Newspaper Politics in a Small Town (Jan. 14, 2004)

One thing people never seem to get tired of is wondering what evil forces are at work behind the scenes that shape the reporting of local news events in our village newspapers. Any controversial subject that finds its way into print usually generates a rumor that someone down at the paper (any paper) has an axe to grind or friend to protect, hence the supposedly slanted reporting. Of course the truth is that the majority of local news events printed don't have any spin or slant to them, since they don't involve the paper's sponsors, the advertisers. But sometimes papers do get used as weapons, and sometimes just slanting a story isn't enough, a full-fledged campaign of dis-information must be employed.

When the Lake County Record-Bee first began reporting on Personal Support Group, a drug and alcohol recovery service, readers quickly noticed a pattern develop. According to the Bee's star reporter Margaret Gan-Garrison, PSG was always in trouble with various government agencies, and was a genuine menace to the community. Never mentioned were the hundreds of clients who had their lives saved and restored by PSG, or that no one else was willing or able to handle the task of straightening-up Lake County's abundant drug and booze addict population. In the last year alone the Bee ran over two dozen articles concerning PSG, including an in-depth five-part series of stories about the business and its history. Every story had the same tone, PSG was always the source of controversy and angst, and any possible benefit was studiously omitted. The only two breaks in the non-stop negativity were a couple of guest editorials, one penned by PSG doctor Bob Gardener, and the other written by the mother of a satisfied client.

PSG got started in Lake County with operations in Lucerne, where it opened a small residential facility and also took over the run-down, fifties-vintage Sands resort. Though problems were few and always minor in nature in Lucerne, the ones that did surface were blown way out of proportion by the Bee and gave a hint of what was to come at the Cove resort in Lakeport. 

Four years ago PSG bought the Cove resort, which had been occupied by several groups of squatters, most of whom were drug abusers of one kind or another. The lakeside resort's swimming pool was filled with trash, the parking lot was half-filled with abandoned derelict cars, and the Cove's frightening unauthorized tenants wandered the neighborhood at all times of day and night.

PSG took over and quickly got the place back in shape, and set about straightening-out their own collection of drunks and druggies, but given the reaction by the locals you'd have thought they had opened a nuclear waste dump. Drug treatment was fine the neighbors said, but not in a town, especially our town. By now the Bee's anti-PSG campaign began to really take shape with "investigation" being the most common theme for the headlines, everything was "under investigation." PSG did have to operate the Cove as a sober living environment after it was discovered that they had been functioning as a drug treatment facility in that location without the proper licensing, but all that rather minor technicality meant was that they couldn't dispense medications there. Pressure driven by the Bee's accounts of the mostly imaginary dangers presented by PSG's clients quickly mounted on county officials, with the government's hastily-planned strong-arm approach resulting in a lawsuit filed against them by PSG. At odds over whether or not the Cove was zoned for rehab-related activities, the county was finally forced to make a deal to avoid an embarrassing and expensive court loss. The county was so desperate to keep PSG out of Lakeport and court it agreed to buy the resort for $475,000, and also agreed to help PSG find a new facility. The county's case for a zoning violation had been severely undercut by the bumbling of former county Community Development Director Dan Obermeyer, whose incompetence meant that approved changes in the area's zoning hadn't actually been completed because he was too busy committing adultery with one of his staff members, one of many reasons he asked to leave his post quietly.

So with a half-million dollar hole still smoking in its backside, the county went looking for a new home for PSG, and wound up in Anderson Springs at the old McKinley Summer Camp. Sitting on 320 acres next to the Geysers geothermal plants, the McKinley camp was used as a drying-out facility for drunks by the Salvation Army fifty years ago, and had seen service in recent years as a summer camp for children. PSG's plans to run the camp as a rehab facility quickly got the same welcome as the news of their arrival got in Lakeport: drug treatment was fine the neighbors said, but it should be done in a town were all the necessary services are close at hand. It's too dangerous here, neighbors claimed, fires and earthquakes and rattlesnakes are constant concerns, though none of this ever came up when children were the occupants of the camp. 

Even the Sheriff got into the act, saying that it would take an enormous amount of manpower if someone got lost and a search had to be conducted, though following the same logic it would probably make sense to close the Mendocino National Forest too, since people could get lost in all those trees. Naturally the Bee headlined every stage of the controversy, always playing-up the problems and complaints, with never a word of praise or an alternative plan offered. PSG also found itself in the middle of election year politics, as county supervisors Farrington and Robey battled over the move to camp McKinley. Farrington wanted to see PSG leave his district and Robey tried to stop it coming to his, with both sides shamelessly pandering to their constituencies. The Bee even went so far as to hype a story about a real estate deal that fell apart involving Farrington and one of PSG's doctors, the only connection between the two being that they were thinking of buying adjoining parcels from the same owner.

