On first appearance, this seems like any of a thousand small, rural American towns. Little more than a drab, unassuming cluster of buildings on Highway 1, an hour's drive north of San Francisco, it lies sandwiched between a vast inland expense of dairy farms and California's rugged coastal mountain range.
When the Point Reyes Light won the Pulitzer Prize for public service for its coverage of the controversial Synanon Foundation, it was the smalltown imagery that captivated the media.
The yarn spun by the press was a Cinderella story; tiny weekly newspaper with 2,700 circulation in backwater town takes on mammoth $30 million cult. The Light's owners, Dave and Cathy Mitchell, operating out of a three-room storefront office, were portrayed as having barely enough resources to cover the cost of a long distance phone call to San Francisco.
But behind the David and Goliath fairy tale served up by the national press lies a more complex and contradictory reality.
"It just wasn't all this highly quotable pap served up to NBC and the rest of the media about the small local newspaper taking on gigantic Synanon," says Dr. Richard Ofshe, a reporter/consultant for the Light who shared in its Pullitzer award. "Sure we're a small paper, but we're in Marin County, one of the most sophisticated counties in California. For many of the people out here in west Marin, the Light was something to be read along with the New York Review of Books.
Where else in the country," Ofshe goes on, "would you get two people like the Mitchells, with MA degress in journalism from Stanford University, working with myself, a professor from the University of California, on a paper like this? It wouldn't happen in some jerkwater little town in Indiana."
Ofshe's sentiments were echoed by a number of west Marin residents. They said this old ranching community not contains as many backyard hot-tubs as barnyard silos, producting a mix of "burned-out hippies, redneck ranchers, and everything in between," in the words of one local.
A steady influx of highly educated and often very wealthy urban migrants over the last several years was a central factor in supplying both the resources and readership that supported the Ligh's journalistic crusade.
For example, the local Light reader who brought the Mitchells their Pulitzer application forms is the father-in-law of New York Times syndicated columnist Anthony Lewis.
"This is not the small Kansas town of Booth Tarkington," Says John Mason, a local historian who has published seven books on Marin County and who pens a weekly column in the Light. "It's one of the wealthiest communities in the United States." The area's peculiar demographics provided the important popular basis for the Light's investigative forays against Synanon.
"Some of the rangers said they didn't like Synanon because they thought it was a rip-off and a scam with its non-profit exemptions and tax breaks," Ofshe explains. "The local professional classes and intelligensia opposed Synanon on primarily philosophical grounds-they saw it as the prototypic totalitarian state organization."
Ofshe, for that matter, who commutes regularly in his battered black Porshe between his tenured faculty post in Berkeley's prestigious sociology department and his rustic home in west Marin, is the world's leading academic expert on Synanon.
The Mitchells, who between them have nearly 20 years' experience in the media, are far from the cute bumpkin couple the press has portrayed. They purchased the financially ailing Light in 1975 and quickly transformed it into a highly professional paper.
Dave Mitchell, 35, can talk in one breath of the times last year he and his wife "sat down in the hot tub with a glass of wine and a canister of Mace next to it on the ledge" to ward off would-be intruders from Synanon, and in the next say, "I consider myself a small businessman, and identify with the local merchants here more than anyone."
Such sensitivity to the local population was one of the main reasons the Mitchells decided to confront Synanon and "stand up" for a number of local ranchers who were feuding with it. The Mitchells were ablt to develop crucial information relayed to them by the ranchers about alleged beatings and violence inside the cult. The ranchers had picked up these reports from juvenile Synanon runways who sought refuge at their local farms.
The Mitchells' extensive contacts in the area and Ofshe's links with a network of ex-Synanon members combined to make a formidable team.
What followed was an average of ag least one article or editorial in the Light every week from March 1978 on, detailing the allegations of violence in Synanon and the unwillingness of state and local government to deal with the problem.
National news organizations ranging from Newsweek and The New York Times to NBC News became regular Light subscribers, and often followed the paper's lead on exposes.
"It's no accident," Ofshe says with pride, "that all the important Synanon news in the state and national media broke on a Thursday of Friday, because the Light goes to press on Wednesday and it's only a question of how fast the mails are moving."
The Mitchells feel their consistent ability to scoop the larger but mroe lethargic news organizations had to do with tyrannical power of media legal departments gunshy over Synanon's propensity to fire off libel suits.
Curiously, the Light "never even got a demand for a retraction," according to Dave Mitchell. "The irony is a lot of people were threatened and intimidated,and we weren't getting anything," adds Cathy Mitchell. "It's like we have been walking along in the eye of a hurricane." Cathy also suggests that wehn Synanon sued media giants the leaders could "portray themselves as the little guys being persecuted by the big guys.
"But to sue the Light," she says, glancing around its cramped editorial office, "they would be the big guys picking on us."