Last January, the sniffy New York Times sold the Santa Rosa Press Democrat to down-home Halifax Media for $143 million. Now we suddenly learn that Halifax has unloaded the PD to a group of local money boys. Look at it this way — you purchase a used car and a few months later you dump it. What does that say about the car?
I recall when the Press Democrat was a functional, regional paper. At daylight, I’d scamper down to the mail box, slip the PD out of the green tube; scuttle back to breakfast and start the day reasonably informed about what was going on in what used to be known as the “redwood empire,” a term the Press Democrat coined. My morning paper informed me about most of what I needed to know along Highway 101 from Petaluma to Garberville and up the coast from Bodega Bay to Fort Bragg with, of course, a big stop along the way in Santa Rosa, which was formally known as the “gateway to the redwood empire.”
I liked the redwood empire denotation. It conjured up rugged loggers and fishermen; ranchers; farmers, and small business owners who served the same — a vast rural region of the self-sufficient served by a mid-sized anchor city that contained a good newspaper that covered it all. Currently, this geographical area is called “wine country” and, yes, euphemistically, the “emerald triangle,” where lumber, fish and sheep have been replaced by narco-capitalism that produces that panacea, which cures poverty without paying a single cent of tax.
In the early 1980s, when the PD was still in its heyday, I had the daunting opportunity of meeting and being interviewed by the then editorial director of the PD, Art Volkerts. At the time, I was a former commercial fisherman who was seeking the Democratic nomination for congress. (Catching Moby Dick may have been a more reasonable goal.) Ironically, my opponent was Doug Bosco, one of the money boys involved in the recent re-purchase of The Press Democrat.
I recall two distinct things concerning that interview and time. One, Volkerts reminded me of one tough old coot, the kind of savvy, seasoned fishermen I knew from the docks. I’m certain he sized me up in two seconds, and, probably, succinctly in one thought: what the hell is this phony-baloney doing in my office?
The second memory is that Bosco beat me handily. I can’t thank him enough. The poor guy had to go to Washington while I became a B-list novelist and later spent ten years in Hollywood where lying has absolutely no consequences at all.
Nonetheless, Volkerts was a fine editor. I don’t know the man’s personal politics, but he struck me as an old time FDR or Kennedy liberal from those halcyon days when the word liberal and elitist were in no way synonymous. He could have been a Republican for all I know, a Republican near the end of an era when Democrats and Republicans mostly differed on Election Day. The rest of the year they were nationalistic and pro-business to the core.
Volkerts was a print media social pragmatist, and if he had a political agenda he expressed it in the voting booth and seldom in editorials. The media men and woman of Volkerts’ time were different. It was mostly all about facts. They were cynics with a heart; with a boilermaker after work for the guys and a dry martini for the gals.
Then came Golis.
Pete Golis became the editor and The Press Democrat changed. Gradually and stealthily the paper moved significantly leftward. Not towards the hard or far left or even the loony left. (Okay, sometimes they blend.) The PD moved to the soft left; the nuanced left, the nice people left; the forever green or die like a carbon dioxide-sucking sap left. I’m speaking of the government is our piggy bank and the taxpayers our slaves — that left. Golis was (and is) a clever writer. He’s never introduced a premise that couldn’t be proven with a second — or a third, or a fourth. His tutelage at the PD was long and effective until he paddled off into that warm Sargasso Sea of wishful political correctness. (He still has a blog at the paper.)
