In Field of Dreams, Burt Lancaster has a memorable line in which he says your dreams often "brush by you like strangers in a crowd." As I think back on my journalism career, the same can be said of important people. The earliest part of my career was like that, but I didn't realize it at the time. Some notable journalists brushed by me like strangers in a crowd. I was just a kid too focused on learning the ropes and not aware of who was teaching me.
I am going to talk about four of those journalists in my next blog entries, listing them in chronological order. Today's entry: Dave and Cathy Mitchell.
My first journalism job after college was as a jack-of-all-trades at the Sebastopol Times, a weekly newspaper in western Sonoma County. It was a nice gig for an Oregon guy who viewed California as a kind of paradise. My first days at the Times were spent with Dave and Cathy, who were in the process of clearing out after turning over control of the newspaper to Ernie Joiner, the man who hired me to work in Sebastopol. The fact Dave and Cathy could never work for Joiner was easy to understand. The Mitchells were Stanford-educated liberals; Ernie was a conservative a few steps to the right of Rush Limbaugh.
I believe Dave and Cathy were leery of me when I arrived. After all, I was hired by Joiner, and any hire by Ernie had to be someone of similar political views. That didn't fit me (liberal on just about any issue) in the mid-1970s, and there was a tone of considerable distance. I remember my first writing assignment at the Times. Cathy handed me a fact sheet on an upcoming drama club presentation at Analy High School. Theater stories weren't my strong suit, but I wrote about 8 inches of copy. I handed it in, and I waited for a verdict. "You write good material," she said. "Dave, this kid can actually write." My work and her reply helped cool the atmosphere in the newsroom, and we worked well together. Both of them gave me tips on small-town journalism, a sort of mini-seminar with Stanford grads. I worked hard from them in the little time we spent together.
The Mitchells then embarked on a journey that brought them international attention and fame. They took over the Point Reyes Light, a small newspaper in the northern California coastal town of Point Reyes Station. The Mitchells wrote a major expose about Synanon, a drug rehabilitation organization that had a facility in nearby Marshall. They uncovered violent and corrupt practices in the organization. For their work, they received a Pulitzer Prize in 1979 for meritorious public service journalism. Synanon filed several lawsuits against the Mitchells, and every lawsuit failed. Reports say the Mitchells received a $100,000 settlement from Synanon.
Dave and Cathy divorced a few years after winning the prize. Dave gave up control of the Light and went to work in San Francisco for a while. He eventually purchased the newspaper again and kept it until his retirement. I was pleased to see a photo of Dave taken by the San Francisco Chronicle for a 2005 story. The headline on the story was perfect: After 30 years as the muckraker of West Marin, Dave Mitchell has passed the torch. He still writes a blog, http://www.sparselysageandtimely.com/blog/. I haven't been able to find information on what Cathy has done in the post-Point Reyes days. If anyone can fill in the gaps. let me know.
Their greatest gifts to me were their professional approach, their dedication to not pulling back from a difficult news story, and their willingness to help a newbie. That is one heckuva nice foundation for a young man wanting to stay in journalism for his entire career.