Friday, August 24, 2012

America\'s Last Newspaper: There Are Other Papers, But Once You\'ve Tasted Butter You Can\'t Go Back to Margarine

Newspapers have long been influential, even instrumental, in American history. Horace Greeley, a newspaperman, gave the order to head west, and publishing giant William Randolph Hearst famously offered to provide a war, using his publishing empire, if one was needed. In recent years, newspapers have lost their place to new mass media, and those that remain have become tepid handmaidens of a few corporations. The old-fashioned independent spirit made famous by intrepid writers and publishers like Greeley and Mark Twain has given way to columnists beholden to investors and threatened by layoffs. Journalists are as likely to be humiliated in the next big fabrication scandal as they are to break the next big story, and readers turn to BlackBerries and laptops for their news and commentary. Flashy ads, hip graphics, and sexy or sentimental human interest stories are offered up daily by an increasingly desperate industry that may well be one the way out. In northern California's Anderson Valley, however, one staunchly independent throwback is fighting to be an exception to this rule. The weekly Anderson Valley Advertiser, edited since 1984 by the iconoclastic Bruce Anderson, is as crusading, despised, avidly-read and hotly-discussed as any paper in recent memory. Anderson, his small staff, and an eclectic group of contributors work each week to create something they proudly claim, on the masthead, to be "America's Last Newspaper." Not everyone agrees, but there's a growing, somewhat disorderly, and at times downright impertinent mountain of evidence that they're right.

Politically, the paper is neither of the Right nor the orthodox Left. "An ex-Marine, Anderson's politics run somewhere between left, libertarian, anarchist, and socialist" (Parrish). In this year's elections, Anderson backed Ralph Nader, as he has done for several elections. Anderson and columnist Alexander Cockburn have offered a steady, if futile, criticism of President-elect Barrack Obama's positions on issues from the economy to foreign wars, predicting that his promised change remains undefined, or, where it is defined, hardly qualifies as change.