Golis had some journalistic quirks. The Catholic Church was one of them. Shortly before the election of 2008, I was filling my gas tank at Costco in Rohnert Park, and there was editor Golis (nearing or freshly retired) in an adjoining lane. For a moment, I thought about saying hello, but thought better of it when I saw the array of bumper stickers on the rear of his car. If memory serves me correctly, one opined: Free Tibet. Okay, I’m down with that. The Dali Lama’s been on vacation far too long. However, a second bumper sticker read: I never thought I would miss Nixon. It was obviously aimed at Bush; mildly funny, but it was McCain at the time who was opposing Obama. But wait, there was one more bumper sticker. This one read: I am washed in the blood of Jesus Christ. Whoa! There could be varied interpretations, but to me (the failed Catholic) the message was clear: Christianity was responsible for the spilled blood of this world. And what religion flew the planes into the twin towers? For years, the PD obsessively followed the singular case of a priest who began molesting boys in Eureka. The PD kept it going even after they locked the pervert up and righteously threw away the key. During Golis’ tenure the PD followed this case relentlessly. However, I don’t recall ever reading an editorial about the work of Catholic charities or the selfless sisters who toil for the sick. Comparing Volkerts to Golis, I’d have to guess this: Volkerts didn’t paste bumper stickers on the ass-end of his car.
During the Golis years, the readership of the PD went steadily downward along with its advertising revenues. A great deal of this was not Golis’ fault. Cable news and the internet arrived, and with it the digital hunger to make it all happen immediately. The PD concocted a web presentation, but, at best, it was clunky. On screen, it looked like (and still does) a Denver omelet slapped down on a plate with bits of color strewn here and there. Glaring adds and article leads, and even partial articles themselves are all mixed together in a hodgepodge of site navigation as complicated as the Straits of Magellan.
And speaking of icy, liberal waters, the succeeding captain at the PD helm after Golis was editorial director, Paul Gullixson, and his trusted first mate and editorial writer, Jim Sweeney. Gullixson is a child of the hard-scrabble streets of prosperous Palo Alto where he cut his journalistic teeth on one of the free papers preferred by the well-off of that municipality. Gullixson is a softer version of Golis, but it’s clear that both he and Sweeney have both fallen from the jelly mold of neo-liberal tolerance wherein if the words Republican; conservative; or Tea Party are typed on their keyboards, they must immediately go to the handi-wipes. If Golis was The Press Democrat’s stealthy, soft Stalin, these guys are the PD’s currently reigning politburo.
As writers, Sweeney is more direct. Unless one’s a Jonathan Swift, nuance is seldom an Irish attribute. On the run-up to 2008, Sweeney was near apoplectic as he pulled his hair out for Obama.
Gullixson is more verbose. He hails from that current editorial school that deems editors as ultra-respectable people in positions that their mothers would be proud of as they pontificate on our often violent and sleazy world. Personally, I prefer a slap-in-the-face declarative sentence rather than an endless beating around the bush with the hidden progressive message that, I suppose, I’m supposed to get in my sleep. However, it may be editorial strategy. To avoid the predominately negative feedback (usually 9 to 1 against) that one currently finds in response to every on-line Press Democrat editorial or the Inside Opinion column that Sweeney and Gullixson jointly write, beating around the bush may be the best tactic to write the readers to sleep to avoid any criticism at all.
I’ve never met chubby-face Gullixson (he often adds his picture on the pieces that he writes) but he and I did have a recent, digital dust-off. He posted a piece in the PD’s Inside Opinion column entitled: Why I Vote: a small price to pay. It was a lovely, sentimentally written column about how he always takes his children to the polls so that they can “…see and understand the seriousness of it all…the weathered hands that hand me the ballot…the smiles and respect individuals show for one another without prejudice as they take my ballot…” a stretch, but sweet. However, Gullixson concluded with a thought that dried the tiny tear in my eye by stating: “I also see it (voting) as a way to honor all those who came before, who gave their lives fighting for or defending our right to vote.”
That’s when my BS meter pegged all the way over, because, for days into weeks, The Press Democrat and its editors had been ignoring the conflicting and distressing news coming out of Benghazi — they were part of a Benghazi blackout in America’s liberal press. So, I posted a response complimenting Gullixson on being a great dad, but I took him to task for concocting a Norman Rockwell smoke screen to conceal the lack of editorials, or even PD news, concerning “the Benghazi attacks that killed our ambassador, two Navy Seals, and a state department employee.”
