written by Crown
photos by Carolina Rios
For those who are unfamiliar, Anthony Peyton Porter had been a writer for Chico News & Review for almost nine years, up until the recent discontinuation of his column From The Edge.
I saw this as a dramatic move for the CNR, one that seemed to be swept under the rug. The only mentions of APP getting booted were in his “farewell” column and in two reader letters that were published the following week—no public explanation was given regarding the column’s end. I felt compelled to shed light on something left in the shadows.
I know a lot of people who would open up CNR solely for a weekly dive into Anthony’s world. Known for his direct, witty, honest, raw, opinionated, and sometimes racy stories and views, APP has become what is known as “Chico-famous.” Some will take a break from their grocery shopping to come up to him and voice praise in person, while others will express their inspired upset via email. He’s had plenty from both sides.
I think many of his readers—at least, those who weren’t easily offended—found something special in the weekly run. Perhaps they sensed an air of shameless freedom, which terrified some and excited some deeper portions of others. From The Edge, in many ways, had come to represent a place for free thought—uncensored, unfiltered, and shameless.
Anthony was a pleasure to be around, and our conversation made for a great interview. He loves to laugh, and he gave thoughtful and honest answers in our conversation about his recent experience with censorship and dissociation from the CNR. While APP and I walked through the park together, one reader stopped us to let him know that “he misses the column already.”
So what happened? [He laughs and pauses for a moment, seemingly a bit baffled.]
I’m not entirely sure. Or at least, there were a number of things.
You had been writing in CNR for almost 9 years… What was their reasoning?
Not a clear one. I only talked to [the editor] once, and this was after CNR rejected three different submissions in about two months. In our conversation there was nothing really specific. The only concrete thing I heard was about the first two things they rejected.
One rejected column was about my experience with someone close to me, mental illness, and the mental health system in Chico, which they said violated “the privacy of the subject.”
Can you talk about the arrangement you had with CNR?
It’s a common arrangement for a freelancer that gives [the publisher] “Right of first refusal,” so that anything I wrote for publication, I would give [CNR] first crack at. They weren’t committed to accepting anything, although I was committed to showing them everything I did. They got first chance to publish it, and if they refused it, I could do anything I wanted with it.
They said that they could be liable for a lawsuit if they printed it (the mental illness piece). . . “Exposing the subject’s life-details opens this paper up to legal action” was the stated reason.
(Until recently, only one other column had been rejected—one written in 2007 about the film director Roman Polanski, who had been convicted of sex with a minor in the ’70s.)
When something got rejected, the default action was to run an old one.
I can understand the reasoning behind that. What about the second rejection?
A couple of weeks later I wrote about Sid Lewis and his difficulties. CNR staff said that it was a “brand new case and there is way too little information available to be putting out opinions in the paper.”
That rejection came early enough for me to write something else if I wanted to, and I wrote “Censorship,” which was about their having rejected two previous columns [laughs]… and their response to that was, “After passing this column under all eyes here, as you might have predicted, the decision has been made not to print it.” That made the third rejection in two months. There was no specific reason for the rejection of the “Censorship” column.
Well, what’s the deal? What’s your feeling on the matter?
My opinion [laughs] is that it was just because I blew the whistle on them. Because in Chico, Chico News & Review carries the “liberal banner,” at least when compared to Enterprise Record. “Censorship” made it clear that it’s as restrictive as anybody.
Their having refused to print the two pieces on mental health and Sid Lewis were reasons for me to quit, but not reasons for them to fire me. They just kicked them back and printed something else, like they’d been doing for years when I missed a week.
I can imagine a situation where it’s clear that somebody ought to go. I had a secretary once who was like that. She was AWFUL. There wasn’t really anything to say. She didn’t have the skills. So I can see how there are situations where you fire somebody and there’s nothing really to talk about. And, that’s apparently how CNR felt.
As far as I can tell, what changed things was not just their rejection of those three pieces, but my posting “Censorship” on Facebook and then on my blog, because before that I hadn’t really blown the whistle. Once it got on Facebook, I got the email saying, “Call me, and I’m sure you’re wise enough to know what this is about.”
Here’s a fun question: How do you feel like they handled it?
