By: M.L. Stein
Cathy and David Mitchell, no longer a
couple, talk about the impact that
the 1979 Pulitzer Prize had on their lives sp.
IT WAS A heady time for Cathy and David Mitchell in the days after winning the 1979 Pulitzer Prize for Meritorious Public Service.
The publishers of a tiny Northern California weekly were showered with congratulations from all over the country.
Governor Jerry Brown held a reception for them in his office. Television crews and print reporters showed up at their paper, the Point Reyes Light. Magazine pieces appeared about them.
Their readers took up a collection to send the pair to the Pulitzer luncheon at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. ITT put them up in the company’s suite at the Sheraton-Carlton, and they were invited to New York to watch “NBC Nightly News” from the control booth and later discuss journalism with anchor John Chancellor.
David was asked to give the commencement address at a local college, and both he and his wife were besieged with paid speaking offers around the country. There were other honors and lots of parties. The California Press Association named them “Publishers of the Year.”
Suddenly, a publisher came up with a $25,000 advance for a book the two-some had tried unsuccessfully to sell for months about their investigation of the Synanon cult, which had won them the Pulitzer.
“We were three kids in the Disneyland of national attention and we loved it,” David wrote later. The third “kid” was Richard Ofshe, a University of California sociologist who aided them in the probe.
“It changed my life,” recalled David, who still owns the Light in the coastal hamlet of Point Reyes Station, 40 miles north of San Francisco. “It opened doors for me, but it didn’t help my marriage.”
However, in the book The Light on Synanon by the Mitchells and Ofshe, David disclosed that the marriage had gone through some rocky periods before the couple received the Pulitzer. The Mitchells separated two years afterward. Cathy, who met David while both were graduate students at Stanford, went on to receive a Ph.D and currently chairs the mass communications department at the University of North Carolina, Asheville.
“The Pulitzer creates a lot of emotional stress,” David observed. “Everything you do is under greater observation than ever before. You go to places and people recognize you, whether you know them or not. You get so buoyed up that when things start to go wrong, there is a greater letdown. Neither of us were used to being that public.”
Prior to purchasing the Light, the two had worked for various small-town newspapers.
“It was an honor just to be nominated for the Pulitzer, and winning it validated the quality of my work,” Cathy told E&P. “It was total shock.
“But the euphoria eventually wore off,” she recollected. “It was great fun for six weeks, but then it got tiresome,” Cathy, 50, continued. “I don’t like being worshiped ? being an icon. It put me in a very unusual position. I began to feel uncomfortable.”
One of her most painful memories, she said, is that of a woman at a social gathering, “who grabbed my hand and wouldn’t let go as she raved on about how wonderful I was.”
Even the speeches turned sour after a few months, Cathy noted. The Mitchells’ average payment was $500 plus travel, which didn’t allow them to break even when incidental expenses were added in, she said.
They did not hire a lecture agent, who probably would have commanded higher fees, “because that would have immobilized our lives,” she explained. “There was no reason to cut off our normal means of support for our 15 minutes of fame.”
Actually, the publishers’ normal means of support from the paper was shaky. The Light, according to David, seldom made money. Cathy supplemented the family income by teaching part-time at a nearby community college.
In 1981, they sold the Light and went their separate ways. David was hired as a reporter by the San Francisco Examiner, an experience he looks back on with mixed feelings.
“I no longer felt I was part of the community I was writing about,” he said.
“I thought coverage on a big city paper was callous. I hated asking the grieving survivor of a car wreck how he felt. It went against my sense of right and wrong to force yourself on a person at a time like that. I felt I was adding to the suffering of people who already were suffering terribly.”
However, life on the Examiner got better, he said, when he was named a member of a seven-person investigating team, assigned to Central America to report on conditions. Mitchell covered the civil war in Guatemala, getting an exclusive on the massacre of 400 villagers. But what followed stunned Mitchell and drove him back to weekly journalism.
“The Examiner gave it a decent play, and I waited for a reaction,” Mitchell remembered. “But it went by without a ripple. Nothing changed in Guatemala. My story did not affect anything. My God, in Point Reyes Station, if the postmaster is on the carpet for poor mail service, it’s a big story and something is done about it. If the police get out of control and it goes to the grand jury, you have the feeling that it matters. If, as a publisher, you put your neck on the line, it may do some good. But no one outside Guatemala cared about 400 little brown people.”
So, disillusioned with metropolitan newspapering, David Mitchell returned to Point Reyes in 1983, reacquired the Light and bought out his ex-wife’s interest. He has since remarried.
Today, at 51, the bearded, six-foot-five Mitchell said he has achieved contentment. Admitting that the business side of the paper was never his strong point, he said the Light has done well financially in the last three years because “I had the good sense to hire a business manager.”
Most importantly, he added, “I’m doing what I like to do. I have the enormous feeling that what I do on the Light matters.”
Cathy has authored two books, one a journalism text and the other a history of 19th-century feminist writer Margaret Fuller.
“No one in the university outside the mass communication department cared about my Pulitzer when I got here,” she revealed. “The ultimate credential here is the Ph.D. To survive, you have to take on the protective coloring of the academy.”
?(“It was great fun for six weeks, but then it got tiresome. I don’t like being worshipped-being an icon. It put me in a very unusual position. I began to feel uncomfotable.” ) [Caption]
?(-Cathy Mitchell, commenting on her 1979 Pulitzer Prize) [Photo & Caption]
?(“The Pulitzer creates a lot of emotional stress. Everything you do is under greater observation than ever before. You go to places and people recognize you, whether you know them or not. You get so buoyed up that when things start to go wrong, there is a greater letdown.” ) [Caption]
?(David Mitchell, taking about his 1979 Pulitzer Prize.) [Photo]