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A brief Labor Day history lesson on the toxic culture endemic in the workplace at alternative newspapers

Photo by Richard Asinof

The cover of the Valley Advocate issue published in January of 1977, dedicated to marijuana.

Photo by Richard Asinof

An online ad in The Washington Post promoting alcohol consumption.

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By Richard Asinof
Posted 9/7/20
The current workplace, particularly in these disrupted times caused by the coronavirus pandemic, is an environment where conspicuous consumption of substances has emerged as the norm of behavior. It was a world envisioned back in 1977, when The Valley Advocate, an alternative weekly in Amherst, Mass., published an entire issue on marijuana.
What is the best strategy to stand up to bullies in the workplace? What are the risks in a workplace where cannabis consumption is the norm? What is the relationship between domestic violence and sexual violence against women and substance use? When will Gov. Raimondo and her team engage with recovery community advocates to learn from them about recovery from trauma? What will it take for defenders of President Trump to admit that he is a liar, a racist, a bully, and a threat to the nation’s security?
As President Trump pushes ahead with efforts to develop a vaccine for the coronavirus under the program known as “Warp Speed,” inking lucrative contracts with numerous pharmaceutical firms, one of the ironies is that McKesson has signed a deal with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to serve as a national distributor for the COVID-19 vaccine.
McKesson is one of the alleged bad actors in the way that prescription opioids were distributed across the nation. They are one of the largest drug distribution firms that are currently being sued by the R.I. Attorney General’s office. Along with several other state attorneys general, Rhode Island rejected a proposed $18 billion settlement offer from McKesson, saying a fair deal would lie between the $22 billion and $32 billion range.
So, one of the “bad actors” in the opioid epidemic is now poised to profit through a U.S. government contract to distribute a COVID-19 vaccine. Isn’t it ironic? Which news media enterprise in Rhode Island will be willing to invest in some shoe leather reporting on this?

PROVIDENCE – Each Labor Day for the past few years, I have chosen to write a personal essay about the nature of work, covering episodes in my life that did not fit easily into a predictable narrative around jobs.

The first took place in the summer of 1975 in the lurid basement of a restaurant two blocks from Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C., inexplicably named Rocky Racoon’s Saloon and Rosa’s Cantina, where, at the age of 23, I found myself working as the sous chef, running the lunch shift, which culminated one day when the head cook pulled a gun out of a paper bag,  put it against the head of the broiler cook and pulled the trigger. It was meant to be a joke, the gun was not loaded; the head cook was addicted to speed, and I left the job that afternoon.

It turned out, I would discover years later, that my story resembled a narrative that George Orwell had once written about in “Down and Out in Paris and London,” about his desperate life as a plongeur, a dishwasher, in the restaurants in Paris. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “A personal meditation on the nature of work on Labor Day 2017.”]

At many times during the pursuit of my early career as a writer and journalist, cooking became my fallback for survival when there were meager returns from my struggles on the front lines of journalism. [Surviving as a freelancer, despite published stories in Rolling Stone, New Times Magazine, and Harper’s Weekly, was a life filled with diminishing returns. The newspaper that I moved to Washington, D.C., to work for had delayed its launch for a lack of funds.]

It is a common experience. Kerri Arsenault’s memoir, “My Eighty-Six Jobs,” published on Sept. 1 by The New York Review of Books, illuminated the way in which working to survive in dead-end jobs diminishes all of our lives. [See link to story below.]

The second in what has now evolved into a series recalled how my mother, in 1970 at age 49, a social worker, and shop steward of her union at Jewish Family Services, led a strike, walking the picket line, where it took having a live monkey on the picket line to attract news coverage of the strike. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “Labor Day Blues.”]

As a result, the rabbi at our temple purposely snubbed her on the reception line following Rosh Hashanah services that year. The most pious, it seems, are always the pettiest. It was a wrinkle in time when my mother changed from a suburban housewife into a radical union activist, a tale conveniently left out of my family’s narrative.

