Friday, July 25, 2014

Journalism Memories: My Pulitzer-winning mentors



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." I realize the same thing can be said about 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 a kid too focused on learning the ropes to be aware of who was teaching me.

I will talk about four of those journalists in my next blog entries. Today's topic: Dave and Cathy Mitchell.

My first journalism job as a wet-behind-the-ears college graduate was as a jack-of-all-trades for the Sebastopol Times, a weekly newspaper located about 60 miles north of San Francisco in the Sonoma County apple-growing and wine region. It was a nice opening gig for an Oregon guy who viewed California as 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. The fact Dave and Cathy couldn't work for Joiner was a no-brainer. The Mitchells were Stanford-educated liberals, and Ernie was a conservative who today would be about five steps to the right of Rush Limbaugh.

I believe Dave and Cathy were leery of me. After all, anyone Joiner hired had to share his political leanings, right? That wasn't true. I was the standard just-out-of-college kid who leaned to the left on almost every issue. I still remember my first writing assignment. Cathy handed me a fact sheet about an upcoming theater presentation at the local high school. Theater writing wasn't my strong suit, and I was a kid in an area I didn't know much about. I wrote about 10 inches of copy, handed in my story and waited for a review. "You write good material," she said. "Dave, this kid can actually write." That made me feel good, and I believe any tension in the newsroom disappeared. I worked well with Dave and Cathy for the short time we were together. They took me under their wings and gave me several tips on small-town journalism. Dave took me with him when he covered his last city council meeting, and he introduced me to the people I would be covering. That was a classy move.

The Mitchells then embarked on a journalistic journey that brought them international attention and fame. They took over the Point Reyes Light, a weekly newspaper in the Marin County town of Point Reyes Station. They did an investigative story on Synanon, the drug rehabilitation organization that had a facility in the area. They uncovered violent and corrupt practices in the organization. For their work, they received the Pulitzer Prize in 1979 for meritorious public service. That was a tremendous achievement. Weekly newspapers usually don't show up on Pulitzer Prize lists. The Mitchells successfully defended several lawsuits filed against them by Synanon. Reports say they eventually received a $100,000 settlement from the group.

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 small newspaper again and kept it until his retirement. The headline on a San Francisco Chronicle story on him in 2005 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 Cathy 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.



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