Can Light Stay Afloat?

POINT REYES -- Can Pulitzer Prize winner Dave Mitchell keep his small, renowned, and cash-starved newspaper going? It's a question...

The cult -- Synanon -- once had been a well-regarded drug rehabilitation center founded in Southern California. By the mid-'70s its leader, an eccentric recovering alcoholic named Charles Dederich, had built a commune in Marshall, six miles north of Point Reyes Station, and proclaimed Synanon a religion. Using mind-control methods and an internal police force, he dictated who slept with whom, ordered forced sterilizations, and subjected dissidents, including those who tried to escape, to severe beatings.

Few people knew much about what the group was up to before Dave and Cathy Mitchell came along. Dave had written several benign stories about the commune, but after hearing rumors about odd behavior there his wife urged him to take a serious look. Mitchell wrote a piece reporting that Synanon had 900 members; and that it owned a fleet of 400 vehicles, not counting scores of motorcycles, three large boats, and six airplanes.

Shortly afterward he received a phone call from a UC Berkeley sociologist, Richard Ofshe, who had a weekend home close to the commune and who had cultivated contacts within the group. At Berkeley, Ofshe had even begun to lecture about Synanon as part of a class studying Utopian societies. Having also heard rumors about Dederich's unusual behavior, Ofshe was pleased that anyone in the press wanted to investigate and offered his services to the Mitchells. He and the Mitchells collaborated over the next year to produce more than 100 articles and nearly two dozen editorials that earned the Lightwhat is widely considered journalism's highest accolade, the Pulitzer Prize for meritorious public service.

A World to Itself: The Light's readership area is 
dominated by Point Reyes National Seashore.
James Sanders
A World to Itself: The Light's readership area is dominated by Point Reyes National Seashore.
The 1979 issue announcing the Pulitzer.
The 1979 issue announcing the Pulitzer.

The Light's role was all the more phenomenal inasmuch as large media outlets wavered when faced with Synanon's wrath. With a battery of lawyers at its disposal, Synanon filed dozens of libel suits. After the San Francisco Examiner settled Synanon's claims against it for $2.6 million, major news organizations wilted into the background. It wasn't until cult leaders were accused of putting a live rattlesnake in the mailbox of a Los Angeles-area attorney representing a Synanon dissident that big news organizations resumed paying attention.

"It's very easy to forget how courageous Dave Mitchell was in what he did," says media critic Ben Bagdikian, a former dean of the journalism school at UC Berkeley and a longtime Mitchell admirer. "There was a lot of intimidation. Synanon sent two black-suited members to stand outside ABC News in New York to stalk certain executives as they left the building -- that sort of thing. And yet you had this tiny newspaper making an impact when big news organizations gave up."

It was a heady time for the Mitchells. TV crews and print reporters descended on them. Then-Gov. Jerry Brown held a reception for them in his office. Their readers took up a collection to send the couple to the Pulitzer luncheon at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. The California Press Association named them "Publishers of the Year." There was even a made-for-TV movie about them. For months the Mitchells and Ofshe had unsuccessfully tried to drum up interest for a book about their investigation of Synanon. After they won the prize, a publisher suddenly came up with a $25,000 advance.

"It shoved us into a different league," recalls Cathy Mitchell, who teaches mass communication at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. But she says she soon tired of the attention. After about six weeks of traveling and giving speeches, she began to ask old friends over for dinner. "I remember saying to someone, 'Why haven't you called?'" she says. "And the answer was, 'I thought now that you're famous, you'd be getting a new set of friends.'"

Even before the Synanon investigation, Dave Mitchell's obsession with putting out the Lightevery week had already strained his marriage. As the post-Pulitzer euphoria wore off, he fell into depression, and the marriage soon broke apart. Mood swings and the endless hours he devoted to the paper also played a role in the failure of his two subsequent marriages, he says. "At the time I didn't know that I was clinically depressed. I just knew something was wrong. We both did. And I think we both sort of assumed that it meant something was wrong with the marriage," he recalls. (Cathy Mitchell declined to discuss personal matters.)

Unable to buy each other out, the Mitchells sold the Light, and during the two following years at the Examiner, Dave Mitchell pulled reporting stints in Central America and Southeast Asia. But after being his own boss he chafed at having to pitch stories to editors. In selling the Light, the couple had accepted a small down payment, holding a note on the balance. Although managing to publish, the new owner never once made a payment on the loan.

Two years after leaving, Mitchell returned to the Light in triumph to claim it as his own. It was almost as if he had never left. The first week, he resumed Sparsely, Sage and Timely, his signature column, this way: "As I was saying before being so rudely interrupted ...."

In November, Mitchell did something he really hated: After letting it slide for nearly a year, he took the owner of a local restaurant to small-claims court to collect an advertising debt. It amounted to less than $3,000, but when you're losing money, every little bit counts.

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