The third in my Labor Day series recounted the exploits of my grandfather who, as a recent immigrant, arriving at age 16 at Ellis Island from Iasi, Romania in 1900, had found himself hired as a strikebreaker. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “In America, all we do is work, but for whom and for what?”] The episode, documented in his autobiography telling the story of his life, which included working as a laborer on the Panama Canal and collaborating with Harry Houdini on mechanical aspects of escape tricks, in retrospect, tarnished his mythic accomplishments as a self-made man.

This year, in 2020, in the midst of a pandemic where in the U.S., there have been more than 6 million cases of coronavirus, with more than 190,000 having lost their lives during the last six months, disrupting the “accepted” norms of schools, jobs, health care and neighborhoods, I have chosen to write about the toxic workplace culture that permeated alternative news enterprises, in this case, my time serving as a reporter and then managing editor of The Valley Advocate, an alternative weekly in Amherst, Mass.

The Happy Valley
On Jan. 26, 1977, the entire issue of the Valley Advocate weekly newspaper featured stories about marijuana, reflecting the predominance of the drug in the lifestyle and the culture of the world of Amherst, Northampton and Greenfield along the Connecticut River, commonly known as “The Happy Valley.” [See image above.] The brand “Happy Valley” is now used to market vegetables and herbs grown in the farmland along the river.

Fast forward 43 years to 2020, and the argument could be made again, perhaps, that marijuana plays a predominant role in the workplace not only in Massachusetts but Rhode Island and throughout the nation, an issue that has not been addressed, talked about, or written about widely by the news media, because most reporters, editors and publishers are participants and not just observers.

Marijuana has been legalized in Massachusetts and is available throughout the Commonwealth at designated shops. CBD, a derivative of marijuana, or the politically correct term these days, cannabis, is widely available in stores throughout Massachusetts and Rhode Island, with CBD merchandise being hawked, even at the check-in desk at physical therapy enterprises.

The stories teased on the cover page of the 1977 edition of the Valley Advocate were prescient: Preston Gralla “examines legalization prospects”; Richard Asinof “interviews two dealers”; Chip Ainsworth “sees sports in a cloud of smoke”; Charles C. Smith “visits High Times Magazine”; and David Sokol wrote about “getting high with music.” There was a close-up cover photo of someone smoking a joint, the cover image designed by Geoff Robinson, one of the publishers.

Legalize it, and then we’ll advertise it
Advertising for the marijuana issue, which was published in late January, during a time of traditionally lower sales that reflected the fact that many of the more than 100,000 students attending colleges and universities in the “Happy Valley” were away from campus during January term, boomed.

Culturally, politically and economically, the issue proved to be one of the most popular ever, with copies disappearing quickly from the free distribution points. It created quite the buzz [pun intended].

In addition to the stories teased on the cover, inside were four artists’ representations about how advertisements for marijuana products might look. The copy for the ad created by Kris Jackson had read: “I smoke to get high. If I didn’t get high, I wouldn’t smoke. That’s why I smoke Wastums. Cool, rich flavor, always mild, never biting. But mostly, they get me high as a… high as a… what was I talking about again?’

In my story, in which I interviewed two drug dealers, the dealers were actually part of the larger Valley Advocate family – one was a successful advertising rep, the other was the husband of a staffer who worked in the financial division of the company, which managed the finances not just of the Amherst paper but of its four sister publications – the New Haven Advocate, the Hartford Advocate, and the Springfield, Mass. Advocate.

One of the dealers had brought with him some Lebanese red hash oil to imbibe during the interview, which took place at my desk in the newspaper office. The headline on the story quoted a Bob Dylan lyric: “To live outside the law you must be honest…”

All this may seem like a strange tale to tell, a distant story from a galaxy long ago and far away, about an alternative newspaper workplace governed by conspicuous consumption of an illegal drug. I suspect that the truth about most workplaces, some five decades later in 2020, is that the use of cannabis and alcohol and other substances has become the cultural norm. We live in a culture of conspicuous consumption, where the fifth vital sign of our health care delivery system asks us about pain, on a scale of zero to 10. Forget about the phrase “There’s an app for that”; instead, “There’s a pill for that.”