Then suddenly the clouds parted and it all made sense. In the October 29th edition of the Bee an editorial concerning PSG appeared, and the pieces of the puzzle began to fit together. 

In a piece titled "PSG: Too many questions remain," the editorial staff of the Bee explained why PSG wasn't a wise choice as the county's primary drug treatment provider, and offered their own vision of local rehab services. Treatment should be offered by medical professionals working for a "health care facility" in close proximity to that "health care facility," the Bee's brain trust declared, though in spite of the coy vagueness of the terminology nearly everyone knew exactly what they were proposing, and which "health care facility" they had in mind. 

The publisher of the Bee is Judi Pollace, who runs many of Media News Group's north coast papers, Lakeport's Bee and Clearlake's Observer, along with the Willits News and Ukiah Daily Journal, among others. Pollace also sits on the board of directors of Catholic Healthcare West's Sutter Lakeside Hospital, which now sees the drug rehab business as their turf, especially with the public clamoring for treatment instead of jail terms and willing to spend lots of tax dollars on it. PSG, with it's bare-bones no-frills approach has made it hard to compete with on a cost basis, hence the Bee's crusade to drive them out of wherever it is they wind up until they hopefully leave Lake County and let Sutter enjoy the same monopoly in the rehab biz as it has in the medical field.

In contrast to PSG's fixing old, dilapidated structures, Sutter will doubtless need a new building to house its clients and the offices of its highly-paid staff of health care professionals, and it's hard to imagine that Sutter's full-time grant writer hasn't already eyed some of the government supplied drug rehab money floating around to make it happen. 

Sutter Lakeside is a testament to all that is wrong with our current healthcare system, and there is no reason to believe that a new drug treatment facility wouldn't sink into the morass of bureaucracy that makes the rest of the hospital so unbelievably inefficient. But between Sutter having the only local paper's publisher on its board of directors and also being one of the paper's biggest advertisers, Sutter got a never-ending free pass on stories critical of their doings, along with plenty of free PR for their various programs and services. 

This was readily apparent when nurses threatened to call a strike against Sutter two years ago over patient load and staffing levels, which resulted in Sutter locking them out for several days. The Beeran letters to the editor ripping the union members picketing the hospital but refused to print letters from the nurses telling their side of the story, citing their policy of not running letters critical of local businesses as their defense, though in the past other out-of-county based commercial interests have never been granted the same immunity.

Sutter Graveside, as it is locally known, has been constantly expanding its sphere of influence, branching out into everything from child care to its just-opened day spa and massage service, in addition to dreaming up and sponsoring the "Dickens Christmas" event in Lakeport last year. Why a hospital was trying to drum-up business for main street merchants when it had so much difficulty providing basic medical care was never questioned by the Bee, and when rain kept the masses at home and the event fizzled-out, Bee readers were lead to believe that everything had gone just fine. 

Pollace's fingerprints were all over that fiasco, as well, which paralleled her work as president of the Lakeport Chamber of Commerce, a job any publisher with an ounce of ethics would have never taken due to the enormous conflict of interest.

Another typical conflict of interest arose when the Bee's editorial staff championed the use of county money to fund the ill-fated bass fishing tournament in Clearlake last April. It was never mentioned that Pollace also sat on the board of directors of the Clearlake Chamber of Commerce, the event's main sponsor. Pollace's name was also never mentioned when the Bee could no longer ignore the fact that for over a year there had been serious allegations of major financial mis-doings and incompetence by the executive director of the Chamber, even though the Chamber's board members were also obviously guilty of negligence for letting things get so far out of hand. 

While the Bee's editorial staff has taken several bold stands on issues like the Patriot Act, Planned Parenthood and the Iraq war, when it comes to relaying the truth regarding local members of the business community and their pals, all bets are off. What little reporting of local events is done is usually the work of $7 dollar-an-hour trainees whose tenure is measured in months, guaranteeing that people knowledgeable in Lake County's commercial and political history are never doing the reporting. 

Even Pollace says the Bee is serving as a training ground for rookie newshounds, though many who do a stint in the Bee's newsroom head for other professions after their need for financial stability exceeds their desire to write for a living. 

What we get for our 50¢ is 16 pages of ads held together with stories off the news wire, with one or two watered-down pieces on local events that may or may not reflect reality, depending on whether or not they help or hurt the "right" people. Most of the Bee's profits are shipped back to Media Group's home base in Denver, just another one of corporate America's tentacles squeezing the lifeblood from another small town. 

