Mendo Media

by Mark Scaramella, January 29, 2010

My uncle, the late 5th District Supervisor Joe Scaramella, was an avid reader all his life. He described the county’s media during his tour in office in the 50s and 60s as “mostly duplicative and wishy-washy.” But Uncle Joe conceded that despite its pale timidity, the Mendo media were influential: he always said that without the endorsement of the Ukiah Daily Journal he would not have elected Fifth District Supervisor in 1952. “I ran four times before without the Journal’s endorsement,” he’d laugh. “And I lost every time.”

Joe Scaramella was subsequently re-elected four times and was responsible for a variety of major reforms of county government: an end to private budget meetings held in the offices of lumber company lawyers; a set of rules and procedures for the operations of the Board of Supervisors; establishment of a Civil Service Commission and orderly personnel management procedures; and an hour set aside before each meeting for a general hearing of the public. He implemented these steps in his first term in office — well before enactment of the Brown Act which at least theoretically forced public business out into the open for the public to admire. For his work on behalf of the public interest, Uncle Joe was denounced by the private beneficiaries of back door politics as a troublemaker.  “They fostered the notion that I was a troublemaker because I was critical, perhaps sometimes unnecessarily,” Scaramella remembered. “But, criticism in my judgment is an essential part of life. If nobody says anything negative, how can you expect things to improve?”

So how do the media in Mendocino County today stand up to Joe Scaramella’s invocation of negativity as change agent? A few pretty well — most not so good.

For criticism and negativity you’d have to concede that the Anderson Valley Advertiser wins rather easily, although there’s not much competition. The AVA, like it or not, can count numerous triumphs, from the clean-up of the County Office of Education and the return of the Courthouse law library to the public it was designed to serve in the 1990s to in-depth critical coverage of the Board of Supervisors and the legal system.

The Ukiah Daily Journal’s editor isn’t averse to critiquing county authorities and policies when she feels it’s warranted. K.C. Meadows is not just a Chamber of Commerce tub thumper. Given its chain ownership, it’s a relatively independent news source. (If Meadows had been running the UDJ at the time of Jim Jones, the rev might well have been headed off before he got past Cloverdale.) The Journal also boldly covered the Jason Cox lawsuit against the Sheriff’s Department in the wake of sex and suicide scandal in Covelo, regularly criticizes overpaid and bloated county government officials and does not hesitate to make pointed endorsements in the county elections.

Local authority cannot reliably expect the AVA or the Journal to uncritically relay self-interested views to the public. Nor will they automatically assume the prone position before local or, for that matter, state power. Serious criticism of public agencies and personnel is offered, controversial issues are aired and debated, and the pages of these publications are open to all points of view.

But after these two papers, media matters go downhill on the essential criticism and negativity scale, descending into the dreaded “duplicative and wishy-washy.”

The Willits News has some competent reporters, but the paper takes a very cautious approach to local politics and events. It also spares Willits officials the close scrutiny they obviously deserve given the civic condition of the “Gateway to the Redwood Empire.”

Our tax-funded and tax-exempt public radio station, KZYX in Philo, uses the authorities themselves as primary news sources; you’re unikely to hear local bureaucrats criticize themselves. The radio person doing the interviewing is typically disinclined to ask his or her majesty a question his or her majesty might not like, if they ask a question at all. Moreover, public debates are almost unheard of on the county’s public radio station. After the last one they had on the pot-regulating Measure B, the station’s best programmer, K.C. Meadows, was “suspended” for simply taking a position on the issue which she responded to by simply quitting; and the station’s program director herself was suspended for two weeks for simply pointing out the obvious that many medical marijuana medical marijuana claims are bogus. Week in and week out, public radio KZYX serves corporate and local power as slavishly as any in-house industry organ. You will never hear the slightest criticism of the County’s dominant wine industry or, the pot industry for that matter.

Gualala’s Independent Coast Observer simply doesn’t have much county news in it, much less criticism of anything.

The Fort Bragg Advocate and the Mendocino Beacon — sister publications to the Ukiah Daily Journal — run many of the same stories as the Daily Journal, mixed with some competent, if blandly uncritical, local reporting.

Last and easily the least, there’s the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. The PD has historically been viewed as “our paper” by entrenched county bureaucrats and miscellaneous members of the old boys network because it takes them all at their own inflated, if brief, face value.

Overall, though, the Mendocino media landscape in recent years isn’t as bad as some people like to think, although you do have to put in some effort to get decent news. (19th century papers were, on the whole, better written and much more lively and outspoken.)

Although Mendocino County is trying hard to cash in on its unique character for tourism, the criticism-averse wine industry and travelling developers, thanks to the criticisms and negativity of at least some of the local media, villainous public behavior won’t always be ignored.

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