The “blip in time” during the second half of the 20th century, when weekly alternative newspapers rose and fell, was intrinsically tied to disruptive changes in technology, and it ended up being short-lived. But the workplaces that the alternative news media created were every bit as exploitive and dehumanizing as any factory assembly line, perhaps even worse, because it came with the delusion that the alternative weeklies occupied a higher ground. The sad truth is that rock ‘n’ roll did not save the world, and alternative journalism, in the end, sadly, was always about the money lining the publisher’s pockets.

Today, as the severe budget crunches threaten the state budget in Rhode Island, the prospects are that the use of marijuana [or cannabis] will become legalized in an attempt to create a desperately needed new source of state revenue.

In times of stress and high anxiety, in times of high peril and darkness, in times of great economic uncertainty, some things are predictable: hucksters hawking their wares, promising products that will help ease the pain. Take, for example, the Sept. 5 online edition of The Washington Post, which featured an advertisement for a woman’s shirt from LILICLOTH, with the message: “Liquor [noun]: The glue holding this 2020 shitshow together.” [See second image.] Draw your own conclusions.

New mass media
First, some history and context is needed. On this Labor Day weekend, if asked, what reporters in Rhode Island, in their weekly political columns, could explain what the origins of Labor Day were? Which reporters could identify who Frances Perkins was? Hint: she was a woman who served in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s cabinet.

Or mention that the Slater Mill in Pawtucket, hailed as the birthplace of the industrial revolution in America [with pirated technology], was the site of the first organized labor strike in 1824, where young women workers protested a reduction in their meager wages, working in what poet William Blake had described in 1810 as “those dark Satanic mills.”

As A.J. Liebling once wrote in an essay in The New Yorker in 1960, in a parenthetical aside: “Freedom of the press is guaranteed to those who own one.”

In the mid-20th century, the technological revolution of photo offset printing changed the economic dynamics of printing, moving away from the lugubrious process of forming lines of type in hot lead on linotype machines, moving toward creating columns of type on photo offset paper, which was then pasted onto blue-lined cardboard layout sheets and sent to the printer. Translated, a publisher no longer needed to own the press, only to rent it.

That technological evolution in moveable type further altered the Gutenberg Galaxy of modern culture and mass media, as Marshall McLuhan had described it. [Note that the incorporated name of The Valley Advocate was a playful pun, New Mass. Media.]

We have now entered a new age of surveillance capitalism, where Google, Amazon, Facebook and Twitter have succeeded in monetizing the ability to predict and manipulate human behavior and emotion as the next raw material to be exploited. [The details are all contained in Shoshana Zuboff’s book, detailing “the fight for a human future at the new frontier of power,” but who reads anymore?]

At the same time, local print journalism, much like the wholesale abandonment of hospitals serving rural communities now underway in the U.S., is being slowly choked to death by the consolidation of media empires through private equity acquisition. The cause of death, not listed: greed.

All you need is love
The Valley Advocate published its first issue on Sept. 19, 1973; its first offices were tucked into the basement at 320 North Pleasant St. in Amherst, Mass., home of the Brown Insurance Company, whose owner, a North Leverett neighbor of one of the founders, provided the dank, unheated space rent-free.

There was running water connected to the faucets at a backroom sink, but it was not connected to any plumbing, so if you made the mistake of turning on the water, it drained directly onto the floor.

The tabloid, which branded itself as “the alternative in the Pioneer Valley,” was originally published every other week and distributed for free at 15 colleges, targeting the 80,000 students up and down the Connecticut River, from Springfield to Greenfield, Mass. Subscriptions by mail cost $4 a year in 1973.

The founding editors, publishers and owners were Ed Matys and Geoff Robinson, former copy editors at The Hartford Courant, who often told the tale, apocryphal or not, that they had developed the business plan for the start-up newspaper in early morning discussions over pizza after they finished their shifts. The business was incorporated as New Mass. Media, Inc.

The original Advocate’s editors/publishers/owners were an odd couple. Geoff, with shoulder-length, dark, unkempt hair, parted in the middle, talked in a kind of street-corner, hipster patois, chain-smoking unfiltered cigarettes, often beginning each sentence, “Hey, man,” his hands constantly waving about as he talked, a character come to life out of R. Crumb’s “Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers.”

