David Mitchell, a maverick whose small California newspaper challenged the violent drug rehabilitation cult Synanon and, as a result, became one of only a handful of weeklies to win a Pulitzer Prize, died on October 25 at his home in Point Reyes Station, California. Went. ., in Marin County. He was 79 years old.
His wife, Lynn Axelrod Mitchell, said the cause was complications from Parkinson’s disease.
An angry, irascible former literature teacher, Mr. Mitchell was also named in a retaliatory defamation suit by Synanon, the results of which advanced the rights of investigative journalists. In 1984, the California Supreme Court ruled that in some cases they could keep the names of confidential sources secret without losing their defense in defamation and other civil cases.
Mr. Mitchell’s newspaper, The Point Reyes Light, was struggling financially, and the stress of keeping it afloat ultimately led to Mr. Mitchell’s second marriage; His wife, Katherine Mitchell, was co-publisher with him at the time.
But seven news articles and 13 editorials earned The Light a Pulitzer Gold Medal for public service in 1979 for “pioneering exposure of this quasi-religious corporate cult”, demonstrating the caliber of local journalism and bringing attention to the newspaper. attracted. A role in the classic David-and-Goliath story.
Columnist James Reston wrote in The New York Times in 1979, “This is one of those romantic Ben Hecht, Ring Lardner or Horatio Alger stories.” “A young struggling couple from Stanford University, David and Katherine Mitchell, buy a small newspaper, defy powerful interests in the community, and win the big prize.
It is said to be only the fourth time that a weekly or one of its journalists has won a Pulitzer since the award was first awarded in 1917. Mr Mitchell kept the medal safe in his office.
In 1980, when Mr. Mitchell published the book “The Light on Synanon: How a Country Weekly Exposed a Corporate Cult – and Won the Pulitzer Prize,” a reviewer for The Christian Science Monitor wrote that “It is a must-read for everyone Must be necessary.” Thinks that a small newspaper can serve only a small purpose or that all important news is in Washington or abroad.
The Monitor said, “By digging in his own backyard, Michel has set an example for the whole world.”
The book inspired the CBS-TV movie, “Attack on Fear” (1984), starring Paul Michael Glaser and Linda Kelsey playing Mitchell.
The Light, a 16-page tabloid, had a circulation of about 3,000 and, in its best year, made a profit of about $17,000. It shared space with a shoe repair shop on blocklong Main Street in Point Reyes Station, a peninsular town of about 400 people located about 40 miles north of San Francisco and perched precariously on the San Andreas Fault. Has happened.
In 1973, a grand jury raised questions about financial irregularities and child abuse by Synanon, which was once widely respected but had evolved into an authoritarian sect that described itself as a religion in order to receive tax exemption. – Church of Synanon – had declared. Later that year, reporters in San Francisco discovered that the Synanon Drug Rehabilitation Center in Marshall, California, less than 10 miles from the Point Reyes station, was storing $60,000 worth of weapons.
Mr Mitchell began his own investigation the same year, in which his wife also joined; One of his reporters, John Madden; and Richard J. Smith, professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. Ofshe, who studied Synanon. For them, it was a story from their own backyard that they could not ignore.
“It was a local story,” Mr. Mitchell told The Associated Press in 1979. “If it didn’t happen, we wouldn’t write about it. We also don’t cover countywide news. If San Rafael, the county seat, disappeared in a tidal wave, the only mention would be that someone from West Marin came there to shop and drowned.
Mitchell wrote articles and editorials at Synanon, reporting on violence, terrorism, and financial irregularities. There were reports that its founder, Charles Dederich, demanded that men enrolled in the program undergo sterilization and that pregnant women undergo abortions, and that hundreds of married couples change partners.
In 1980, Mr. Dederich pleaded no contest to charges that he and two members of Synanon’s security force had conspired to commit murder by placing a rattlesnake in the mailbox of a lawyer who was suing the organization. Synanon disbanded in 1991.
Mr. Mitchell edited and published The Light for 27 years, from 1975 to 1981 and again from 1984 to 2005, when he retired. then he started writing blog“Sparsely sage and timely,” which he continued until this June.
While he became famous for his newspaper’s expose of Synanon, he expressed even greater satisfaction in a series of articles spanning two decades that sought to put the latest influx of newcomers to Marin County into historical perspective over waves of foreigners. A demand was made for those who had settled. There since 1850.
He explained, “Probably the most important thing we’ve done, the one I’d be most proud of, is helping Mexican immigrants become part of the mainstream.” San Francisco Chronicle in 2005.
David Vokes Mitchell was born on November 23, 1943, in San Francisco to Edith (Vox) Mitchell, a Canadian immigrant who sold advertising for The Christian Science Monitor, and Herbert Houston Mitchell, a vice president of a printing company. Was.
The family moved to Berkeley when David was 3 years old. He earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Stanford University in 1965 and a master’s degree in communications there in 1967.
After considering a career as an artist, he recalled on his blog, “To my parents’ surprise, as well as mine, I ultimately left Stanford as a budding journalist. “
He taught at Marvel Academy in Rye, NY, and later taught speech and literature at Leesburg High School in Leesburg, Florida, where he joined a campaign to register black voters. He taught English literature and journalism at Upper Iowa University in Fayette and later worked as a reporter for newspapers in Iowa and California.
In 1975, he and Katherine Mitchell sold their home and invested about $50,000 in The Light, a community newspaper where one could find photographs of smiling children displaying their award-winning pumpkins or a cow retrieving a tree. A story about a firefighter can be found (don’t ask).
They introduced a comic strip about an organic dairy cow with a craving for junk food, a sex and romance column by a 78-year-old local woman, and a Spanish language column by a 13-year-old girl.
Realizing he was a better journalist than businessman, Mr. Mitchell first sold a newspaper in 1981, when he was 37. That same year, he and his wife, who was Catherine Cousteau when they married, divorced, both of them tired of the pressure of keeping The Light more or less effective as co-publishers.
Mr. Mitchell’s marriages to Linda Foor, Cynthia Clark, and Ana Carolina Monterosso also ended in divorce.
In addition to his wife, Lynn, whom he married in 2018, he is survived by three stepdaughters from his previous marriage, Anika Zappa-Pinello, Cristeli Zappa Monterosso, and Shelly Zappa Monterosso; and two step-grandchildren.
After first leaving The Light, Mr. Mitchell became a reporter for the San Francisco Examiner, covering San Francisco and Central America. He reacquired the Weekly in 1983, when it faced default. In 1986, Synanon dropped the libel and defamation suit against The Light and agreed to pay Mitchell $100,000, which he had invested in computers and other office equipment.
In 2005, he sold The Light again for $100,000, this time to former California prosecutor Robert I. Plotkin. In his farewell column, Mr. Mitchell wrote that in his nearly three decades as publisher the newspaper won 109 national, regional and state journalism awards.
In the same column, he said that his goal as an editor was always “to ensure that the ‘little man’ is not crushed by power.”
His staff didn’t need reminding, and neither did he. A placard in The Light’s office declared, “It is the duty of the newspaper to print news and create an uproar.”