Saturday, June 3, 2023

Mendocino County’s Rogue Writer Bruce Anderson Honored for a Career Exemplifying the Power of the Pen

Bruce Anderson, the legendary editor of the Anderson Valley Advertiser [Photograph from Mike Geniella]

Editor Bruce Anderson earned his reputation as a North Coast literary lion years ago, in part by snarling at critics of his Anderson Valley Advertiser and brawling with a few local personalities. Even at age 83, Anderson doesn’t back down if he feels the fight is just.

So, it should come as no surprise that Mendocino County’s most famous scribe joins a list of notable writers and activists recognized for helping protect open expression on behalf of literature and human rights in the United States and worldwide.

Anderson shares in the ‘Reginald Lockett Lifetime Achievement Award’ handed out earlier this month by the Oakland chapter of PEN America to the Mendocino County editor and Nellie Wong, a Chinese American poet and union activist who was born and raised in the Oakland Chinatown of the 1940s. The Oakland chapter was formed in 1989 by activist and writer Ishmael Reed, and not long after the organization was described as the ‘blue collar’ PEN by the New York Times. That label suits the Bay Area membership, who eschew highbrow literary pronouncements in favor of multicultural voices.

Anderson always provokes national attention, but the lifetime achievement award is one of the few public recognitions he has received for decades of publishing, writing, and editing the Anderson Valley Advertiser, a rambunctious no-holds-barred weekly newspaper that is among the best-known publications in America. Its daily online version – Mendocino Today – is as popular as the print edition.

Not surprisingly, Anderson downplays the honor. Anderson recalled the advice of one of his closest friends, the late acerbic columnist Alexander Cockburn, a Scotland-born writer who lived for a time on the Lost Coast at Petrolia.

“When they start giving you awards, it’s time to quit,” Cockburn told his friend.

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Still, Anderson acknowledged he is flattered by the PEN recognition. “They don’t pass these things out like popcorn, but then again maybe they felt sorry for me because I’m old and still at it.”

Anderson’s rogue approach to journalism, and his disdain for the trappings of media conventions, are legendary. So is his advocacy on behalf of inmates, blue-collar workers, and troubled people caught up in the ‘system,’ and his willingness to wage a war of words in the AVA on their behalf. 

In 2015, writer Alexander Nazaryan declared in a Newsweek article that the AVA “may well be one of the last genuinely American newspapers.” The New York Times, frequently mocked by Editor Anderson for its establishment brand of news gathering, in 2004 described the AVA “as one of the country’s most idiosyncratic and contentious weeklies”.

As far back as 1985, the AVA was garnering attention in the mainstream media. The Los Angeles Times that year published a piece quoting former Rep. Doug Bosco, D-Sonoma County. 

“He isn’t particularly accurate, and he doesn’t stay within the bounds of responsible journalism but maybe that’s why people read him,” said Bosco then. 

Anderson three years later sent the mainstream news media into a dither in 1988 when he published a purported interview with Bosco, a satiric piece quoting the lawmaker as saying among other things that the only real concern most of his North Coast constituents had was where their next marijuana joint came from. The piece rocked the political establishment, generated national coverage, and laid Anderson open to pronouncements by media gurus that he was not a ‘real journalist.’

Bosco’s later defeat at the polls stunned liberals but was celebrated by Anderson, and a cadre of progressives who thwarted his bid for re-election.

Bosco later acknowledged to a New York Times writer that Anderson’s “biting sarcasm always had enough of a kernel of truth that it stuck.” 

And, added Bosco, “He’s a good writer. So even if you are being completely maligned, at least you have the honor of it being done in good style.”

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Anderson and the AVA are deeply woven into the fabric of the region, especially in Mendocino County, a place that the editor describes as offering refuge for people who “reinvent themselves every day.”

