Country Rogue

Mendocino publisher Bruce Anderson is smart, sophisticated, and savage

Bruce Anderson was ambivalent toward the hippies. As a leftist, his credentials were impeccable. But Anderson found the hippies spineless and "tolerant to the point of self-destruction." On the other hand, the hippies shared his left-wing populism and anti-establishment ideals.

"As a foster parent" says Anderson, "I was in constant disagreement with social workers, judges, and juvenile authorities. Mendocino's government was like Mississippi in 1933. For all its so-called progressive aura, it's a very backward, retro place."

It was Anderson's disgust with local school authorities and county government that prompted him to go into the newspaper business. For a long time, he had his eye on a small country weekly published in Boonville called the Anderson Valley Advertiser. It was your typical small-town throwaway, kissing up to the Chamber of Commerce. In December 1983, Bruce Anderson took out a mortgage on his house and for $20,000 bought the paper.

Immediately, Anderson recast the newspaper in his wild and proletarian image. The Anderson Valley had never seen anything like it; nor, for at least a few decades, had the world of journalism. In six months, circulation leapt from 600 to 2,000. (It has since stabilized at 3,000.)

He festooned his front page with slogans like "Fanning the Flames of Discontent" and "The Country Weekly That Tells It Like It Is!" He promised: "Peace to the Cottages! War on the Palaces!" Each issue was studded with memorable epigraphs from the likes of Thomas Babington Macaulay, Cato the Elder, Noam Chomsky, and even Brigitte Bardot ("Which living member do you most despise? Hunters!").

Best of all perhaps were the letters to the editor, which often filled a full three pages of the newspaper. The letters took on political news, complaints from harried pot growers, literary criticism, rhetorical assaults on other writers and politicians, gossip and conspiracy theories, all manner of philosophizing, and pseudonymous essays in the tradition of Addison and Steele. The "bag lady" by the name of Wanda Tinasky became a frequent letter-writer, mocking local Mendocino poets and other victims.

Nothing was sacred. No battle was too big, no battle too small. Factions carried on feuds that sometimes lasted for years, fighting one another to pathetic standstills. Readers devoured these off-the-wall lucubrations, not just in the valley, but in San Francisco and New York.

Anderson wrote advocacy journalism -- up close and personal. A superb prose stylist, he is a master of the ad hominem attack. The corporate sponsors of the rival weekly Grapevine published in Ukiah became in Bruce's paper "The Rural Fascist League." Tom Reeves, general manager of the Ukiah Daily Journal, was "a hulking Ukiah Rotarian." Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker, who had a home in Navarro, was a second-rate novelist and a "loon." Anderson's editorials, by turns prickly and hilarious, burst the balloons of the pompous, the platitudinous, and the politically correct.

His muckraking articles took on Big Timber, corporate America, and local tourism. The AVA was in the vanguard of reporting on Northern California's logging wars, chronicling the manner in which out-of-state giants such as Louisiana-Pacific Corp., the principal forester in Mendocino County, were razing the North Coast redwoods. Other favorite targets included corporate-owned media and yuppie viniculture.

Once, to show that tourism had gotten out of hand, Anderson wrote an article on local wine tours. "I wanted to see how drunk I could get having a glass of wine at each place," he says, adding that he got very drunk indeed. "I think the wineries are nothing more than roadside booze boutiques and should be licensed like bars." Anderson sees the expanding wineries as supplanting the old apple orchards along the highway, and he fears another touristy Napa Valley in the making. The Navarro River, a precious steelhead and salmon stream, is being sucked dry by grapevine irrigation. The price of land is rising, too.

Anderson has pulled at least one stunt that drew national attention. In February 1988, during the Iowa presidential caucus, he printed a mock interview between the Des Moines Register and Doug Bosco, a local North Coast congressman. Anderson believed that Bosco had sold out his environmental constituents on offshore oil drilling, and in the "interview," Anderson quoted Bosco as calling his green constituents "a bunch of easily stirred-up, know-nothing malcontents who couldn't care less about anything other than their beautiful ocean and where their next joint is coming from." Bosco threatened a lawsuit and Anderson, calling his bluff, and claiming the interview was clearly "a satire," vowed to fight Bosco "in the sushi bars, in his Tahoe condos, at the wine and cheese sips" and in "BMW showrooms" all across Mendocino County.

Only one person has ever actually sued Anderson for libel, with mixed results. That was the local woman Anderson referred to as "a professional poor person." She won a $5,000 judgment that was overturned on appeal, but she has filed a second suit against him for branding her a prostitute.

Not everyone, however, has relied upon the niceties of law or the letters page to settle a score with Anderson. Nails have been spread across his driveway and sugar poured into his gas tank. And at least a half-dozen fistfights around town have found Anderson involved.

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