Country Rogue

Mendocino publisher Bruce Anderson is smart, sophisticated, and savage

Bear Lincoln was an American Indian cause celebre almost made to order for Bruce Anderson's newspaper. A deadly shootout had erupted on the Round Valley Indian Reservation in Mendocino County on the night of April 14, 1995, and after the gunfire ceased, both a sheriff's deputy and a reservation Indian lay dead. The surviving Indian on the scene, Eugene “Bear” Lincoln, had fled, pursued by authorities' allegations that he had shot the deputy.

Bruce Anderson immediately set his famously, some say infamously, radical paper on the story. The Anderson Valley Advertiser was soon reporting allegations that investigating deputies had roughed up Bear Lincoln's family, pointing guns at the heads of children, manhandling several women, and pushing a grandmother to the ground. And the newspaper reported something else — one of the deputies involved had changed his account of the fatal shooting. The Advertiser began to speculate that Bear Lincoln might be innocent, the victim of a police ambush.

Eventually, four months after the shooting, Bear Lincoln turned himself in. He had a newspaper on his side — a newspaper that wielded influence well beyond its meager circulation. Bruce Anderson, the editor and publisher of the Anderson Valley Advertiser, or AVA, as it is known, was a man Bear Lincoln could trust, one who was sympathetic to the plight of an oppressed Native American. From his jail cell in Ukiah, Bear Lincoln wrote a letter to Anderson describing the fatal night and what he considered to be his mistreatment at the hands of the American justice system. Bruce Anderson published that letter in January of 1996.

The authorities came after Anderson within weeks. Late last May, the publisher was jailed after he refused a court order to turn over the original of the Bear Lincoln letter to the Mendocino District Attorney's Office, which wanted to use it as evidence in Lincoln's upcoming capital murder trial. “You hold the keys to your cell,” Superior Court Judge James Luther told Anderson, before the publisher was led away in handcuffs.

Had this happened to a member of the mainstream press, the journalistic community might have raised a hue and cry. Instead, the response was essentially, “There he goes again.” Bruce Anderson, for more than a decade now the most combative newspaper editor in the West, had been busted yet again.

Those expecting a Roman circus were not disappointed by Anderson. “As we celebrate Memorial Day,” Aderson declared, “a draft dodger by the name of Luther is putting a former Marine in jail who's trying to defend the First Amendment.” His jailing, Anderson claimed, was payback for his criticism of District Attorney Susan Massini's office and her prosecutorial policies. Noting that he was to be placed in solitary confinement, separate from the other inmates as a civil prisoner, Anderson joked to reporters: “I was at least hoping for an opportunity to explore my sexuality, and apparently even that last pleasure is being denied me.”

Anderson said he wouldn't lift a finger to help the DA convict Bear Lincoln, and he vowed never to turn over the letter. He said he was willing to rot in jail for the rest of the year, if necessary, to defend his principles. He asked for long Russian novels to read in the slammer.

Yet just 12 days later, after surrendering the letter to the court, Anderson walked free. As evidence, the letter was useless to the DA — it had been computer-generated, not handwritten, and so was not provably Bear Lincoln's. So, Anderson said, he had made his point, creating a little bit of theater in the process. Just to get the media focusing on Bear Lincoln's case, he said, pronouncing the showdown “a victory.”

When Norman Maclean, in A River Runs Through It, described a western newspaperman as being “one of the last small-town editors in the classic school of personal invective,” he could well have been describing Bruce Anderson. Heroic, villainous, or just plain crazy — depending on whom you ask — Anderson is both hated and cherished in the pastoral redwood valley where he lives, and in hip radical enclaves such as San Francisco, Greenwich Village, and Madison, Wis., where his tiny newspaper is eagerly read. To supporters — such as Nation columnist Alexander Cockburn, who flatly calls the AVA “the best newspaper in America” — Anderson is a necessary antidote to pallid corporate journalism. To his detractors, including politicians he has driven crazy, he is the Antichrist. Only rarely do words fail him — such as the time he punched out the county school superintendent at a public meeting. An inveterate prankster, he once faked an interview with a congressman from his district, to hilarious results, quoting the lawmaker as calling his constituents “know-nothing[s]” only interested in getting high on pot. A lady in the valley has sued him twice, once for calling her a prostitute and another time for describing her as “a professional poor person.”