In turn, Ed, who had perfected an ultra-serious deep sonorous voice as if he were forever auditioning for a part of an FBI agent, served as the perfect straight man for Geoff’s routine – the two could be said to be the Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy of the alternative weekly world. Anti-nuclear activist and rabble-rouser turned attorney Sam Lovejoy had once nicknamed Matys “Ed the Fed.” When William Colby, the CIA director, spoke in Springfield in 1976, Matys asked me, then working as a Valley Advocate reporter covering the talk, to pass on his personal regards to Colby. Really.

My all-time favorite image of Matys was of him standing on a ladder, screwing in light bulbs in the fixtures in high ceilings, in the middle of the rented third-floor offices on Amity Street. The potential jokes and punch lines to describe that scene seemed endless.

Their wives, Linda Matys and Christine Austin, who were ensconced in the role as executive editors, were equally opposite in their characters and traits, barely tolerating each other. [At one point, after I had left the scene, Matys and Austin allegedly engaged in a fistfight, with Matys knocking out Austin cold, according to former Advocate reporter Harvey Lipman.]

Beginning in September of 1974, a year after its launch, The Valley Advocate went to a weekly publication schedule. At the same time, what was to become the Advocate chain of newspapers began leapfrogging its way down the Connecticut River, launching satellite newspapers first in Hartford in September of 1974 [run by Matys] and then in September of 1975 in New Haven [run by Robinson], in a way that mirrored the smoldering conflict between the two publishing families.

Springfield soon joined the mix as a separate edition of the Amherst flagship newspaper, with Springfield becoming a Matys-run property, and Amherst ceded to the Robinson-Austin clan. The weekly newspaper chain further expanded to Fairfield County in 1978.

[Spoiler alert: At some point, Robinson bought out the Matys clan. Then, in 1999, Robinson sold the Advocate newspaper chain for an undisclosed sum to the owners of The Hartford Courant, The Times Mirror. The next year, in 2000, corporate ownership passed to the Tribune, which acquired The Times Mirror. In 2007, the Tribune sold the only Massachusetts publication, The Valley Advocate, to Newspapers of New England. The remnant of The Valley Advocate is now published out of the offices of The Daily Hampshire Gazette on Conz Steet in Northampton, just down the block from the local cannabis retail store.]

Welcome to the asylum
There was always a weird kind of psychological gamesmanship that was played out when you became a member of the dysfunctional Advocate family, testing your loyalty to the warring families, the Robinson versus the Matys clan. If you asked a question, you often got four completely different answers, and had to learn to navigate accordingly – or better yet, to avoid, whenever possible, asking questions.

The workplace existed in a kind of mind-fuck palace of intrigue. There was a tale, told gleefully, by Austin about her in-person interview with Dick Polman, who later migrated to The Philadelphia Inquirer, when he sought to become an editor with The Hartford Advocate, which included a skinny dipping expedition to the nearby Cranberry Pond in North Leverett, with Geoff Robinson and Austin, as a kind of perverse Rorschach test.

Austin had delighted in retelling the tale to me, in 1977, describing Polman as being “squeamish.” But Polman went swimming and passed the test – and got the job.

The marketing of the counter culture
The Valley Advocate was everything that its staid daily newspaper competitors – the Daily Hampshire Gazette in Northampton, The Greenfield Recorder, and the Springfield Union, Daily News and Sunday Republican were not: a chronicler of lifestyle, politics, music and arts that thrived outside of the American cultural mainstream. In other words, sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, driven by the ravenous consumer appetites of college students and Baby Boomers, seasoned with a strong dash of muckraking.

The most popular feature, outside of The Advocate’s personal classifieds, was its “Beer and Boogie” listings, breathing life into a nascent music and drinking scene: The Rusty Nail, The Lazy River, Zelda Bloomdido, and Fitzwilly’s.

The initial advertisers – an inchoate blend of record and stereo stores, music hangouts, restaurants, water bed showrooms, and clothing shops – discovered that The Valley Advocate served as a great distribution channel to sell their products.

