By year’s end the greatest newspaper in the United States will have relocated from California’s North Coast to Eugene, Oregon. Bruce Anderson is leaving Boonville. The Anderson Valley Advertiser will become The Eugene AVA.
Be advised: what follows is no mock heroic paean with tongue in cheek. I write as a 19-year contributor to the AVA and a pal of the Editor, and can therefore state with more knowledge than most that as an example of all that is seditious, muckraking, contrarian, courageous and uproarious in American journalism, Bruce Anderson’s AVA has been up there with the best of Paine, Twain, Steffens and H.L. Mencken.
Bruce and Ling Anderson came north from San Francisco in 1970, settled in Boonville, in Mendocino County, and spent the next fourteen years running a foster home. In 1984, Anderson bought the AVA (pure coincidence in nomenclature), a lackluster little weekly founded in 1951, full of the above mentioned tributes to the Chamber of Commerce. He was its fourth owner and its circulation was about 600.
The life of a local newspaper editor can be risky and turbulent unless you’re going to reprint hand-outs from the Chamber of Commerce which is the prime function of 98 per cent of all local papers in the US, as distinct from the national press, whose role is to reprint the hand-outs of the White House, major government agencies and large corporations.
“My general idea was to use the Anderson Valley Advertiser as a weapon in my wars against the County Office of Education, and the local power structure generally. Immediately all of the few advertisers bailed out after the first issue, one of them by a telegram from Ukiah which said ‘Out, out, out now!!’ It was delivered by mail days later. In those days, if you beat everyone out of the bushes, there were about 2,000 living along Anderson Valley, mostly ranchers and loggers and of course back-to-land hippies. The place was run by an old guard consisting of gyppo loggers.
“ The dilemma was, you’d estrange at least half your audience, hippies or ranchers, no matter what kind of paper. My idea was to put out a paper that alienated all of them. I unified the community — against me. But it was interesting and they had to read it. The paper had an almost immediate political effect, basically by attracting outside attention, which Mendocino county — at least those who run it — loathes.
“I was blamed for the departure of something like six county school superintendents in a row. Two of them went to jail because of our campaigns. We started covering the court system in detail, and that led to small triumphs. An example: the court law library, publicly funded, was supposed to be accessible to the public. But you had to ask one of the judges for a key. We made a row about it, and today it’s always open and has a staff helping people.
A law library in the courthouse, open to the public. Is it that big a deal? Yes indeed, particularly if you multiply these little victories into a major larger, socially and politically significant piece of arithmetic. No matter that the AVA’s circulation has never risen much above 3,000, about half of which is out of county and a good chunk out of state. When cops, prosecutors, judges, educational bigwigs, hospital administrators, winegrowers, industrial polluters, lumber baronets, New Age confidence tricksters, and all the kindred petty Hitlers and scamsters that make up the fragrant tapestry of any county in the US know the local paper will put them in the pillory on its front page, they take heed. If there was an AVA in every county, America would be a very different place.
But you can’t mass produce Bruce Andersons. You can’t train people to write prose as good and as funny as his, week after week. How many people are prepared to stake their home every week which is what someone as defiant of the libel laws as Bruce has done most weeks for the past twenty years? How many of them have passed through the De Boies Clubs, the Marine Corps, the Peace Corps, a life-time of voracious reading and an appetite for journalistic bomb-throwing as instinctive as that of any turn-of-the-century Spanish anarchist spotting a monarch bowling along in his carriage, perfumed whiskers akimbo.
Every now and again I’d put the AVA’s campaigns into columns I wrote for the Wall Street Journal and later the Los Angeles Times: the Bosco affair, when partly by dint of a satiric “interview” the AVA terminated the career of the four-term incumbent of California’s first congressional district; “Redwood Summer” in 1990; the successful defense of Bear Lincoln on charges of murdering a sheriff’s deputy; the crucial role of the AVA in getting Mendocino county enhanced by a libertarian DA, Norm Vroman, and a libertarian sheriff, Tony Craver. (Though I to say, Vroman never did come through on his promise to me to tell all juries in his cases their full rights.) Most times, after I’d cited the AVA, I’d get grateful notes from people from around the country, telling me they’d become AVA subscriber-addicts, and now knew more about the day-to-day business of Mendocino county than wherever they were living, and that most times they could make all the appropriate local parallels.
Why’s he leaving? It’s been no secret that Bruce’s wife Ling felt that there should be term limits to her sojourn in Boonville, or Mendocino County for that matter. Her best friend lives in Eugene. “She’s happy, I’m happy,” Bruce says. From next week the official Anderson residence will be in Eugene, though Bruce will commute for the next six months, while the AVA remains Boonville, rather than Eugene-based. He’ll be on our CounterPunch website.
In Mendocino county, the petty potentates, the self-righteous pwogs and New Agers will be happy, but there will be regrets among many, many more. As Anderson says, “I’ve always had a fairly broad base of support that ideologically runs across a wide spectrum of people. The hard-core enemies are full-time professional Democrats. They’ve always hated and feared my paper. The AVA has proved that people will read about the area they live in, though most papers simply don’t cover the area they circulate in. We had this whole area simply by default. For less favored citizens we became the newspaper of last and only resort. Our readership is from the bottom up, starting with prisoners, all off the normal lib-lab spectrum.
Down the years, Anderson reckons, journalism has mostly got worse. “These papers, like the Press Democrat or the Ukiah Daily Journal, try to please everybody. The average citizen has utter and total contempt for them, rightly so. It weren’t for the internet there would be total silence. Another small example: The (New York Times-owned) Press Democrat actually cut down its letters page. They have to be 250 words or less.” Of course the AVA’s multipage Letters to the Editor has been one of its greatest glories.
In Mendocino County the paper will be missed. It has prevented a lot of bad things happening; even though as Bruce says, “bad people haven’t been slowed at the national level.”
He and Ling are quitting a valley that he reckons is “doomed. It’s just been featured in Forbes as the most undervalued beautiful place in America. It’s now run by millionaire lawyers with ten acres of grapes and their own silly faces on their wine labels.”
His initial feel about Oregon is that it hosts “a lot of highly irritating people, fertile pickings.” The journalistic palate of Eugene will be richer. It has a federal court, a university, a lot of pompous faculty people.
Bruce is 64 years old. "Enough time to do something.” Look out, Eugene. One of the most vivid pens of our time is coming your way. The next chapter should be a lot of fun.