I told Gullixson that if he wants to honor those who gave their lives so that he can vote, then he might start with printing the truth about Benghazi to assist voters at the polls. I am a veteran. A member of my family is a Navy Seal. The Press Democrat’s lack of attention had gotten my attention. I posted my response. Guess what? Here’s the response: “your comment is awaiting moderation,” which went on for several days. Finally I took the censor by the horns and emailed Gullixson the following message. “This comment is not awaiting moderation: you are an intellectual weakling.” Okay, I over did it; sorry. But I kept thinking about those dead guys in Benghazi and the cover up that one day may loom as large as Watergate. Gullixson fired back. The passive-aggressive gloves were off. He said I was “vile” and I was guilty of “academic cowardice.”
Vile: morally despicable or abhorrent — physically repulsive. As mentioned earlier, I haven’t been to confession in years, but I am sorry for my sins, and I am bald with some inherited redness on my cheeks and nose, but I couldn’t understand the “academic cowardice” reference and insult. I am not an academic. Circumstance and a C average have sadly marooned me in the real world. But, slowly I got it, which brings us back to a major problem at The Press Democrat. The editors think they’re still in school. All is academic. They believe they are part of some esteemed institution, rather than guys who have to make a buck explaining the real, nitty-gritty world.
And the bucks are getting scarce in The Press Democrat’s piggy bank. Unfortunately, under Gullixson and Sweeney, and the Press Democrat’s forward people in the closet: Bruce Kyse, the publisher, and Catherine Barnett, the executive editor, the once reigning, journalistic queen of the redwood empire has been contracted to a narrow geographical corridor between the outlet malls of Petaluma and the last In-N-Out Burger on the north end of Santa Rosa. There are far too many editorials and articles about the Santa Rosa or Rohnert Park city council food fights, or zoning wars for parking lot space in gluten-free Sebastopol. Have the current editors or publisher ever been to Fort Bragg? Or, for that matter, are the Press Democrat’s reporters — some of whom may be young, inquisitive and journalistically ambitious — ever allowed out of their locked tower on Mendocino Avenue where they daily toil at their phones like underpaid workers in a Mumbai phone bank? And when was the last time that The Press Democrat engaged in actual investigative reporting other than the inside scoop about the latest pinot release in Dry Creek Valley? The 1980s? Was that long-gone Mike Geniella on the Maxxam Corporation? What happened to curiosity? What happened to The Press Democrat that I was always ready to read?
So, good luck to the money boys who will soon own the paper. They seem like smart fellows, and I bet they got a deal purchasing a paper with the CARFAX report attached to the Press Democrat. Which of these fab-four will emerge to run the whole show? Bosco would be best by virtue of the fact that he knows the territory that The Press Democrat used to serve best. Yes, he’s a Democrat, but he’s old-school. Politically, he comes from that recent but bygone era when politicians made deals with the other side of the isle. He did it for Willie Brown and he did it in DC hustling money for his district when Democrats and Republicans still drank the wine of cooperation no matter what they thought.
I’m only one reader, but The Press Democrat has got to change before it’s finished by the hard print reality of this moment. I’d like to read in-house editorials from different points of view instead of ones that attempt (poorly and unsuccessfully) to chain my little brain to everything they think. I’d like to read people from the middle with no politics at all; and what happened to old time gossip or entertaining columnists with humorous or rancorous points of view? I’m saying, I miss Gaye LeBaron who The Press Democrat has side-lined to the history books. And have they even heard of Tommy Wayne Kramer who writes for the Ukiah Daily Journal, and who is the funniest writer north of the Golden Gate Bridge? On-line, I pay money just to read him. And speaking of on-line reading, I don’t need to go down to my mail box anymore just to read a paper. I’d pay money for an app that would put the morning PD on my I-phone if its web site wasn’t a mess, and they weren’t trying to stuff political correctness down my throat. I want the local news and I want it filled with facts.
Yes, if Bosco is looking for a headache, perhaps he can pull this off, but if he wants to fix the PD, he’ll have to overhaul the engine and get rid of the obvious dents. Of course, the fab-four can do anything they want. They can bust the PD out. The commercial property’s worth some cash, and they can let the gross polluter go clunking on, until the old jalopy won’t run anymore.