Faces of Earth, a student-focused emporium, a store that sold everything from Frye Boots to M.C. Escher prints and bongs, became a regular, prominent advertiser. Its biggest selling item, year in and year out, was the adjustable-arm lamp that attached to a student’s desk. [The building where it was originally located in Amherst, behind the U.S. Post Office, was recently torn down.]

And, of course, there were the personals, the classified ads that help to pay the bills, which served as a popular way for adults to connect, before there were online dating services.

The biggest moneymaker, however, turned out to be the seasonal section magazine-like feature inserts, Wintertimes, Autumntimes and Summertimes, an innovative approach to creating an advertising vehicle that have become the bread and butter of most printed publications today. Soon there would be advertising inserts on cars, homes, restaurants, dating – businesses were hungry to reach the new consumer market of students, 20-somethings and 30-somethings. The Valley Advocate and its sister publications had a captive audience. And, as the advertising manager of the Advocate newspaper proclaimed, “Buying a home was radical.”

[Indeed, today, some five decades later, the Daily Hampshire Gazette now publishes more than a dozen such vehicles: Fashion, Restaurant Guide, Home, Health, Bridal, Corridor, Kids, Valley Almanac, Parent Guide, Many Hands, a Readers Choice Awards, and a Visitors Guide.]

At the same time, when the Valley Advocate first launched, there was the out-front, stated political bias, from the get-go, to oppose the plans by Northeast Utilities to build a twin-nuclear power station on the Montague Plains, and to refuse to accept advertising from the utility in support of those plans.

If you read the Wikipedia entry about the now defunct Hartford Advocate, it begins with the altruistic statement: “Advocate weeklies offered investigative journalism, national, state and local political coverage, commentary, and arts features and criticism, mostly from a liberal or countercultural point of view.”

An antiquated form of data storage
Let’s be clear: my relationship with The Valley Advocate was always convoluted. I had been recruited to write for the newspaper in September of 1973, beginning with its second issue, during my senior year at college. My first published assignment was an interview with writer Tom Wolfe. I was paid two cents a word for my stories. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “The politics of halting sexual violence.”]

I had begun my professional journalism career in Philadelphia in the fall of 1972, serving as an editorial intern with The Drummer, née The Distant Drummer.

I had served as an editor of my high-school newspaper, winning some awards. The true star of our high school newspaper turned out to be Jyll F. Holzman, who became the vice president of advertising at The New York Times, with her name on the masthead. She was quicker than most of us, I think, to realize that important first rule of journalism: newspapers sell advertising, and the news is just filler.

I was also a founding editor of my college newspaper at Hampshire College, inexplicably named Climax. I did manage to finagle press credentials to cover the 1972 Democratic National Convention, and sold my first national piece to Seventeen Magazine, “Notes on my first convention.”

But it was in Philadelphia, at age 20, was where I found my stride as a writer. Four weeks into being an intern at The Drummer, the staff writer, Jim Quinn, quit, to join a rival alternative weekly, The Daily Planet. So I was thrust into the role of writing up to four articles a week, for $5 to $10 an article.

But the real reward was being turned loose to cover a city, and then to write about it, in whatever style I chose. And what great opportunities they were:

• I interviewed Odetta in her Harlem apartment [she got me drunk on Southern Comfort], in advance of her playing at a local club, Grendel’s Lair, which had scrounged seats from the torn-down Connie Mack Stadium to use for patrons at its South Street location. Bessie Smith’s son, Jack Gee, who lived in Philadelphia, sent Odetta a bouquet of roses the weekend she played.

• I covered a Black Panther survival conference in North Philadelphia, where all the group’s leaders were arrested and put in jail by the Philadelphia police.