“I've always had authority problems,” says the 56-year-old Anderson, a cheerful, bearded, bearlike man who could easily pass for a choke-setter in the woods, or one of those old-time Wobblies who strike-breakers used to string up from the bridges. A self-described “lefty” and professional contrarian, he is anything but doctrinaire. Fiercely anti-establishment, Bruce Anderson believes that if you wield any kind of influence at all, you are fair game for his biting, satirical, and extraordinarily literate newspaper.

The Anderson Valley Advertiser is a feast for readers and one of journalism's true curiosities. The front page bears a motto from Lenin: “Be as radical as reality.” The AVA comes out every Wednesday and sells for 75 cents. It carries no photos and few advertisements, yet Anderson has little trouble filling up each issue's dozen pages with stories printed in tiny nine-point type. Anderson reports, writes, or edits fully a third of the copy and delivers the newspaper himself. His wife, Ling, is the office manager, and a stable of underpaid regular contributors works out of the home office in the tiny town of Boonville. These include Mark Scaramella, a retired Air Force captain who functions as both staff writer and typesetter, and star reporter Mark Heimann, a former logger and truck driver, who finances his journalism through part-time carpentry. [page]

Anderson lurches from one controversy to the next. No sooner had he gotten out of jail on the contempt charge than he was defending himself against charges of literary fraud. Anderson has published a book with vers libre press in Portland, Ore., called The Letters of Wanda Tinasky. Anderson is promoting the book on the shaky premise that Wanda Tinasky, a self-described “bag lady” and one-time regular contributor to the letters column of his newspaper, was actually the great postmodern novelist Thomas Pynchon, perhaps the most reclusive author in America.

“No, Thomas Pynchon did not write the Wanda Tinasky letters, as the publisher well knows,” said Melanie Jackson, Pynchon's literary agent and wife. She sent a fax forbidding Anderson to publish the letters as Pynchon's.

Anderson says readers can decide for themselves. He himself is convinced that Pynchon, the author of such classic metafiction as V. and The Crying of Lot 49, developed a great affinity for his newspaper during the years when the author was anonymously holed up on the Northern California coast researching and writing his satirical novel Vineland. Anderson believes Pynchon typed out the Wanda Tinasky letters from 1983 to 1988, as a kind of warm-up exercise to that work.

And if Pynchon decides to sue Anderson — so much the better. It would be his chance to smoke out the author, who has not been photographed since 1955, when Pynchon was a student at Cornell, and who has gone to such elaborate lengths to preserve his anonymity that he sent the redoubtable comedian “Professor” Irwin Corey to pick up his National Book Award for Gravity's Rainbow.

It is these antics — and Anderson's theatricality and self-promotion — that have led the mainstream news media to dismiss him as journalism's problem child. Here's how it works: A newspaper reporter visits Boonville, talks to the locals in the Buckhorn Tavern and Horn of Zeese coffee shop (a “redneck think tank,” Anderson calls it), spends an hour or two chatting with the affable and engaging editor, and then writes the usual Sunday feature about a wacky country editor who is always getting into trouble.

But failing to take Bruce Anderson seriously is a mistake. Anderson often publishes some of the most interesting, carefully researched, and well-written journalism in Northern California — and some of the funniest and most offbeat.

Alexander Cockburn, who lives in Humboldt County north of Mendocino, says the AVA excels in its coverage of local education and county government and is “aggressively good” on the courts, with none of what Cockburn calls “that patty-cake bullshit” found in the mainstream media. Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair write a regular column for the AVA called “Nature & Politics” that is widely regarded as some of the finest environmental reporting in the country. Mark Heimann has been aggressively reporting on the DA and Sheriff's offices, and on the poverty and violence plaguing Round Valley, the largest Indian reservation in California.

None of Anderson's writers make much money doing this. Cockburn is paid the princely sum of $25 a column. Heimann has had to make a public appeal for money to fund his investigation of the Bear Lincoln case.

“What Bruce does takes a lot of bottle,” says Cockburn, using the Scottish word for moxie. “It's easy to write about distant people. But Bruce lives here. That's a little different, when you're in a bar standing next to a guy that you just called a flaming asshole in print. A lot of people get pissed off at Bruce. But this is an area that takes a perverse pride that there's a guy like Bruce who's going to piss them off.”

Anderson seems to welcome the parade of reporters who regularly visit him at his “nouveau hippie” compound in Boonville. Set on a half-acre of land, Anderson's home and office is a sprawling collection of sheds and bungalows. Here he lives with his wife, Ling; his brother, Rob Anderson; their disabled sister and elderly mother; another disabled adult who Bruce and Ling raised as a foster child; and a friend who fled an abusive marriage. Bruce's study is lined with books (he seems to own every volume in “The Modern Library” series), and his house is comfortably appointed in antique furniture left him by Ellie Weitkamp, an avid AVA reader from Arlington, Va., who boarded with the Andersons while she was dying of cancer. At her death in 1993, Weitkamp left the newspaper a quarter-million dollars to salvage an enterprise that had been barely getting by in the decade since Anderson had bought it.

As Anderson tells it, he comes from a large, struggling working-class family in Marin County. After a rocky adolescence, Bruce was shipped off to the Marine Corps in 1957, then as now the preferred destination for a hard case. “The experience caused me to veer sharply toward the left,” he says.

Honorably discharged in 1959, Anderson parlayed his skill at basketball and baseball into an athletic scholarship to the California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. But more interested in history and literature, he transferred to San Francisco State, earning a B.A. in English.

In 1963, Anderson joined the Peace Corps. He wasn't trying to beat the draft — he had already performed his national service. Mainly he saw it as an opportunity to travel overseas. It was during a stint in Sarawak, Malaysia, that he met and married Ling, and there they had their first child. Anderson liked Malaysia so much he signed up for another term.

Anderson might have loved Malaysia, but the authorities were hardly enamored of him. For one thing, he was organizing protests against the Vietnam War. For another, he had hooked up with a group of armed Maoist revolutionaries (he said he met them at a pickup basketball game) and had agreed to edit their newspaper, the Sarawak Vanguard. It was his first job in journalism, and already he was in trouble. [page]

Authorities confiscated Anderson's passport and gave him three days to leave Malaysia. Under U.S. immigration rules “I couldn't send for my wife and kid until I had a job,” he says. He was soon driving a hack in the city.

In San Francisco, Bruce and Ling embarked on a professional career of raising foster children. Before it would end, they would take on more than 80 foster kids, many troubled black teens from the inner city. A few children put in their care had already been damaged beyond any repair. David Mason, a multiple murderer recently executed on San Quentin's death row, had been one of Bruce's foster children. So was Randy Alana, an enforcer for the Black Guerrilla Party, who not long ago strangled another inmate through the bars of his Oakland jail cell. When asked if he ever had any successes, Anderson laughs and says there were a few.

By 1970, Bruce and Ling were looking for larger quarters to house their brood. They thought about buying a big, cheap house in the country. One day, Bruce and his brother, Rob, found themselves stopping for gas at a small crossroads called Boonville in the heart of the Anderson Valley in Mendocino County.

The town, with a population of only 1,000, lay in a beautiful valley of apple orchards, rolling hills clustered with California live oak, and ridgelines dense with redwood groves. Old-time residents spoke a secret language (more of a vocabulary, really) called Boontling. It had evolved from local teen-age slang invented a hundred years before, by kids who wanted to confound their elders. Even today one of the chief pleasures of “harpin boont” is to break into the funny dialect in front of bewildered strangers. The limited vocabulary of Boontling was taken from various midland American dialects and community names, familiar sounds, and the corruption of foreign languages, mainly Spanish and the local Pomo Indian. Pie was called “Charley Brown” after a farmer who ate it with every meal; a phone was called a “Walter” after Walter Levi, the first person to have one installed in the valley; because Boonville's original constable had a clubfoot and wore a corrective shoe, to be arrested was to be “high-heeled.” Today Boontling survives in the Anderson Valley as a kind of annoying tourist attraction.

Although no relation to Walter Anderson, the pioneer who settled the valley in 1851, Bruce Anderson felt at home in this eccentric corner of California. For $1,000 down on a $20,000 mortgage, Bruce and Ling bought a half-acre near Boonville and began expanding the spread that would become their home (and later the newspaper office).

As Anderson was to discover, the valley's bucolic air masked a rough character. Slim Pickens, the Hollywood character actor, once called Boonville the toughest little town he had ever visited. In the '50s, Boonville was renowned for its Saturday night fistfights. Scarier still, during the '60s, the Manson family spent some time here. And Jim Jones, the soon-to-be cult figure who would eventually lead a mass suicide in Guyana, was teaching sixth grade in the Anderson Elementary School.

“We discovered immediately,” Anderson says, “that delinquents under redwood trees were no different than delinquents under lampposts.” Making it tougher were the hippies in the valley, who thought it might be cool to turn on Bruce's inner-city foster kids with dope.

Bruce and Ling found themselves in the middle of a “back to the land” migration of longhairs who had fled San Francisco in the wake of the Haight-Ashbury binge of the '60s. Drawn to the idea of a simple, country life, the hippies desired nothing more than to fold harmonically into the landscape. As David Harris, author of The Last Stand, a chronicle of the timber wars, once described this Northern California redwood country: “Half the people look like they just got out of the Marine Corps and the other half out of a Grateful Dead concert.”

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. [page]

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.

The most infamous punch-up took place at a public meeting of the Mendocino County School Board in April 1988. As Anderson tells it, he floored his old nemesis, School Board Superintendent Jim Spence, with a blow that sent him flying over a table. For this display of temper, Anderson spent 35 days in the Mendocino County Jail. Inside, Anderson organized the other prisoners into signing a writ over jail conditions and overcrowding and the upshot was that the county had to build a new facility.

Anderson's critics will tell you that being a character isn't the same as having it. There are those who have accused him of manufacturing quotes and spreading hearsay and misinformation. Charles Peterson, 5th District Mendocino County supervisor, says Anderson's confrontational journalism and petty hectoring chase good people away from the Democratic process. Peterson says that while the AVA might be popular in certain circles in San Francisco and Greenwich Village, it is not taken very seriously in the Anderson Valley. District Attorney Susan Massini, who denies the vendetta charges Anderson leveled during his arrest for the Bear Lincoln letters, says Anderson “has an interesting philosophy that anyone in a position of power needs to be chastised.” The line on Anderson, from many of his critics, is that he doesn't trouble himself with the facts because he already knows the truth — his politics have spared him the effort of investigation or thought.

Alexander Cockburn thinks this is a bad rap. The Nation columnist says Anderson is “a great respecter of truth” and compares him to Jonathan Swift. “He's a satirist and a very good reporter,” says Cockburn. “He's a guy who understands that reality has to be engaged in a variety of techniques. I don't think Bruce lies at all — he makes the truth live up to itself.”

Ben Bagdikian, a former dean of U.C. Berkeley's School of Journalism, says that although Anderson provides a refreshing alternative to establishmentarian journalism, “you get the feeling he relishes a great fight even if it doesn't involve a great issue. He likes to be outrageous. That can be healthy — but it can also get you into all kinds of trouble and silliness.”

Such may be the case with Bear Lincoln. Anderson's jailing for contempt was hardly a defining First Amendment moment. Sure, he contends he helped Bear Lincoln by focusing the media's attention on the case, which comes up for trial on Aug. 26. He also says that the letter he turned over posed no threat to Bear. But the fact is that he surrendered the missive only a matter of days after declaring that he would spend the rest of the year in the slam. [page]

Perhaps fatigue is setting in. Anderson acknowledges that he sometimes wearies of Boonville and the struggle of meeting each week's deadline. Not too long ago, he put the newspaper up for sale and thought about moving north to Eureka. But his plans fell through — not even his enemies would come up with the cash to buy him out of the valley.

It is hard to imagine what the Anderson Valley Advertiser would be without Bruce Anderson. Of course, love him or hate him, readers won't have to worry about that for at least the time being. He is working hard on the next edition and hustling to promote The Letters of Wanda Tinasky. And if Thomas Pynchon should ever surface and cop to being Wanda Tinasky, Anderson says he is prepared to split his share of the book royalties with him.

“I think we're on the same page,” he says.
They'd better be, of course, because Anderson might not have that many places to turn in a pinch. After all, Lenin's quip about reality is joined on the AVA's front page by an aphorism from Joseph Pulitzer that might someday come back to haunt the publisher of the Anderson Valley Advertiser: “Newspapers should have no friends.”

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