Over the years Anderson has relied on Mark Scaramella, his longtime colleague at the AVA, and a loyal cadre of contributors to keep the newspaper going. Scaramella, a member of a politically influential Mendocino Coast family, in particular, keeps tabs on the county Board of Supervisors in an era when conventional newspapers have shrunk their news-gathering operations, and only occasionally cover county offices, courts, and school board meetings. 

“We are still at it when all the others have faded away,” said Anderson. 

To the circle of people who know Anderson well, his high-profile role as a public curmudgeon is at odds with his quiet family lifestyle, a dedication to personal fitness (the regimen includes 300 pushups a day), and enjoyment of books, baseball, and the county fair.

Anderson, a former Marine, is a devoted family man, married for more than five decades to a Malaysian woman named Ling whom he met while doing a stint with the Peace Corps. “Without Ling, I would probably be sleeping in a doorway,” said Anderson.

He is the father of two sons, and a daughter:  Zack Anderson, a Harvard graduate and a film producer and screenwriter; daughter Jessica Anderson, an executive with the Federal Reserve Bank in San Francisco; and son Ben Anderson, a behavioral health specialist in Mendocino County. “He hopes that his co-workers don’t learn that I am his father,” quipped Anderson.

Writer and jazz aficionado Robert Mailer Anderson, a San Francisco philanthropist and author of the novel ‘Boonville’, is part of the Anderson family. He graduated from Anderson Valley High School while living with Bruce Anderson and his family as a teenager. Robert Mailer Anderson and his wife Nicola Miner own a large ranch in Mendocino County and use it as a family retreat. They have become major benefactors of scholarships for local Anderson Valley students, among other contributions. Robert Mailer Anderson is the Oakland PEN’s chapter representative to the national organization.

Bruce Anderson was born in 1939 in Hawaii “in the same hospital where Barack Obama was later born.” His grandfather was an executive with the venerable Honolulu Iron Works company, an iconic island firm that supplied heavy-duty industrial equipment for sugar cane mills, refineries, and distilleries throughout Hawaii and the Pacific. 

Soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, toddler Bruce and a baby brother, and their mother came on a troop ship to San Francisco because of family fears the Japanese were going to follow up with an armed invasion of Hawaii. “We bunked at the Fairmont Hotel,” said Anderson.

Later, his father rejoined the family in the City where he went to work loading submarines at Hunter’s Point Naval Shipyard during the war. “We moved to Marin County, and I grew up in Corte Madera and went to Tamalpais High School in Mill Valley.”

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Life was good. 

“My greatest achievement as a teenager was pitching a 13-inning shutout against San Rafael High School’s baseball team,” recalled Anderson.  

Anderson joined the Marine Corps after high school, largely because of a “lack of imagination”.  Basic training was “15 weeks of pure torture”.

“Because I was a high school jock, I could weather it physically, but it was mind-numbing,” Anderson recalled.

When Anderson got out of the Marines, his brother Ken helped him get into Cal Poly as a baseball player. He later graduated from San Francisco State University with a double major in history and English. 

Anderson started “hanging out with commies and civil rights activists” in the City. Like so many youth of the time, Anderson became an admirer of John F. Kennedy, and his Peace Corps.

“There was a notion that activists had a place in the Peace Corps, and I joined up. I was among the first wave of volunteers to go to Southeast Asia,” said Anderson.

He met his future wife Ling in the small village of Mukah on the island of Borneo. “She was a young teacher there, and the only one who could speak English. In fact, she spoke five languages.”

“We have been together ever since,” said Anderson.

Anderson currently divides his time between the family home in San Anselmo and the AVA’s compound in Boonville.

Originally, he brought his family to live in Anderson Valley in 1971 after becoming engaged in providing a group home environment for troubled juveniles from the Bay Area.

It was by chance that he bought the AVA, then a staid community weekly, and became editor and publisher in January 1984. “I had found myself in a lot of hassles with the county bureaucracy over group home regulations, and I thought the newspaper could be my bullhorn to make county officials uncomfortable.”

Indeed, it did.