In 2004, New York Times reporter R.W. Apple visited the Valley to write about its vineyards and wineries. In a lengthy article describing the wine industry, he stopped to discuss its newspaper: "THE local weekly, The Anderson Valley Advertiser, is as unconventional as the valley itself. Its editorial philosophy may be deduced from its front-page mottos, ''Peace to the cottages! War on the palaces!'' and ''All happy, none rich, none poor " (Apple). The Times article was only one of many written about Anderson and his paper in the past two decades. The mainstream press is fascinated, but condescending, as though the idea of a paper run along such principles is a touching anachronism. Adjectives such as eccentric are common in their descriptions of the paper, which typically deal with the way things are being said rather than the actual news presented. There are no color photos, only a half-page of business-card sized ads, and most pages contain four columns of print top-to-bottom-a format daunting to the attention-challenged, but attractive to many readers disgusted or bored by mainstream papers. The paper has a readership in the low thousands, many by subscription, from as far away as New England. The lively and popular Letters-to-the-Editor section is full of sarcastic remarks and witty, thoughtful, well-written observations from around the country, but local characters more than carry their weight. In the 1980s, a series of letters from the mysterious "Wanda Tinasky" entertained readers for months. Anderson fueled speculation that Tinasky was in fact the reclusive American novelist Thomas Pynchon, and he compiled a book in an effort to prove the theory. In the end, however, Anderson admitted to Apple, ''Tinasky was nothing but an erudite old hippie who later murdered his wife and killed himself. I was wrong -- at book length'' (Apple). The paper covers local issues and personality with a no-hold-barred approach that has led to colorful incidents. In 1989, Anderson served a short term in the county jail for assaulting county schools superintendent Jim Spence. The "Night of the Dancing Bears"-at 6'3" the brawny editor dominated the large but somewhat doughy superintendent in a brief scuffle--occurred in the midst of a long, acrimonious investigation of Spence's mishandling of funds which eventually led to Spence's departure from office. Anderson also served time for contempt of court after refusing to turn over a letter police demanded as part of a murder investigation. "...this is where you have to draw the line. If the government can just rummage through my files, people will cease communicating with my paper, and with papers, period" (Wilson), Anderson said, invoking the principle that newspapers are proper advocates for fugitives skeptical of the legal system. It's difficult to imagine the publisher of the San Francisco Chronicle or Sacramento Bee arriving at such a conclusion. Outside observers are usually impressed with the paper's versatility: "Local coverage of Mendocino County is scabrous, with the school board, the supervisors, the local public radio station, and the wine industry being favorite targets. Essentially every self-professed "progressive" in the county has been denounced by the self-professed "progressive" editor at one time or another" ( And, "A lot of people think this is the best independent, weekly newspaper in America. I've been reading it for years and it never fails to amuse, incite, frustrate and enlighten me. And I'm not alone - this little newspaper has a large international audience " ( While the contemporary mainstream press is known for maintaining objectivity, the AVA takes sides. Sometimes, Anderson will take things a little farther. In a famous 1988 incident, he published a phony interview with Democratic congressman Doug Bosco. In the ensuing melee, Bosco suffered a loss of dignity severe enough that he was turned out by Republican Frank Riggs in what had been a Democratic stronghold, California's District 1. More recently, he has gone after Ukiah businessman Mike Sweeney, attempting to implicate him in the car-bombing of his ex-wife, the activist Judi Bari. The Bar-Sweeney saga began with Bari's crippling injuries suffered when a bomb exploded in her car in May, 1990; turned into an oddysey when Bari sued the FBI for damaging her reputation; created a small industry staffed by dedicated adherents to her cause post-bombing, and finally became a social movement complete with potent fund-raising apparatus when Bari died, in 1997, five years before the case went to federal court. The AVA followed the story step-by-step, critical of the cult that grew around Bari and of law enforcement's failure to produce a single suspect for the bombing itself. Possibly because of his paper's relentless coverage of the affair, Anderson was denounced as "obsessive and deranged" by the court, and not allowed to testify. When Bari's heirs won a multi-million dollar judgment against the FBI and Oakland Police Department for their mishandling of the bombing case, Anderson stayed on the attack. He published a faked "confession" by Sweeney, using the creative format to present his considerable body of evidence. Sweeney, naturally, took offense. "The phony first-person article went on and on for thousands of words, presenting an intricate first-person fantasy that had me "confessing" to about a dozen felonies. Nowhere in the paper was there a hint that the article was contrived by Bruce Anderson himself without the slightest input from me or the slightest connection to reality" (Sweeney). Mendocino County has never fully recovered from Anderson's takeover of what had been a typical, sleepy, small-town paper. Readership has never grown beyond a few thousand, and many locals identify themselves as vociferously opposed to everything it prints, whether they read it or not. But the readership is dedicated, and more than a little involved-this summer many articles appeared from firefighters and residents threatened by wildfires, providing valuable first-person coverage unavailable in mainstream papers. The watchdog effect hasn't prevented the county from going into debt, nor did it prevent outside corporations from inhaling and consuming the local timber industry. But that's not because Anderson hasn't given it everything he has. Local officials know they risk "scabrous" play at the hands of the AVA's reporters, and the wise stay well clear of the editor's radar. The current issue of the AVA presents a typical mixture of fact, opinion and broad speculation. The front page carries a story on the 30th anniversary of Rev. Jim Jones' massacre in Guyana, a summary of new local history books to be found at the county library, an article reviewing a book written about Finnish-American socialists who left Mendocino County in 1921-23 to join Lenin's Soviet "Worker's Paradise," and a sweetly nostalgic Thanksgiving fable. In the Jones article, relevant locally because Jones once served as president of the county Grand Jury and because many of his victims had lived in the county, Anderson blames the media: "Looking back at the major unpunished crimes of Mendocino County-The Fort Bragg Fires, the bombing of Judi Bari, to name two- the common thread is zero pressure from the media to get the responsible people into court" (Anderson AVA). He goes on to tweak "cringing" local public radio station KZYX, regular fare for a paper that attacks the Ukiah Daily Journal, Santa Rosa Press Democrat, and just about all other media that cross his desk the way a hungry dog attacks cold meat. I asked Anderson to defend the "last newspaper" claim in a recent e-mail exchange, and he responded in detail: "Last newspaper. Yes, I think so in that it's privately owned, community-based, and from the left. This occurs by default, of course, but at one time in America most papers, large and small, were owned by identifiable individuals who lived in the towns their newspapers appeared in. There were also papers in little towns all over the west that stood for small over big. The technology was cheap and owned and often operated by the publisher himself and could easily be transported from place to place if the paper took an unpopular public stance and had to leave in a hurry. Present day weekly papers are interchangeable, as are the large papers, and certainly don't express opinions outside the great lukewarm piss of a so-called consensus that ranges from Obama to McCain" (Anderson). One could argue that other papers do exist in America, after all they are available at nearly every market, but it's a hard job to find any personality in them. With the AVA, still thriving after 24 years of fierce, feisty and combative independence, personality is not only alive on every page, but just about impossible to ignore. Works Cited Anderson, Bruce, personal correspondence, 17 Nov. 2008 Anderson, Bruce, The Anderson Valley Advertiser, 19 Nov. 2008 Apple, R.W. The New York Times, 8 Jan. 2003, 17 Nov. 2008, 6 Apr. 2002, 17 Nov. 2008 Parrish, Geov, 5 June 2002, 17 Nov. 2008 www, 10 July 2006, 17 Nov. 2008 Sweeney, Mike, www., 28 Jan. 2004, 17 Nov. 2008 Wilson, Nick,, 7 June 1996, 17 Nov. 2008

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