By: Mark Fitzgerald
As the soggy nesting place of radical Earth First! environmentalists, Black Army Faction anarchists, and Unabomber pen pal John Zerzan, the Pacific Northwest rain forest city of Eugene, Ore., would seem to be a fertile incubator for alternative newspapers and underground periodicals. But that’s not really true, says the owner of Black Sun Books, an independent shop just outside the University of Oregon campus. “We’ve got the daily paper, The Register-Guard. We’ve got the one free alternative, the Eugene Weekly. And that’s it, aside from the advertising papers,” says Peter Ogura. “So his paper definitely stands out now.”
The paper is Bruce Anderson’s AVA Oregon, a brand-new version of the weekly that roiled
rural Mendocino County in California for two decades with an in-your-face journalism that won its editor/publisher much national applause, and an equal measure of local scorn. By this spring, the mutual loathing between the gentrifying wine country communities and its acerbic newspaper chronicler in Booneville reached the point where Anderson sold the (coincidentally named) Anderson Valley Advertiser to the paper’s anti-wine industry columnist for $20,000 ? exactly what he paid for the slim broadsheet in 1984 ? and decamped for Oregon.
The California AVA, as everyone calls it, stirred up an awful lot of fuss for a 12-page broadsheet that costs a buck and sells about half of its 3,000 copies outside Mendocino County. The AVA is “the greatest newspaper in the United States,” the leftist political writer Alexander Cockburn wrote last year. “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.”
But don’t tell Mendocino forestry activist Nicholas Wilson that Anderson is a country editor sticking up for the little guy. “Far from it!” he says by e-mail. “Anderson is an ego-driven bully who uses his paper to beat up on little guys, not help them. He routinely violates at least half the points in the SPJ (Society of Professional Journalists) Code of Ethics, including causing deliberate harm to his victims. He’s the poster child for irresponsible journalism. He’ll say or print anything he wants, as long as it draws attention to himself.”
The former husband of the deceased Earth First! activist Judi Bari maintains a Web site, www.liarsunlimited.com, dedicated to debunking the AVA and Anderson, whom he terms a “sociopath.” Rob Anderson, who declined to be interviewed for this story, ran the AVA when his brother Bruce was hauled into jail on a contempt-of-court charge that made national headlines. Now, on the Web site he maintains for his campaign to become a San Francisco city supervisor, he calls the AVA’s reporting on Bari “bullshit.”
And an anonymous Internet chat room participant hung a tag on the editor that tickles both Anderson and his enemies: “the Jeffrey Dahmer of journalism.”
The subject of the raves and rants is a 65-year-old ex-Marine who speaks in a wry, soft drawl even when he says, “I just can’t stand them. They set my teeth on edge.”
Most of the time, the people he’s saying those things about are political leftists like him. That probably explains the fierce loyalty and enmity Bruce Anderson engendered right from the moment in 1984 that he bought the sleepy Advertiser, a weekly by all accounts dedicated to happy news of the Chamber of Commerce-approved variety.
“A lot of the criticism came immediately from what we used to call the Nice People ? capital N, capital P ? or the Lib-Labs,” Anderson says. “They thought because I’m from the left and the paper is from the left, that they would be immune from examination. Well, nobody’s exempt ? and that’s a problem with the left.”
Not that Anderson didn’t warn them. True, the masthead inside lists as “spiritual advisor” Eugene V. Debs. But on the front-page flag of both the AVA and the new AVA Oregon, Anderson put Joseph Pulitzer’s famous quotation: “A newspaper should have no friends.”
And from the very start of his career as a newspaper owner, Anderson clearly intended to afflict the comfortable far more than comfort the afflicted. He was 45 and had been running a group home for troubled youth for years. Like his charges, Anderson had frequent run-ins with schools and courts. When the sale price of the Advertiser finally came down to the $20,000 level he could afford, Anderson mortgaged his modest house ? and prepared to do battle on a new front.
“I wanted to use it as a weapon to fight the local courts and local schools,” he says, “because I was in constant battles with them, and anybody without a megaphone, you’re like cordoned off. You know, ‘Thank you for sharing ? now go off and die.'”
In the view of local merchants, overnight the Advertiser wasn’t so advertiser-friendly anymore. “One guy actually sent me a telegram. Who sends telegrams?” Anderson recalls. “It said something like, ‘Out. Get me out now!'” The exodus of advertisers, though, helped make the AVA the kind of paper that soon came to national attention. “To sustain it as a business proposition, or at least to cover the print bill, I had to make it an interesting paper that I could sell outside the area, outside of Mendocino County,” he says. “To that extent, I think the paper was a tiny success ? all the right people hated it immediately and continued to hate it for all the years I was there, yet it was able to sustain itself on subscriptions and newsstand [sales].”
A love-hate relationship
So what attracted outsiders to the AVA, and what made it such a center of controversy in Mendocino County?
For one thing, Anderson has a way with words, one that doesn’t usually find its way into a community newspaper. He can go to a school board meeting, and come back with this description of the superintendent: “[He’s] a nice enough guy in a Forrest Gumpish, extraneous, low-ability, dull, normal kind of way.”
