The best long-running drama not on television just ended. Let's call it Ferndale Law. The show starred a hot British ex-pat who somehow found herself owning and running a small paper in a quaint little town 5 miles off a remote highway at the westernmost edge of the continental U.S. She marries a guy who becomes the mayor and craziness ensues.
The show's only flaw was that there was so much intrigue in this tiny place that it wasn't very believable. Here's the crazy thing: It was all true!
If you have been following this story, you know that Stuart Titus and his wife Caroline had sued the Humboldt County Fair Association for failing to renew Stuart's contract as general manager in retaliation for her news coverage in Caroline's newspaper, the Ferndale Enterprise. The end came last month when the fair board agreed out of court to pay the Tituses $150,000. That's a lot of money for a little newspaper so shoestring that the owner does pretty much all the work herself.
And hopefully it is a powerful message to our tiny public agencies that think they can operate as private fiefdoms.
The Tituses also settled a second suit that had to do with the failure of the board to provide public records Caroline had requested under the California Public Records Act. In that case, a judge ordered the board to pay the Titus' lawyer $45,000 in attorney's fees.
For the hat trick, the Northern California chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists just awarded the Ferndale Enterprise with its 2015 James Madison Freedom of Information Award.
The award recognizes that the little battle that played out in Ferndale represents something bigger than Stuart Titus' contract to run the county fair.
It is about whether people have the opportunity to know how public officials make decisions that affect our lives. In this case, it was about the management of the Humboldt County Fair, which is the lifeblood of Ferndale.
There is a general rule of thumb about human beings. When others are watching, we tend to obey laws and general rules of fairness and decency. When people aren't watching, we are more likely not to obey those laws. Corruption happens. And it happens way more when doors are closed and records are sealed.
Some people read the news that the fair board would pay out almost 200 large for the two suits and said, "Wow! The Tituses scored!"
There is an old saying: You can't fight government. But that's what journalists like Caroline Titus try to do, and they do it for those people who don't have the wherewithal. You can't fight government because government will fight back. The SPJ awarded Caroline Titus its James Madison award because her refusal to back off her relentless coverage of the fair board represents something much larger than keeping Ferndale officials on the up and up. She held her ground for years against relentless personal attacks: She was called a bitch and a slut who slept with everyone in Ferndale. She received vile voice mail messages. Ferndale residents were sent a nasty anonymous letter in the mail. In court filings, Stuart Titus was described as a drunk. Attorneys for the fair board even tried to subpoena Caroline Titus' gynecological records. Now tell me: Do you think the Tituses scored?
A small group of people in a tiny town went to extraordinary lengths to get back at a couple that had the gall to insist public business be done in public. Imagine what lengths public officials and their allies go to in much bigger cities. I wish that all newspaper owners were as stubborn as Caroline Titus, that their families were as supportive and that they were as committed to covering local governments.
The truth is few journalists are that stubborn, or have the luxury of working for themselves with staunch support from paid subscribers. Many journalists cozy up to the government officials they cover. Cozying up is way more pleasant than confronting.
Caroline Titus is now my personal hero. But maybe the real heroes are the residents of Ferndale — who, in a world of free downloads, continue to pony up $1 per issue and $55 a year to subscribe — and the businesses that pay to advertise in the most old-fashioned of newspapers.
It is hard to teach young journalists to stand their ground when people decline to be interviewed or refuse to give out information. The trick, I say, is that the person isn't saying no to just them. The person is saying no to every one of their readers or viewers or listeners. They are behind journalists in that confrontation and that's where strength and stubborness comes from. The board of the Humboldt County Fair tried hard to make the suits filed by the Tituses about Caroline and Stuart Titus. But they misunderstood the motto of the paper. Each issue of the Ferndale Enterprise says: It's All About Us.
Caroline Titus doesn't mean her. She means her readers. She understands that she works for them. If only our public officials understood that as well.
Marcy Burstiner is chair of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at Humboldt State University. She is dismayed that were she to find herself in a similar legal dispute, discovery would uncover little dirt about her life.