Poorly. [laughs] I thought they handled it kinda poorly; I thought their decision not to print the other stuff was just kinda wimpy. Fearful. It seemed clear to me that they were not open to negotiation. There were no warnings that the column would be discontinued. It was just gone.
So I think they mostly just acted out of fear, and since the fear took precedence, there was no way to respond. There was no conversation.
What would have been your ideal way of handling the matter?
I’d like a joint interview. It’s something worth trying, because, ego aside, it was a popular column. I know a lot of people read it. I know a lot of people read ONLY that, or at least, they read that first [laughs]. And if I were the editor, I would feel some responsibility to explain that decision to the readership.
So, there are things unsaid here. [laughs] Not by me, but at least, the particular nature of their assumptions is unclear. I mean, they think I know, and I think I know, too, but …
That’s not the point, is it?
[laughs] Right. It doesn’t matter.
The part that really catches me is the lack of communication. I can understand the decisions to not print those particular pieces, but to then make such a powerful decision, and then sweep it under the rug, seems like they’re sending mixed signals.
If you do something like that in a public position like they are; when you’re in charge of that much outgoing information, I think there are some responsibilities that go along with that. I think you should be willing to articulate what you think your responsibilities are. If there is some overriding policy, you should be able to say it to anybody.
If you make a big decision like that, I think being able to say why is important, or at least desirable. Maybe if I had pleaded for myself it would have been different… But deep down I don’t think it would’ve been, because it just felt cut-and-dried. [The editor] wanted me to call, but it wasn’t to talk about anything—it was so she could say “It’s over.”
Leading up to the firing, you mentioned that you had already felt your own conflicts about the rejections and considered leaving.
It had gotten to be frustrating. It just seemed like they were nitpicking.
In an area where the whole point was to not nitpick. It seemed like that corner of the page was dedicated to free thought.
[laughs] It seemed that way. This is free thought, right here.
And that was the attraction …
It seemed like it, at least at first.
It was interesting to me; and this is where [CNR and I] really part; that they expected me to somehow be acceptable to the editorial staff, that my views should be in concert with theirs, or at least not overly contradictory. I had certainly never heard that, and I had never really felt that before. It always seemed that everybody was clear that I say what I want to say, and I don’t really consider other people’s likes and dislikes.
A big theme here seems to be a conflict of intention. Is this column representative of free thought, or isn’t it? The intention was not made clear. As a result, it’s fair game for misunderstanding [Editor’s note: Or sensational cover stories], because there’s nothing to base it on.
I was treated as though I had written an editorial, which allegedly represents some editorial staff consensus on an issue, the kind of thing that’s written by staff, not by some wild-eyed freelancer. [laughs]
What kind of response have you gotten since then?
I haven’t heard from anybody who was glad. I’ve heard lots of comments from people in person and via email that said they’re sorry it’s gone, and they miss reading it. A couple of people, after the column ended, said that they understand why they didn’t run the Sid Lewis piece, but don’t understand their decision to kill the column outright.
I had thought, initially, that it was just my blowing the whistle, going public with what had happened. That’s still the explanation that I favor—that they just didn’t want their dirty laundry on display. Either because they regretted the action, or because they didn’t feel able to explain it adequately.
If you do something that you believe in, and you know why you did it, you should be able to say that—especially in regard to a public venue—and that’s still the way I lean. What’s actually in that space now are ads.
Although I think the editorial staff acted out of fear [in regard to the decision], I think they were doing the best they could. I don’t bear them a grudge. I unfriended them on Facebook [laughs]. It was the least I could do. [chuckles] They’re decent people!
My blog. I’m asking for subscriptions, and I’ve gotten some. This is a lot harder, but I expect to keep writing, and I expect to get more subscriptions. It’ll take a while, but I still have things to say [laughs].
You can find Anthony Peyton Porter’s latest musings about reality at anthonypeytonporter.com.
“I’m not a reporter, and I feel no obligation to be fair or balanced. I never thought anybody would expect me to toe the CNR’s editorial line in any way out here on the edge, because I haven’t and I don’t. I guess that’s the problem.”
– From Anthony Payton Porter’s column “Censorship”