The AVA under Anderson’s ownership roared to life, ripping local educational agencies, and damning liberal political figures along with rock-ribbed conservatives. He once, for example, labeled the county’s grand jury a “gutless posse of senile Rotarians.” He verbally pummeled people publicly he considered incompetent, some of whom still carry resentments after years of licking their wounds.

The reaction was almost immediate.

“We lost almost all of our advertising, and we were greeted with scorn by the county’s establishment,” recalled Anderson.

The AVA, however, struck a chord with readers with its biting commentary, aggressive news coverage, and wide-ranging literary selections. As many copies were sold in the Bay Area and elsewhere as in Mendocino County. It became a célèbre.

“I knew that between sales in the news racks, and from subscriptions, we could make it,” said Anderson. 

County officials then retaliated by denying him legal advertising, an important source of income. The AVA fought the case in court and won a local jury verdict in favor, but lost to the county when it appealed to a higher state court. 

Anderson singled out the county’s Office of Education for some of his most vitriolic attacks, which led to an infamous scuffle with the county schools superintendent at a Point Arena meeting. 

Current District Attorney Dave Eyster was then a brash newcomer who prosecuted Anderson on disturbing the peace charges and got him a 30-day jail sentence.

“I slept on the floor for over a week because the jail then was so overcrowded, and the conditions so decrepit. They could not even shut the showers off,” recalled Anderson. 

The editor’s reputation may have been sullied but his presence got jail administrators’ attention. “They acted immediately to get things cleaned up. I recall 40 or more inmates eventually being released because of the overcrowded conditions. I see it as one of my most important accomplishments.”

Anderson in the 1980s initially was supportive of the environmental movement that challenged the nation’s biggest timber companies over their rapacious logging practices on the North Coast. He stood with Earth First! activist Judi Bari at early rallies and railed at the ‘timber barons’ for overcutting redwoods, shutting down mills, and disrupting the lives of thousands of millworkers and their families.

But a car bombing in Oakland shattered the alliance. Bari was seriously injured in the blast but the FBI and Oakland Police, who considered Bari and her followers environmental ‘terrorists,’ labeled them suspects in their own bombing. 

Anderson became convinced the real suspect was Bari’s former husband, Mike Sweeney. The fallout between Anderson and Bari and her followers was never healed. The bombing case remains unsolved.

Anderson has mellowed with time, and today’s AVA is regarded as one of the last sources of solid local news reporting in the county. Respectability knocks on the door. The DA and sheriff routinely pay calls on the AVA office when they cross the valley en route to the Mendocino Coast. Today’s AVA is chock full of local news promoting community events, the state of valley schools, and robust letters to the editor.

Anderson said he’s getting some satisfaction from having outlasted his critics. “I have a whole drawer full of demand letters for retractions. I am very proud of them.”

The fate of the AVA in an era marked by the collapse of news media in general? 

“When I die, I am pretty sure the AVA will go with me. Better buy it while you can,” said Anderson.

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    • I knew you’d be here to comment with your superiority complex. I think you’re the one whom chooses to deceive & be deceived…..amarum

    • Not all of us are as brave & courageous as you for using your real name. Not that anyone would know if it is or isn’t, but, I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt. Also, nobody gives a shit! You’re just a nobody typing jaded comments about someone else’s article. Not very brave! & im here to comment on you’re dumb comments. Also not brave. Get over yourself, dumb dumb.

  1. Best paper and staff for keeping local government exposed. Which is greatly needed. Someone has to tell everyone that the Emperor has no clothes!!

  2. Bruce Anderson and his mighty little newspaper played a pivotal role in securing the indictment of Dr. Peter Keegan for the Ukiah murder of his wife, Susan Keegan. Bruce challenged authorities who just wanted to see the case disappear, never stopped publicizing it, and always stood tenaciously for the core principle of justice. Much of Susan’s family is forever grateful. Clips from the AVA coverage live on at justice4susan.com

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