With so little money and space devoted to informing the public, the paper is able to expend most of its resources on what it does best, which is to provide a venue for advertisers, and to promote government programs that subsidize local capitalism. Welcome to the new dark age of American journalism!

2 Responses to "Newspaper Politics in a Small Town (Jan. 14, 2004)"

  1. Betsy Cawn   May 21, 2019 at 7:53 am

    “PSG got started in Lake County with operations in Lucerne, where it opened a small residential facility and also took over the run-down, fifties-vintage Sands resort.”

    Lucerne is still the home of Dr. Gardener’s addiction treatment clinic, right up the road from Lake County’s Behavioral Health Department offices — moved from the centrality of Lakeport (with proximity to the Mendocino College Campus, at the time, and access to commercial resources most of us poor folk patronize — pharmacy, low-cost groceries, insurers and the laundromat) to the heart of “severely economically disadvantaged” poverty and dead-end low-cost housing.

    During the Valley Fire (2015) the Anderson Springs clients were evacuated to an open air, impromptu camp, and then to the facility that provides detox/rehabilitation services (where the AVA’s Flynn Washburne repaired to after his most recent fall off the wagon) at some distance from the “town” of Clearlake Oaks, with no bus service, and many miles away from temptations found in the City of Clearlake.

    Lucerne’s loss of the old motel, razed by the County after it was condemned, occurred during the pre-crash real estate frenzy, during which their “Community Club House” (donated to the town in “perpetuity”) was also demolished — to allegedly make way for a beautiful new “Days Inn” that never materialized. The modest event center, operated by the American Legion, gave way to a barren parcel adjacent to an unimproved county “park,” across the highway from crashpads and trash-packed single family “homes” filled with tranquilized (or otherwise subdued) inhabitants who haunt the “avenues” on mid-night strolls through vandalized vacant “second homes” or abandoned shacks, picking up “loose change” and heisting sellable treasures or breaking in to the Senior Center’s thrift store in desperation.

    The Sheriff’s Office, in late 2018, publicly announced that there were insufficient staff to provide patrols, and in early 2019 instituted an “on-line” report filing system — because there are no deputies available to respond to calls for anything less than murderous mayhem, and even then it can take up to two hours for law enforcement to arrive.

    A retired, respectable, mind-your-own-business resident was severely beaten by meth-and-alcohol driven neighbors on a rip, but thankfully the local Fire Department’s EMTs were available to respond.

    All this after around 15 years of “redevelopment” that devoted local tax revenues to sprucing up a defunct shoreline area called “Alpine Park” — where the multi-million dollar public restrooms are now closed at night due to deleterious habitation by junkies and punks who have gone so far as to set the toilet paper on fire to keep warm.

    Meanwhile, the Adventist Hospital Clear Lake (formerly known as “Redbud”) in collaboration with government, private, and non-profit agencies has invested several years to implementing the Camden Coalition’s successful intervention of chronic emergency service demands on medical responders in the area of Clearlake (the city) and Lower Lake.

    Lake County Behavioral Health Department’s latest “outreach” facility (called the “Big Oak”) is located in a stingy strip-mall corner office in Clearlake Oaks — for the benefit of “homeless” mentally suffering clients who used to be able to reach those services close to public facilities (library and senior center) as well as those commonly needed commercial resources, in the city of Clearlake, but who now must travel via the slow and infrequently available Lake Transit bus service, and back.

    Unlike Mendocino County, Lake County finds ways to keep its unfortunate and/or lame losers off the beaten path and out of the public’s attention, but not without the costs of petty crime and neighborhood squalor. And now, Sutter Lakeside has belatedly joined the fray as part of a highly questionable “collaborative” supported by Mendocino’s North Coast Opportunities and Redwood Community Services, that Adventist’s local hospital Community Wellness Department fronts under the “Hope Rising” project. A completely structureless “organization” with no address but endowed with its own “board of directors” and a paid “executive director” who reports to the Adventist administration but is paid by someone else. There’s no end to the lunacy, even as Adventist pours its heart into the bottomless pit of need, only to be exploited by the developmentally disabled county government and its “private” partners — like NCO and RCS.

    Great story, Phil.

    Reply
    • James Marmon   May 21, 2019 at 8:11 am

      It looks like you’re starting to see the picture a lot clearer. I was interviewed twice by Adventist Health for a position in that “collaborative”. I thought I had the job and then all of a sudden something happened.

      Where’s the money Camille?

      James Marmon MSW

      Reply

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