Over the years, too, the AVA engaged in some high-profile, April Fool’s-style journalism, publishing such wholly invented material as an “interview” with a congressman dissing his constituents as potheads, or a “confession” in the car-bombing incident that wounded environmental radical Bari.
At the same time, the paper was an early skeptic of the case against a local Native American, Eugene “Bear” Lincoln, who was accused of murdering a sheriff’s deputy in 1995, and later acquitted. “We actually went out there, and looked at the [crime] scene, and reported how it didn’t add up,” Anderson says. AVA’s reporting, Anderson claims, got big-city media to pay attention to the case. Anderson himself first made the pages of E&P in connection with that case when he was briefly jailed for contempt over his possession of a letter from Lincoln.
Anderson spent a longer time in jail in 1984 for a fight that occurred while he was covering the county school board. Anderson says the schools superintendent shouted that he was a “10th-rate McCarthyite,” and came at him. “I thought he was going to slug me, so I slugged him first,” Anderson says. The court didn’t buy the self-defense argument, and he ended up in jail for 35 days. Not many years later, though, the superintendent himself went to jail for corruption. “So I feel vindicated,” Anderson says with a chuckle.
To AVA contributor Cockburn, the newspaper is invaluable: “If there was an AVA in every county, America would be a very different place.” But not a better place, the AVA’s detractors say.
Mike Sweeney is the ex-husband Anderson maintains was involved in the car-bombing of Judi Bari. On his “Liars Unlimited” Web site, Sweeney writes: “It’s hard for outsiders to appreciate the chilling effect Bruce Anderson has on ordinary civic life in Anderson Valley. Faced with the certainty that sooner or later nasty lies will be printed about them in the Valley’s only publication, countless people have quit boards and commissions, or avoided any activity that’s likely to draw Bruce Anderson’s attention. Some have moved away altogether.”
Anderson has a quick answer for that frequent accusation: Good. They should leave.
There are two approaches a Bruce Anderson target can take: Read what he’s writing about you, or don’t. Whatever you do, the targets say, don’t write a letter to the editor. Anderson will just make you look like a moron.
Nicholas Wilson, the forestry activist and a friend of Bari, was such an Anderson tracker that he indexed each issue. Paul Tichinin took the opposite tack. He never read the paper, and learned of any comments from friends and neighbors. “They’d say, ‘Did you see what Bruce just wrote about you?’ And I’d go, ‘no, but I’m not surprised,'” he says.
Tichinin is that Mendocino County superintendent of schools whom Anderson referred to as “the nice enough guy in a Forrest Gumpish” way. In the same article, Anderson wrote of him: “Put a video camera on Tichinin’s work day and what you’d have is a reprise of Andy Warhol’s famous film of the Empire State Building ? hours of immobilization during which only the light changes.”
Yet Tichinin is happy to talk about Anderson, whom he’s known since the editor was still running the group home. He’s a “brilliant guy, very intelligent,” Tichinin says. Just not an editor with any credibility. While he can fan the flames of discontent, he doesn’t seem to know how to channel that criticism to make things better, Tichinin says. “The amazing thing is, Bruce would start out [an article] real close to the facts and with perspective, and then all of a sudden take it to weird extremes,” he says. “And you wanted to say, ‘Oh, Bruce, you were so close.'”
The most disappointing part of his editorship, the schools superintendent adds, was that “he’s done some pretty nasty personal character assassination.” As a result, he adds, “People read it like they watch the soaps. For entertainment. It’s more fiction than it is reporting.”
Anderson was on the receiving end of some nasty business back in California, too: petty vandalism, broken friendships, family ruptures. For seven or eight years in the 1990s, Anderson never traveled anywhere in Anderson Valley without a pistol.
Eugene braces itself
Eugene, Ore., may or may not be a clean slate. The Black Sun Books owner likes the new AVA Oregon. “The local coverage is a perspective we’re not getting anywhere else, that’s for sure,” says Peter Ogura. “I think it adds to the mix. I realize he’s controversial, but so far I can’t say I’m shocked or appalled or anything.”
But a health food store that at first eagerly agreed to stock the paper reneged when distributors showed up with copies. According to Anderson, the owner said, ‘The guy who edits this paper trashes Judi Bari, so you’re out of here.”
In recent weeks, AVA Oregon has been tossed from several other stores, and Anderson railed against Powell’s, a big Portland-based bookseller, for declining to stock issues. None of this is surprising, he says. He’s resigned to the fact that his newspaper will once again have to depend on out-of-town readers for much of its circulation.
Eugene environmental activist Mark Robinowitz says he doesn’t think AVA Oregon is going to make it. “It’s an interesting publishing tactic to come to a town where you don’t know anybody and start attacking people you’ve never met,” says Robinowitz, who has been on the receiving end of some Anderson criticism. “Maybe that can work in northern California, but I think Eugene is too urban for that trick to work here.”
If nothing else, the move to Oregon has revived his journalistic celebrity. Even The New York Times reported on him recently.
Anderson knows why he’s a media story. “I think that’s because if you deviate at all from what people perceive as the norm ? especially in journalism, because it’s become so conventional and pretty tame ? then I think other journalists are fascinated,” he says. “Here’s this maniac with this paper that seems to be paying for itself