the public-relations wars.

In the summer of 1982, Watson told me about a secret plan. He would use his 200-foot ship to ram a Soviet vessel off the Washington coast to dramatize the Russians' whaling practices. Watson offered me the story, and said he'd keep in radio contact so we could have exclusive photos.

But that worried my editors and me. I had had no prior agreement with Watson that he was giving me confidential information. And now we knew about an event that could result in Russians on that ship being hurt. This paper decided to inform the Coast Guard about Watson's plan. An exclusive story wasn't worth having blood on one's conscience.

I didn't expect Watson to talk to me again. Staffers on the paper told me they thought he had gotten a raw deal. About all I could answer is that sometimes newspapers don't have the luxury of ruminating about the should-haves, could-haves of editorial decisions.

And you know what? Watson took it all in stride. Instead of ramming the Soviets, he used a small plane to drop red paint on their ship. Soon he was calling me again, trying to get ink for whatever he had planned. But I no longer wanted to be part of Watson's manufacturing.

Still, over the years, I have had a certain admiration for his successes at media manipulation. This past Sunday, a minor forehead scrape for a Sea Shepherder - which fortuitously gushed a nice amount of blood - turned into major news.

These days, Watson is doing media battle at Neah Bay with the Makah Indians over their planned whale hunt. What easy pickings.

The bloody forehead, by the way, was the result of Ken Nichols, 29, scraping his face when tribal cops forced him to the ground so they could handcuff him. Even Nichols acknowledged he wasn't hurt, just "my heart."

Out there in Neah Bay, where unemployment fluctuates between 55 and 75 percent, what do the 1,800 or so Makahs know about big-league public relations? What do the tribal cops know about dealing with activists pushing for a confrontation?

A flotilla of whaling protesters had been hanging around the harbor, exchanging shouts with the Indians on shore. Some Indian kids had thrown rocks.

Given the volatile situation, Sea Shepherd "expedition leader" Lisa Distefano decided it was an excellent time to take up a dinner invitation from a 74-year-old Makah woman, one of the few in the tribe opposed to the whale hunt. Distefano chose to arrive in an inflatable boat, into the middle of a group of Indians at the dock.

I'd guess they don't see too many animal activists over at Neah Bay. The tribal cops said they arrested Distefano and two other Sea Shepherders for their own safety. Distefano provided her version of events on the organization's Web site:

The cop "tightened the cuffs, wrenched my arms higher behind my back, and kept tightening my wrist. I felt my left arm go numb. I told him he was hurting me, and he applied a pressure hold to my neck. He leaned in close, speaking low so no one else could hear.

" `You don't know what hurt is,' " he said.

At least we now know that, in the Sea Shepherd recounting of events, tribal cops apparently have been reading cheap crime novels for the dialogue.

A PR consultant would have told the Indians to ignore the protesters. He would have told them to leave the boat ramp empty. The TV crews would have had only themselves and the Sea Shepherders to videotape.

Instead, as they prepared for their first whale hunt in more than 70 years - a hunt guaranteed in an 1855 treaty signed by the U.S. government - the Makahs found themselves in the middle of a media storm, bloody foreheads and charges they were pummeling well-meaning protesters.

Paul Watson must have been very pleased. A manufacturer can always take pride in a job well done.

Erik Lacitis' column runs Sunday, Tuesday and Friday. His phone number is 206-464-2237. His e-mail address is: elac-new@seatimes.com

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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