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Al Eisele

Al Eisele

Posted: July 26, 2010 12:03 AM

A Very Good Week for a Small Town Newspaper Publisher

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Nick Benton probably would be the first to admit that he's not everybody's cup of tea, especially in a conservative small town in Virginia whose citizens he's been both informing and outraging in equal measure since March 28, 1991.

As founder, owner and editor-in-chief of the Falls Church News-Press, Benton and some 150 of his friends and faithul readers, myself included, celebrated the publication of the 1,000th consecutive issue of his weekly newspaper by sharing pizza, liquid refreshments and memories of life in this suburban Washington community named after an 18th century Anglican church..

As usual, ever since the banner headline of his first issue proclaimed, "Rancorous Public Hearing on School Cuts, Tax Increase," the latest issue of July 22, 2010 deals with the nitty-gritty of representative self-government at the local level, in this case whether the city of a little over 11,000 residents can continue funding a local bus system that can't survive without a tax increase, and the newly elected mayor's and city council's efforts to overhaul ordinances governing commerical versus residential development.

"F.C.'s Local Bus System GEORGE Once Again on the Chopping Block," the paper's 1000th issue announced to readers of its 30,500 press run, along with a story suggesting that the new mayor and aldermen may want some "minor tweaks" rather than a major overhaul of the city's government operations.

Both stories carried the byline of Nicholas F. Benton, which I suspect but don't know, is typical of every one of the paper's 1000 issues. Benton is a crusading editor in the finest tradition of American journalism, as he reminded readers in his editorial, titled "A Celebration of the First Amendment."

"Authored by none other than Virginia's own George Mason [who with George Washington was a vestryman at the Falls Church], the First Amendment and its guarantee of free speech is the cornerstone of America's great experiment in democracy," he writes. "It's the first thing to go when political repression arises or when control of the transmission means of its effective exercise wind up in the hands of the too few and the too powerful."

But, as I said, Benton isn't everybody's cup of tea. First of all, he's an unabashed liberal who delights in bashing Republicans and boosting President Obama, as he did in his weekly editorial page column - he writes almost half of every issue - "A Very Bad Week for the GOP." He also regularly runs the columns of New York Time's columnists Paul Krugman, David Brooks and Maureen Dowd, as well as that of Hearst's Helen Thomas, until her incendiary comments about Jewish-Palestinian relations cost her a front row seat at White House press conferences.

Second, he's not your average suburbanite. He's openly gay - not that there's anything wrong with that - and his paper features a regular gay columnist whose views on gay and lesbian issues appear alongside the local Democratic congressman's column and that of a local County Board of Supervisors member's "News of Greater Falls Church." Benton got into a huge fight several years ago with the local Episcopal Church - where George Washington once worshipped - after the columnist described a local teenage student's coming out.

And third, he's a former acolyte of bizarro economist and perennial fringe presidential candidate Lyndon LaRouche - he worked for the LaRouche organization from 1974 and well into the 1980's, first as a political organizer and then Washington bureau chief and White House correspondent of LaRouche's Executive Intelligence Review before severing his ties with LaRouche. He even ran for governor of California against Jerry Brown in 1978 as the candidate of the LaRouche-backed U.S. Labor Party.

As he explained in a June 27, 2007 column, "Maybe it was always bad, but by the late 1970's, LaRouche's movement had turned decidely ugly, into something existing only for the purposes of LaRouche's own aggrandizement and the twisted agendas of too many sinister forces that seemed to influence him."

A California native, Benton earned a degree in English from Westmont College in 1966, where he had an athletic scholarship, and a master of divinity degree in 1969 from the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, where he began a lifetime crusade as an antiwar, anti-poverty and gay and civil rights activist, motivated in part by the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy.

He became a contributor to the alternative Berkley Barb, helped found the Berkeley Gay Liberation Front and wrote the first editorial for the newspaper Gay Sunshine, which proclaimed that gay liberation would represent "those who understand themselves as oppressed -- politically oppressed by an oppressor that not only is down on homosexuality, but equally down on all things that are not white, straight, middle class, pro-establishment... It should harken to a greater cause -- the cause of human liberation, of which homosexual liberation is just one aspect -- and on that level take its stand."

Benton, who has been divorced three times but has no children and lives with his cat Mimi, says his "dearest friend" is an ex-wife who lives in Falls Church. He describes himself on his MySpace page as a "relentless if imperfect warior against the 'vast right wing conspiracy,'" whose mission as a journalist is "tirelessly warring against the religious right, promoting the confluence of interests between good development and community concerns, and playing a role in the cultural shift the the region, overall, toward more progressive and fair-minded virtues."

Benton displayed his penchant for non-conformist thinking in a column a week ago by suggesting that the current worldwide economic crisis may have vindicated the legacy of Marxism, a view that drew shocked responses from readers and probably explains why the new mayor declined to congratulate him on his journalistic milestone.

But Benton is unapolgetic. When I asked him which of his 1,000 issues had the greatest impact, "other than the Marxist column," he couldn't cite any one example, but later wrote that the paper's "best story" was its successful effort in the mid-1990's wotking with the Chamber of Commerce, when he was its president, to end years a acrimony between Falls Church's business and residential communities.

"Through our editorial and other efforts, we caused a paradigm shift in Falls Church where each of these two components suddenly realized the value of each to the other," he said. "It introduced an era that led to the most aggressive new development in the city's history, which has helped bouy the city's ability to maintain its excellent schools and services in tough economic times."

Benton, who employs a bevy of student journalists, also pointed with pride to his paper's weekly publications of community and school news, from a crime blotter to local sports teams to reviews of local restaurants, as the secret to its success. "It is also the newspaper's role to particularly stand up on behalf of the under-represented in society," he added.

As a journalist myself and longtime resident of Falls Church, it's nice to know that my hometown newspaper is thriving at a time when almost every other newspaper is struggling to survive. And better yet to know that the newspaper's owner believes, as H. L. Mencken put it, that a newspaper's role in society is to "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable."