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Country Rogue 

Mendocino publisher Bruce Anderson is smart, sophisticated, and savage

Wednesday, Jul 17 1996
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.

About The Author

Michael Checchio


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