• I was supposed to interview Bette Midler at her hotel room at the Holiday Inn on Walnut Street, but after knocking on her door for 15 minutes, a man came to the door, pulling on his pants and zipping his fly, telling me to come backstage that night. Who are you? I asked, in my best reporter-ese. “Barry Manilow,” he answered, truthfully

• When Jane Fonda came to Philadelphia with Tom Hayden to protest the Vietnam War, I covered Pete Seeger and Holly Near singing in front of the Re-elect the President [Nixon] headquarters in Center City. Most of the people who attended the event were undercover agents of the Civil Disobedience Squad (the former “Red Squad”) of the Philadelphia police. On the way back to the newspaper office, I encountered five members of the Haines Street gang, who threatened to rough me up. Improvising, I stuck out the microphone from my tape recorder and began to interview them; they laughed and responded with an early version of urban hip-hop poetry.

• I bought a case of Rolling Rock beer for Phil Ochs and helped him drink it before he performed at Grendel’s Lair. I decided against writing a story about his drunkenness, which, in retrospect, may have been a mistake. I was worried it might hurt his attempted comeback to write about how he walked up on the stage, reeling drunk, almost careening into the audience, as he launched into “Here’s to the state of Richard Nixon…” In reality, it may have been a cry for help. He would take his own life two years later.

• I interviewed the poet Nikki Giovanni, who was recording her poetry and putting it out on records. I planned to write a story about her, but The Daily Planet [yes, I, too, switched to writing for the other paper after a fight with the editor] went out of business before I had an opportunity to finish the story.

I have spent much of the next five decades years as a journalist, working on daily and weekly newspapers and monthly magazines, serving in numerous roles – reporter, assistant news editor, investigative writer, freelancer, managing editor, editor and publisher. I also taught journalism and English at the college level as an adjunct.

Coming of age as a journalist in the era of alternative weeklies was, well, perhaps very much like playing for the Negro Leagues in baseball in the 1930s and 1940s – before Jackie Robinson broke with the Brooklyn Dodgers. It was fun, it was entertaining, and we reached out to a vibrant audience that was outside the cultural mainstream.

Because we were not insiders, we wrote what we saw and observed, often without fear of biting hard the hand that fed us. Of course, just as with the Negro Leagues, many of the best writers and editors were soon playing for the mainstream publications, and the big media soon purchased the successful weeklies.

There’s no definitive history of alternative journalism in the 1960s and 1970s. Unlike the music industry, where vinyl recordings have been recycled once as cassettes, twice as CDs, and a third time as MP3s, there has been no market created to repackage this trove of journalism (in part because the behemoths don’t “own” the product).

Much of my published work remains in five-drawer metal filing cabinets, what my son has rightfully labeled an “antiquated form of data storage.”

How I became managing editor
At the Valley Advocate, it was always a stressful workplace environment, to say the least. When I became managing editor in December of 1976, you were expected to work seven days a week, on salary, for $145 a week. Occasionally, the company paychecks would bounce. We were all supposed to be engaged in working for the greater good of the enterprise.

What wasn’t shared was that the publishers used the newspaper advertising accounts as a personal slush fund, paying for their car repairs, their groceries, and their oil and wood deliveries, in trade agreements with the advertisers.

The workplace reality was that everyone was stoned, all the time, almost every hour of the working day. Walking into the downstairs production room was like walking into a haze of smoke, particularly later in the week, when four editions were being pasted up on light tables.

Steve Diamond, a member of the Montague Farm, was chosen to be editor in September of 1976. He decided to leave in November of 1976 to move to New Orleans, setting up a competition for whom would succeed him as managing editor.

Diamond favored me, but as with all corporate decisions, you needed buy-in for all four members of the publishing team. I had secured three of the four endorsements; the last remaining holdout was Christine Austin, whose nickname was “Blades,” given to her by the production crew, because of her undisguised viciousness in how she dealt with people.

Austin had come over to my desk, lit up a joint, and announced that she wanted to talk with me about becoming managing editor. Over the course of the next two hours or so, we smoke three joints, and because I could handle my weed better than she could, convinced her during the conversation that it was actually her idea that I become managing editor and thanked her profusely for her confidence in me. Perplexed, she agreed.

A toxic workplace
There were always convoluted stressful mind-fuck games to dodge at The Valley Advocate, it turned out.

• Strike one. The advertising manager had friends who started a new business, a ping pong emporium in Northampton, and to advertise its opening, they had created an image of a King Kong-like ape tossing a woman into the air, about to swat her with a paddle. When I complained, the advertising manager told me he thought the ad was hilarious and claimed that I didn’t have a sense of humor.

Worse, the ad was positioned to appear on the same page about a story of domestic violence. I suggested that the advertising manager at least move the placement of the ad. The advertising manager refused and instead starting yelling and cursing at me, suggesting that I stay in my lane.

Strike two. A friend uncovered the fact that the owner of WWLP-TV, Bill Putnam, had applied for a license to extend his signal into the Berkshires, under the name of his personal secretary to keep it hidden, and at my direction the story was written, edited and typeset. But Linda Matys pulled the story, because Putnam had agreed to be the co-sponsor of the first annual Valley Arts Festival with the Valley Advocate, and she was worried that he might pull his sponsorship as a result.

That week, with the story killed at the last moment, I had to punt and put another story on the cover of the paper. The next week, I was called into the office of the other publisher, Geoff Robinson, to be dressed down. He complained bitterly about my news judgment, while he lit up a joint. He showed me the story about Putnam that had ended up running that week on the front page of the Springfield Morning Union. “Why weren’t we covering that?” he demanded, angrily.

I had to explain to Robinson that we had the story, because of my enterprising work – but the story had been killed by Matys. And, the reason why the local daily had the story was that the reporter who wrote it had overheard the commotion [his wife worked at The Valley Advocate] and very loud “conversation” between Matys and myself when she told me she was killing the story and I protested. The facts didn’t matter; it was still all my fault.

• Strike three. My job as editor had been put on the chopping block when I decided to publish a series of photographs by photographer Barr Ashcraft, who had been a combat photographer for Time-Life in Vietnam, marking the two-year anniversary of the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam in 1975.

To get the photographs into the paper, everyone in production conspired with me, arranging to paste-up the photos on Page 2, before anyone from the corporate hierarchy arrived to view the pages before they were shipped to the printer.

As a result, a decision had been made to fire me [an AP reporter in Springfield told me he had been offered my job]. But I was given a last-minute reprieve. What stopped my execution was the Seabrook, N.H., occupation, which I was covering, at which I was arrested, which became a national story, and about which I collaborated with Steve Diamond on a national story published in New Times magazine, “Mahatma Gandhi goes to Seabrook.” [Oh yeah, when the news media were asked to introduced themselves to the occupiers who were marching in from North Friendly, I received a standing ovation.]

For the rest of the summer, each week, as predictable as a TV soap opera, there were new mind-fuck games to dodge, new workplace dramas to sidestep. At some point, I made the decision to walk away from the job. To save my life, I realized, I had to walk away. And when I did, I walked away from the constancy of smoking weed, which I realized I had been using as a mental crutch to deal with the stress of the job. And, I have never looked back. My first task at hand was to write a story about the impact of mercury poisoning on the Cree Indians in northwestern Quebec and sell it to the New York Times Magazine. Which I did.

Moral of the story
This year, the number of overdose drug deaths in Rhode Island is on pace to exceed the highest total of 336 such deaths reached in 2016, with current numbers suggesting the total may reach as high as 380 deaths.

While that number pales in comparison to the number of deaths from the coronavirus pandemic, it severely undercuts the narrative about how “successful” the current approach directed by Gov. Gina Raimondo has been. The current rise in overdose deaths began in December of 2019, long before the onset of coronavirus, according to recovery community advocates.

While there has been much good work done by many dedicated individuals to attempt to reverse the curse of substance use in Rhode Island, there remains a disconnect around two fundamentals: the low health insurance reimbursements in Rhode Island for mental health and behavioral health services; and the failure to embrace a comprehensive harm reduction strategy favored by recovery community advocates.

Further, the continued focus on opioids, without fully integrating alcohol [and methamphetamines, cocaine and marijuana] into the equation, remains a major barrier. There remains no integrated database for the diseases of despair in Rhode Island – alcohol, drugs, suicide and, yes, gun violence related to domestic violence.

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